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Major League Baseball must turn over documents in MASN TV rights fee dispute

A New York judge ordered Major League Baseball on Monday to produce documents sought by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network as it tries to bolster its claim that commissioner-elect Rob Manfred unfairly influenced a decision in the Orioles' TV rights fee dispute with the Washington Nationals.
A New York judge ordered Major League Baseball on Monday to produce documents sought by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network as it tries to bolster its claim that commissioner-elect Rob Manfred unfairly influenced a decision in the Orioles' TV rights fee dispute with the Washington Nationals. (Rob Carr / Getty Images)

A New York judge ordered Major League Baseball on Monday to produce documents sought by the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network as it tries to bolster its claim that commissioner-elect Rob Manfred unfairly influenced a decision in the Orioles' TV-rights fee dispute with the Washington Nationals.

The documents include communications that Manfred or other baseball officials might have had with members of an arbitration panel that ordered the network in June to pay the Nationals $20 million a year more for the rights to show the team's games. The Orioles own a majority stake in MASN, which broadcasts both teams' games and pays the clubs rights fees.

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While MASN and the teams had agreed to take their dispute to a Major League Baseball internal arbitration committee, MASN and the Orioles sued after the decision, arguing that the process was subverted by the league to favor the Nationals.

Major League Baseball had argued that MASN was seeking documents amounting to "inadmissible evidence" about the arbitration panel's internal proceedings.

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But after a hearing on Monday, New York Supreme Court Justice Lawrence K. Marks ordered the league to turn over most of the documents MASN requested.

Attorneys for MASN and the Orioles suggested afterward that Marks' ruling will allow them to further explore how the decision was made.

"The issue of whether the arbitration was fair and impartial is central to the case and the discovery ordered by the court today is central to those matters under these circumstances," said attorney Arnold Weiner, who represents the Orioles limited partnership in its capacity as MASN's managing partner.

But John Buckley Jr., an attorney for the league, told the court that MASN's request amounted to a "fishing expedition."

A spokesman said the commissioner's office would have no further comment.

Major League Baseball must release records of who attended meetings of the arbitration panel — called the Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee — which was composed of the owners of the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays.

The documents also must include communications Manfred or his representatives had with the arbitrators related to MASN's efforts to disqualify Proskauer Rose, a New York-based law firm. MASN argues Proskauer Rose represented the Nationals, Major League Baseball and the three teams represented on the panel on various matters during the arbitration process.

Marks denied MASN's request for a fourth set of documents: previous drafts of the panel's decisions in the case.

He also said the league may be able to withhold other documents and records if it can convince the court that producing them would breach attorney-client privilege.

MASN attorneys say Manfred and other baseball officials exercised "dominance and control" over the committee.

But Manfred, who is now baseball's chief operating officer and will succeed Bud Selig as commissioner in January, said in a recent court affirmation that the committee members "exercised their own independent judgment."

Manfred has said he played only an administrative support role — a point reiterated by Buckley at the hearing.

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The arbitration panel took on the matter after the Orioles and Nationals could not agree on how much more the Nationals should receive in rights fees. Since MASN now pays $40 million annually, the network would owe the Washington team about $20 million more by the end of the year.

In August, Marks blocked the panel's decision while the court considered the matter.

Another pretrial conference is set for Jan. 8. Final arguments are scheduled for March 2.

Procedures for determining TV rights fees were brokered by the league when the former Montreal Expos moved to Washington in 2005 and became the Nationals. Major League Baseball structured the agreement to benefit the Orioles — giving the team a bigger ownership stake in MASN and a proportionately larger share of the profits — after the team argued that the Nationals' arrival in the region deprived Baltimore of a third of its market.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Barker and Reuters contributed to this article.

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