MASN strives to balance needs of O's, Nats

The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network's pregame and postgame sets at Camden Yards and Nationals Park — two distinctly different baseball stadiums — are nearly perfect $400,000 matches, right down to the lighting, flooring and desks.

The only difference is the roof color: green in Baltimore, blue in Washington, to match the stadiums' decor.


The close similarity is hardly coincidental. Entering its 10th year, MASN is like a child eager to show it pays equal attention to its parents.

The Orioles-controlled network's mandate — broadcasting 318 Orioles and Washington Nationals games this season — requires two sets of announcers, two leased production trucks (they would cost up to $10 million apiece to buy) and a balancing act to satisfy fan bases for teams that are business partners, on-field rivals and, lately, adversaries in a legal dispute over TV rights fees.


"There are lots of moving parts," said Ken Stiver, the network's vice president for engineering. "You have to treat the teams equally. The 50-50 split has been a companywide push."

Not everything is equal, however. The Orioles own 84 percent of the network, while the Nationals own 16 percent, a stake that grows by a percentage point each year until it tops out at 33 percent. As a result, most MASN profits flow to the Orioles, and money is at the core of the dispute over what the Nationals get out of the partnership.

The network is based on the fifth floor of the Camden Yards warehouse, commanding a view of the field below.

But MASN otherwise strives for balance. Each team will appear 91 times this season on MASN, home to the network's main programming. Excluding national telecasts, the rest of the games will be shown on the other channel, MASN2.

The broadcast staffs for the Orioles and the Nationals seem to exist in parallel universes, rarely meeting.

"We only really see all the MASN folks those two or three days a year when we go up and play the Orioles," said Nationals play-by-play announcer Bob Carpenter. "My personal hope is the Nationals and the Orioles work all this out and everybody lives in peace and harmony."

Added Orioles play-by-play announcer Jim Hunter: "They might be in San Francisco when we're in Boston, but we are one family."

Orioles and Nationals games are watched by nearly identical numbers of fans in their home markets. Each averages about 84,000 viewers per game, said John McGuinness, a MASN senior vice president. He said the Orioles' Baltimore-area viewership is up 95 percent since 2007. The Nationals — who needed to build a fan base after arriving in Washington 10 years ago — have seen viewership increase 321 percent over the same period.

It helps this year's ratings that both clubs won division titles last season, clinching on the same September night.

"It was a great day but it was a double-edged sword for me," McGuinness said. "Because what happened was, they both clinched so early that there was no great pennant race run-up, so we had a month and a half of people knowing they were in."

The network, which managed to sell only about half its available advertising time in the early days, sold out the first two weeks of this season, McGuinness said.

Despite such gains, MASN acknowledges that it fights a lingering perception among some Washingtonians that it is a Baltimore-focused venture of the Orioles and their owner, Peter G. Angelos.


"I think in the beginning that people were very, very concerned with whether it would be Orioles-slanted," Stiver said. "I think now people realize that 'OK, that's not the case.' I think that shift has happened, but you're always going to have someone you can't please."

Some people in Washington, Carpenter said, are "never going to get over the Baltimore connection until something happens to make that connection go away. And, you know, that's their problem. This is my 10th year here, and I have never talked to anybody at MASN about what to say or what not to say. There is no interference; there is no agenda."

If MASN has made strides in Washington, it is because of the improved quality of the broadcasts, analysts and fans say.

"The fans absolutely know who the majority owner of the network is and view it as an annoyance," said Nationals fan Chris Alvord, 64, of Arlington, Va. "I also believe MASN has taken great strides to make viewers feel they have an equally polished product much like the O's fan enjoy. This wasn't true in the early years."

Nationals season-ticket holder Barb Angelino, 57, of Boyds agreed on both counts.

"Yes, most of the people in my social circle know that MASN is majority-owned by the Orioles and harbor intense resentment toward Peter Angelos," said Angelino. "I think MASN does a great job of covering the Nats."

"The camera work is excellent," said John Mansell, president of a Washington-area sports and media consulting firm. "Both MASN1 and MASN2 tend to have 'homer' tendencies, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way."

In addition to its stadium sets, MASN leases space in Hunt Valley. There, each team's broadcasters maintain separate-but-equal studios and control rooms used for pre- and postgame shows when the clubs are on the road.

The logistics can get complicated. Ray Knight, a former Orioles player who co-hosts the Nationals' pregame and postgame shows, commutes more than 50 miles from his Montgomery County home with fellow broadcaster Johnny Holliday when the shows originate in Hunt Valley.

"Johnny and I go together because it's a hike, especially at 3 in the morning" following a West Coast game, Knight said.

The Orioles and the Nationals will meet in six games this season. Since the clubs are television partners, Angelos said of the Nationals in 2010, "the better they do, the more interest it generates."

His remark generated debate among Orioles fans on whether it was acceptable to root for both clubs.

John Angelos, the owner's son and MASN's president and CEO, was diplomatic when asked last week if he pulls for the Nats when they're not playing Baltimore.

"I'm a baseball fan. I want to see baseball continue to grow," the younger Angelos said. "I would have liked if the Orioles and Nationals went further and went to the World Series. It was a good year for both teams, and that's awesome."

For years, when the two teams played each other, Orioles and Nationals announcers shared the broadcast booth. That changed last year because MASN decided fans wanted to hear their own teams' commentary. The network now stages two separate broadcasts when the teams meet.

MASN, which has about 35 full-time employees, is available in more than 5 million households from Pennsylvania into North Carolina.

The network was created from strife. In 2005, Major League Baseball owned the Montreal Expos and wanted to move the club to Washington, where it would fetch a lucrative sale price. But first, baseball officials needed to negotiate with Peter Angelos, who had threatened litigation over another team entering what was considered the Orioles' market.

To mollify Angelos, Major League Baseball gave the Orioles a large ownership stake in MASN and a proportionately larger share of the profits after the team argued that the Nationals would deprive Baltimore of a third of its market.


Fans could not access both teams' games on MASN until 2007. Comcast SportsNet had broadcast rights to the Orioles through the 2006 season, and Comcast Cable initially said MASN was charging too much to carry the new network.


The TV rights fee dispute arose in 2012. The agreement creating MASN called for the teams' fees to be reset every five years to reflect fair-market value. When the clubs could not agree on the reset amount, the matter moved to a baseball arbitration panel.

MASN contends that the panel was improperly influenced by Major League Baseball and applied the wrong standards in deciding that the Nationals should receive about $60 million per year. Since MASN now pays $40 million annually, the network would owe the Washington team about $20 million a year, an amount it says would hobble the network. Both teams say MASN proceeds are critical to their ability to sign top players.

The case ended up in New York Supreme Court, where MASN won a ruling in August temporarily blocking the panel's decision.

Final arguments in the case are scheduled for May 18. The Nationals declined to comment for this article while the case is pending.

The case "doesn't affect what we do on the air. It's in the back of our minds," Carpenter said. "It's a unique situation. The Cubs are closer to the White Sox, the Mets are closer to the Yankees. The A's and Giants, Angels and Dodgers — they're all closer to each other than we are here. But they're not two separate, unique markets."


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