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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred talks Orioles’ struggles, MASN dispute: ‘Baltimore is a viable baseball market’

Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego.
Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during the Major League Baseball winter meetings Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, in San Diego. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, speaking Wednesday at the winter meetings, expressed his support for the viability of baseball long-term in Baltimore and said the perceived nearing conclusion of the television rights fees dispute with the Washington Nationals could solidify that.

“I think Baltimore is a viable baseball market," said Manfred, who also addressed the league’s study on the construction of baseballs and the state of the minor league reorganization negotiations. “It’s got a great facility. I think that the uncertainty surrounding the MASN situation is on the road to resolution. We’ve got an [Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee] decision that’s been confirmed. That decision should move the process along in terms of getting MASN into a more stable situation, and I’m sure that as the team becomes more competitive — which I think it will with the great baseball operations people they have hired — that the attendance in Baltimore will pick up.”

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John Angelos, an executive vice president and son of managing partner Peter G. Angelos, said in October that the Orioles would be in Baltimore “as long as Fort McHenry is standing watch over the Inner Harbor” amid rumblings of potential sales or a move out of town. That, plus the struggles of the team on the field and the financial uncertainty surrounding their television rights, meant the team’s future was worth examining.

The elder Angelos’ declining health has prompted MLB to seek clarity on the team’s leadership position going forward with John and Louis Angelos taking on more responsibility in recent years. They’ve lead not only an overhaul on the baseball side with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias authorized to tear down and rebuild the entire baseball operations department, but a business-side overhaul that’s included restructuring that the team believes will create more synergy and better practices.

All those changes come as the organization is dealing with declining attendance and financial uncertainty as it pertains to their television station, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which also broadcasts the World Series champion Nationals.

A long-simmering legal battle over the rights fees MASN pays to the Nationals for their broadcast rights has neared the end-game this year with MLB’s RSDC panel ruling that the Orioles owed the Nationals more than the $197.6 million already paid for the five-year period from 2012 to 2016, with a court recently ruling that the Orioles owed nearly $100 million more.

The Orioles are appealing that decision, and there’s a separate dispute between the teams regarding the payment of dividends for the Nationals’ share of MASN’s profits. The deal struck for the Nationals to move to Washington from Montreal in 2005 created the network, with Washington getting a 10% ownership stake that rises 1% every year until it reaches 33%.

The dispute over the rights fees impacts the network’s ultimate profit, and an outside arbitrator will determine how to proceed on that front.

All that creates the impression of an uncertain financial base for the team, and slumping attendance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in the early stages of this rebuild don’t help matters. Well over 3 million fans per season routinely came to the ballpark in its first ten years, and when the team won it’s most recent division title in 2014, the average attendance for home games was 30,806.

The 1,307,807 fans who attended the 80 home dates in 2019, for an average of 16,347 per game, were the fewest since the team moved to their new ballpark. As such, while the baseball side works to build a long-term contender on the field, the team is developing new initiatives to draw fans to the ballpark and downtown Baltimore to continue to grow the fanbase until the team improves.

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