Why the court battle over TV rights may be delaying a sale of the Nats

This week, a New York appeals court sided with the Washington Nationals in an ongoing dispute over television rights fees with the Baltimore Orioles. While the decision is considered a win for the Nats, which is up for sale, one sports management expert believes it could still be sometime before this battle concludes.

“Even though there are strict deadlines, deadlines create action, but legalese issues can blow up deadlines,” said Matt Winkler, professor and program director of the sports analytics and management program at American University.

Those delays could mean the Lerner family, which owns the team, could have difficulty finding a buyer to purchase the team with the legal battle unsettled.

The court fight stems back to when the then-Montreal Expos moved to Washington, bringing a new team into the D.C. area into the Orioles’ official marketplace. That led to a deal that created Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a regional sports network, which is majority owned by Baltimore.

During the last decade, the Orioles took issue with a valuation of the team of $297 million for 2012 through 2016, which was established by an arbitration committee of baseball executives appointed by the Major League Baseball commissioner. Then the disagreement over the number began the court battle.

Baltimore took issue with the valuation process, but a lower court in New York, followed by a New York Court of Appeals decision on Tuesday, sided with Washington. The court also ordered both sides to use a different provision of their agreement to settle the nonpayment issue.

Winkler said there has been a lot at play in Baltimore’s continued fight. Among them, Washington is a much wealthier city than Baltimore, and with changing viewing habits of fans, the value of digital rights is going down, thus the value of regional sports networks.

“The value of this key entity they’re all fighting over is worth so much less now,” Winkler said.

One possible buyer of the Nationals, The Washington Post reported, is Ted Leonsis, the owner of the Washington Capitals and Wizards. Leonsis, who also owns regional sports network NBC Sports Washington, reportedly offered $2 billion to buy the team.

“The Orioles would get hit by the Nationals moving to NBC Sports Network or something else. And there’s no doubt they know that. There’s no doubt they worry about that. And that goes into their strategy,” Winkler said.

Winkler believes if the Nationals, under new ownership, were able to exit the agreement, MASN would be forced to reinvent itself at a time when other regional sports networks are going belly up.

“You’d almost have to turn MASN into, you know, a betting apparatus somehow, to make it valuable,” Winkler said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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