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Orioles, MASN Lose Court Battle with Nationals, Must Pay $298 Million

Correction: An error in the original article implied that the entire $296.8 million had been withheld from the Nationals over the past seven years. It had not.

The 14-year war between the Nationals and the Orioles over television revenue may finally have a winner.

New York state Supreme Court Justice Joel M. Cohen on Thursday upheld an arbitration ruling that the Orioles must pay $296.8 million worth of unpaid television rights fees, gathered through their jointly-owned regional sports network, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, a figure that includes $197.5 million already paid out from a prior deal between 2012 and 2016. The Baltimore Sun leaked the original arbitration decision in May.

The Nationals have battled with the Orioles and MASN in court ever since the Nationals settled in Washington, D.C. in 2005, after moving from Montreal.

Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos was the one owner in Major League Baseball who signed off against the move, as a new team in Washington cut into his team’s established fanbase in that market. On that basis, the two teams agreed to share each other’s television market starting in 2005, forming the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. However, it was never an equal partnership. The initial deal gave the Orioles 90 percent interest and the Nationals 10 percent, with the Nats’ stake increasing by 1 percent every year for the next 23 years until they owned one-third – assuming both the network and the deal itself lasted that long.

Essentially, the Orioles are the landlords of MASN, and the Nationals are tenants seeking a refund.

If MASN runs out of appeals and is eventually forced to pay up, the ramifications on Major League Baseball in the Mid-Atlantic could be earth-shattering. At the very least, it could spell the death of the network, which has very little original programming other than baseball. In that case, both teams would have to find a new cable partner, which conveniently, already exists. NBC Sports Mid-Atlantic (formerly Comcast SportsNet, formerly Home Team Sports) was the Orioles’ cable TV host before they formed MASN, and now that they have their own “Plus” channel, can comfortably fit both clubs without conflicts.

Thinking more broadly, however, given the sorry state of the Orioles organization, Peter Angelos may take this as his cue to skip town. The O’s are one of the clubs in the most danger of moving or being sold, and news like this will not help. The infusion of an extra $100 million into the Nationals, if and when it comes, may be key to signing big-name free agents such as the one they failed to keep this off-season.

Such is the cost of penny-pinching, ruthless ownership in sports.