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Rights and Wrongs in Baseball

Why Richmonders can't watch the Washington Nationals play.


Following the lead of big-market teams such as the New York Yankees, the Orioles immediately established their own local sports network, Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), to carry both Orioles and Nationals games.

There was only one problem — the cable company Comcast has the right to transmit Orioles games until 2006 on Comcast SportsNet, its regional sports channel. And it wasn't happy about having to hand those over to MASN. So it announced it wouldn't air Nationals games until a solution was negotiated. Negotiations were fruitless.

Shortly after opening day, Comcast filed suit against MASN, claiming that its contract with the Orioles gave the cable company the right to match any offer made by MASN for the two teams' television rights when the current contract expires in 2006.

Does your head hurt yet? If not, consider this: If Comcast prevails in court, MASN will have to bid against Comcast for the right to broadcast both teams' games. Which would be great for the Orioles' bottom line — if the team didn't own MASN.

The upshot of the mess is that baseball fans down here can't see the Nationals play without getting in their cars. MLB rules dictate that game broadcasts must be blacked out when they conflict with exclusive territorial rights like the ones the Orioles have. So even though the Nats' games aren't televised, superstations such as TBS and TNT — and even the Internet-only service — have to black out Nationals/Braves matchups in our area.

The only way to catch the Nats in Richmond, for now, is via DirecTV, with which MASN made a deal early in the season, and which is showing almost all the team's games as part of its basic service — on channel 626. "Almost all," because nationally televised games (Sundays on ESPN and certain Saturday games on Fox) trump all rights and can be shown, exclusive rights be damned. That'll happen twice in July — on the 9th when the Nats play the basement-dwelling Phillies, and on the 30th when they play the Florida Marlins.

Otherwise, you're gonna have to hope that the team makes the playoffs, as those games are televised nationally as well. Right now it's looking good, but most Richmonders would probably agree it's a little difficult to get enthusiastic about a team we basically know from reading box scores. S

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