MASN hangs over Nationals, but there may be hope

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Here are a few things that did not seem likely back in the summer of 2006, when the Lerner family officially took over ownership of the Washington Nationals: The team would win the first of four division titles within six years; the Lerner family would one day consider selling a franchise family, Patriarch Ted spent half a life pursuing; and 16 years later, this franchise would still be in a dispute with neighboring Baltimore Orioles over the rights fees from MASN.

Rank them in terms of probabilities. Tough choice. But the last element hangs over the franchise in a way that remains paralyzing. It’s front-of-mind because Lerners is exploring a possible sale, and the kneeling impulse is that the MASN entanglement with Orioles is a potential catch. It’s also in the foreground because MASN’s TV companies are extreme in baseball by not traveling to any road games – a decision that smells of financial constraints, regardless of the alleged cause.

This is good for exactly no one. Seventeen years after the arrival of the Nationals, the regional sports network entrusted with its broadcasts still does not provide the team with the revenue it expected. More than that, it sometimes looks like a low-cost operation that cannot deliver the best product to its customers.

It’s a shame for Bob Carpenter, the longtime play-by-play man who has been in the industry for 40 years, and his new color analyst Kevin Frandsen, who replaced FP Santangelo in the spring and early on proves to be insightful and enthusiastic. It’s a shame for all the people who have worked tirelessly over the years – in front of the camera and behind it – to produce an acceptable product. Three hours a night, they have almost always achieved that.

Some MLB TV stations are still not back on the road. Viewers notice.

Todd Webster, a MASN spokesman, issued a statement to my colleague Ben Strauss, who said: “The global pandemic required that we all learn new lessons in innovation, ingenuity and resilience. MASN continues some of these lessons.”

How noble. Put another way: “We are willing to save some money at the expense of the quality of the broadcast. Sorry, viewers.”

Signs of decay are everywhere, impossible to hide. There used to be a studio beyond the left field stands in Nationals Park, the place from where Johnny Holliday and Ray Knight – and later Dan Kolko and Bo Porter – broadcast pre- and postgame shows. It has been dismantled. Kolko – the popular dugout reporter and backup-play-by-play man – was released by MASN during the pandemic, like others, and is only on the broadcasts because the Nationals hired him back. He now hosts pre- and postgame shows – solo – from a small corner of the Nats’ press box.

For a franchise that won the World Series just three seasons ago, the network that carries its games feels unnecessarily held together by duct tape. It all boils down to the chaos in which MASN was originally created. That story is relevant – and even funny – so let’s review it. But also finally came to this thought: What if Lerners hangs an “For Sale” sign out on Nationals, MASN not so much an albatross, but an option?

First, a reminder of the origin story, for it matters now and in the future. In late 2004, when Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington, then-Commissioner Bud Selig had to expand a kind of olive branch to Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Baltimore’s owner felt – sorry, feels – that the mere existence of the Nationals violates the territory of his team, so that branch had control over the broadcasting rights of the Washington franchise. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was set up quickly and controversially.

This was a time you may remember where the Orioles had a storefront in downtown DC while operating with orange and black equipment; when District 12-year-old grew up on Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray.

But because Angelos had moved Orioles’ broadcasts from Comcast SportsNet’s Baltimore-Washington network, parent company Comcast banned Orioles and Nationals games from being distributed on its cable systems, the dominant provider in the area. So the tone for MASN was set in the early days. Washington fans who were shouting about getting familiar with their new team and its players – who surprisingly were in first place during the first half of the 2005 season – could not get most of the matches on their television.

“Like this evening, I handed out my cell phone number on the air and said, ‘If anyone sees a place, call this number,'” Mel Proctor, MASN’s first play-by-play voice, told me in June. “And the only one who called was the tape recorder from the truck.”

From a broadcast point of view, it got better – much better. But there was no – and still is not – auxiliary programming around the 30 minutes before the match, the game itself and the 30 minutes after. “The Mid-Atlantic Sports Report” always felt more like local cable TV than the kind of next-level roundtable show both Washington and Baltimore deserve.

And here we are now: with MLB’s revenue sharing committee twice, which ruled that the Nationals should be awarded $ 100 million, essentially in arrears, by MASN. An appeals court in New York upheld the award in 2020. MASN is appealing, of course. If it feels like this never ends, it’s because it never ends.

The Orioles, who are still in a rebuild, think they can win without spending money

But here, perhaps, is some light at the end of a tunnel that for so long has seemed to extend to the core of the earth: We know that Lerners is at least pursuing new investors and, far more likely, a buyer for Nationals . People around baseball suspect that the Angelos family is preparing to sell the Orioles. If the latter happens, do you know what will become of the Nationals’ broadcasting rights? They go back to the Nationals.

Suddenly, what had been a burden could become a blessing. This is an extraordinarily interesting time in the field of sports media rights. Yes, there is still some nagging uncertainty here, but think about what a potential new Nationals owner who has experience in running a sports franchise and would love to expand his media empire – looking at you, Ted Leonsis – could not only do with the baseball club , but with rights to stream and broadcast the content. It’s not just the games that are three-hour commercials for your product. It’s the programming around them – by using internal media personalities to explore and develop the personalities on the team.

Go beyond that. There could be ways to enhance the experiences both on the ballpark and on the couch. Either way, there are opportunities that can excite a new owner with vision and innovation. For 17 years, MASN has been held back to such an extent that it has not had much of either.

The possibility of a Nationals sale is important to Nationals fans because it will help determine the direction of the ongoing rebuilding of the roster. But also keep an eye out for a potential O’s sale, Nats fans. Bob Carpenter and Kevin Frandsen do not travel to road games, and it is a symptom of a disease that has plagued the Washington franchise throughout its existence. Still, there might just be a way out – with incredible potential, not just for a new owner, but for the team’s fans on the other side.

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