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The Legal Battle Between the Nationals and Orioles Is More Interesting Than the Baseball

The "Battle of the Beltways" is mostly fought by the lawyers.
Photograph via Shutterstock.

The Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles begin a three-game series Friday night, marking the 10th season of the so-called “Battle of the Beltways.” But any on-field rivalry has yet to come close to matching the animosity off the diamond—a long-running legal feud over broadcast revenues and a television market that the Orioles, until professional baseball returned to Washington, had to themselves for more than 40 years.

Not that area baseball pundits haven’t longed for some in-game antics.

“The surest, quickest way to ratchet up the intensity level of a rivalry is to start throwing baseballs at each other’s heads,” Washington Post staff writer Dave Sheinin wrote about the rivalry before the Nationals’ inaugural season. “Empty the bullpens and benches. Body-slam the bench coach.”

But there have been no map-shredding incidents like the Yankees’ Roger Clemens chucking a bat at the Mets’ Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series, or Cubs catcher Michael Barrett slugging White Sox catcher AJ Pierzynski in the face following a collision at home plate in 2006. Even with both teams being perennial playoff contenders in their divisions, the Nationals and Orioles are far more likely to meet in another courtroom before an Interstate 95-rupturing World Series.

Away from stadium lights, the teams have spent years hurling legal briefs at each other over their broadcast rights to settle the question of whether a team that filled its city’s decades-long baseball void is entitled to set the terms of how much it costs to put their games on television.

This board-room rivalry traces its roots back to 2002, when Major League Baseball took control of the Montreal Expos and set about plans to move the bankrupt franchise to the nation’s capital for the first time since the Senators left in 1971.

But in an example of the perils of friendship between business partners, Orioles owner Peter Angelos’s closeness with then-commissioner Bud Selig complicated the establishment of a new team in Washington, and not just because two generations of Washington baseball fans often latched onto the Orioles for lack of a closer option. MLB ceded the Washington television market to the Orioles when the Senators left, giving Angelos outsized influence over how the Nationals’ games would be aired and who would profit from the broadcasts.

“I will not do anything to make Peter Angelos unhappy,” Selig said at the 2004 MLB All-Star Game in Houston.

Angelos got fussy anyway, casting the lone dissenting vote among the 29 other teams when MLB made the official decision to relocate the Expos to Washington and grabbing a 90 percent stake in the television operation that evolved into MASN. Baseball also promised, somewhat improbably, that the Orioles’ value and revenue would not drop below their 2004 levels.

“Our aim has been to protect and preserve the Orioles franchise and the economic benefits it has generated for Baltimore for the past 50 years,” Angelos said at the time.

The teams’ original contracts with MASN stipulated that the network would broadcast both teams’ games and pay fixed rates through the 2011 season. Beyond that, the network would pay “fair market value.”

Perhaps encouraged by a roster of emerging talent—Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper—the Nationals’ front office approached the 2012 season thinking highly of the team’s market value. MASN offered $34 million, a modest upgrade from the $29 million it paid for 2011.

The Nationals asked for $109 million. The network still 90-percent owned by the Orioles (aka Angelos) balked, and in came the lawyers.

The teams went to an MLB-sanctioned arbitration panel in April 2012, but Selig, hoped the sides could resolve their issues or sell the Nationals’ television rights to another network, asked the arbiters to hold off. But Selig’s hopes failed, and the panel finally issued a ruling in June 2014, ordering MASN to pay the Nationals $298 for the 2012 to 2016 seasons, nearly $60 million a year. (Since the original deal expired, both teams’ televison royalties have inched up gradually based on the original agreement.)

MASN objected to the ruling, and took the matter to court in New York. New MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said earlier this year that he thinks the conflict will finally end this year. But true rivals rarely reach resolution.

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