Examining a saga that refuses to end and has damaged the Nats in more than just financial ways
Sports Business Daily reported on Monday (Feb. 26) that the Tampa Bay Rays “are in discussions on a long-term extension with Fox Sports Net that will lock in the team’s local media rights for at least the next 16 years…The Rays are entering the final year of their current deal on Fox Sports Sun. The team is due to receive close to $35 million this season, the last one under that deal…Fox’s payout is expected to increase to around $50 million in 2019 under the new contract. Over the 15-year life of the deal, which would run through the 2033 season, Fox would pay, on average, around $82 million per year.”
It is that last part that should anger the Nats fan the most.
The Nats, of course, remain in this seemingly-never-ending MASN dispute, which has been going on with the Orioles since 2012 – yes, more than half of a decade. The dispute gets mischaracterized often. I got a tweet this week from someone saying that the Nats had breached their contract with the O’s. Not true. One of the stipulations for the Expos moving to D.C. and invading Orioles territory (and make no mistake: P.G. County, Montgomery County, Fairfax County and elsewhere were – and in the minds of some still are – Orioles territory) was this setup under which both teams’ games were carried by an Orioles-owned network. The Nats’ annual rights value was to be renegotiated after the 2011 season and every five years thereafter to arrive at fair-market value for those rights. The crux of the dispute is what exactly is “fair-market value.”
Major League Baseball is not as popular nationally as it once was, but it is financially healthier than it has ever been. One of the biggest reasons for this is the boom in regional-cable money for teams. And I’m not just talking about big-market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels and Boston. The Seattle Mariners are in the midst of a mega-money local-television contract. The Detroit Tigers are in the midst of a mega-money local-television contract.
But the Nats are not truly partaking in this boom. Fangraphs in April 2016 published a chart of each team’s estimated 2016 local-television revenue. The Nats, O’s and Mets were tied for no. 14 among 30 major-league teams at $46 million. Washington, D.C. is the no. 7 television market in the country per Nielsen. The Nats should easily be in the top 10 of major-league teams in terms of local-television revenue. And that the Rays – who, yes, do play in the no. 11 television market in this country in Tampa-St. Pete – are poised to start receiving around $82 million per year via local-television revenue when the Nats are still toiling in the 40s or 50s of millions of dollars is an outrage.
But let’s put aside the money, because the Lerners are one of the richest owners in MLB. What about what this MASN arrangement has meant for D.C. baseball?
MASN is a network that’s run on the cheap. There is no debating this. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good and talented people working for the network. But all MASN does in terms of actual self-generated broadcasting is Nationals and Orioles games, Nationals and Orioles pre-game and postgame shows and a few talk shows. That’s it. The rest of MASN’s programming is mostly college football and basketball games produced by other entities, ESPNews and infomercials. The owners of MASN have no interest in anything beyond actual Nationals and Orioles games. This is small-minded thinking.
It’s one thing to operate this way for Baltimore, which has had its team since the start of the 1954 season. The Orioles’ average nightly rating on MASN last season per Sports Business Journal was 5.18, which was the fifth best rating in MLB (though also down 24 percent from last year). The O’s have their fan base.
But Washington, D.C. was without a major-league team from 1972-2004. The Nats as a brand and baseball as a sport in D.C. need awareness. You don’t develop awareness by your games airing on a network on which a) you play second-fiddle to the O’s and b) there is so little ancillary programming. Have you ever watched YES Network, which is owned in part by the Yankees? Or SNY, which is owned by the Mets? Or NESN, which is owned by the Red Sox? Do you know much team-related programming there is on those networks beyond just the games? YES Network has a show called Yankees Batting Practice Today. A show like that for the Nats (or O’s) seems light years away.
Ultimately, what I want for the Nats is for them to create their own network or at least be on another network. I don’t know how realistic either scenario is given the cord-cutting environment that we’re currently in. But I do know that this is what would be best for baseball in D.C. And understand that I say this as an O’s fan. I grew up and still am an O’s fan. But I want baseball to thrive in this city, just as I want it to thrive in Baltimore.
A final point involves Nats fans. It is a real credit to D.C. as a baseball city that the Nats’ average nightly rating on MASN last season per Sports Business Journal was a franchise-best 2.91. A lot has been made recently of the Wizards’ average rating this season on NBC Sports Washington being up 70 percent. Well, understand that the Wizards’ average rating still was just 1.52 at the time of that report from Sports Business Journal. That the Nats averaged 2.91 given them being the MASN stepchild and given the way that MASN operates is pretty impressive. Makes you wonder what could be.