LOVERRO: Time for Manfred to settle the MASN dispute between Orioles, Nationals

If millionaires and billionaires are lining up to buy the Washington Nationals, they’ve been pretty quiet about it.

Since the Lerner family announced they were exploring options to sell the team, there’s been some speculation about Washington Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis buying the team, perhaps with another deep-pocketed partner like David Rubenstein, the co-founder and co-chairman of the Carlyle Group investment firm. 

There’s been some rounding-up of the usual suspects.

But what is likely to complicate the sale is the continued unresolved status of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network and the dispute with Nationals owner Ted Lerner and family over what they believe is their fair piece of the cable pie that is due them in the one-sided partnership with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

The cable partnership dates back to 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved to the District, but the fight over the television money began in earnest in 2012, when the deal came up for a reset and the Nationals argued that they weren’t getting “fair market value” for the broadcast of their games. Since then, there have been lawsuits and judges and lawyers and appeals, and Washington still hasn’t got its money.

The Lerners haven’t said much about their reasons for putting the team on the market, but the family’s two key businesses, commercial real estate and baseball, both took a beating during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s reasonable to conclude that the MASN fight — and the $105 million the Nationals believe they are owed — contributed to the Lerners’ decision.

If that is the case — that MASN has driven the Lerners to get out of the baseball business — then we may be at the point where the ongoing messy court fight over the Nationals-Orioles television money is not in “the best interests of baseball.”

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, please pick up the white courtesy phone.

The commissioner has had the power to act in the “best interests of baseball” since 1921 and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the game’s first commissioner, demanded such power as part of the cleanup of the game following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. It’s been eliminated, brought back, reduced and strengthened a number of times since then — including when the Los Angeles Dodgers and Texas Rangers were faced with ownership issues.

It would seem that when a legal fight between two teams has helped drive one owner out of baseball, it would be in the “best interests of baseball” for Manfred to step in and order a resolution to the MASN battle.

That would appear to mean drop the hammer on the Orioles, who have put up one roadblock after another in refusing to pay what the Nationals — and Major League Baseball, for that matter — believe the Washington club is due. 

They’ve elected to pay lawyers instead, and Angelos, 92, who is believed to be in ill health, and his lawyers show no sign of tiring. 

MASN — Angelos, for all intents and purposes — recently won a court fight that would have forced the network to pay an additional $23 million in an escrow account that supposedly has $105 million in it that the Nationals believe is theirs. That $23 million would reportedly be the interest fees on that amount.

It would be hard to deny that $105 million more in the Lerners’ pockets might have made a difference in their decision. If the squabble contributed to the decision by the owners to sell the team — who just three years ago won a World Series — that’s not good for baseball.

But, like this mess, it’s not that simple.

I asked the commissioner’s office about invoking the power. This was their response: “Given the MASN matter is in active litigation and certain unique aspects of the agreement that created MASN, the best interest power is not a viable alternative.”

One of the “unique” aspects? MASN is a private entity. It is not a baseball team. It is a business that Manfred has no direct control over.

Here’s another “unique” aspect of the 2005 agreement that was inherited by the Lerners when they were named the winners of the $450 million sale of the franchise in 2006. Everyone involved who held their nose when they made this deal to placate Angelos was convinced that by the time they had to fight the Orioles owner, he would have passed on. Seriously. By this time they believed they would be dealing with new Orioles owner who would have had to agree to far different terms to buy the franchise.

Instead, now it’s the Lerners who are selling their team, though the Orioles will not likely be far behind on the market.

This MASN fight will certainly complicate the Nationals sale. Who gets that money, the Lerners, who had to suffer through 10 years of litigation to try to get it, or the new owners? How is that resolved?

Where is that money coming from? They can talk about this $105 million “escrow” account all they want. I can almost guarantee you MASN doesn’t have $105 million laying around anywhere.

The same questions could be asked of the Orioles, when that franchise is put up for sale.

None of this is in the best interests of anybody — except the lawyers.

You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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