Fuse lit: MASN goes to court to keep from having to pay the Nats more money for TV rights

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Last week the Hollywood Reporter got inside the ongoing Washington Nationals-Baltimore Orioles-MASN dispute over the dividing up of rights fees. The big takeaway there was that everyone was preparing to go nuclear, abandon negotiations and run to the courthouse. And that Bud Selig was warning everyone involved NOT to take this to court because, well, baseball just doesn’t want that. He said in a letter to the clubs that he would level “the most severe sanctions” against them if they do.

Well, get ready to level, Bud, because MASN has gone to court in New York and obtained an injunction against a Major League Baseball arbitration which ruled in favor of the Nationals on the fee dispute. Basically: a court order to prevent the Orioles, the Nationals and MASN from having to comply with it. You can read all of the documents filed and the court order below. The upshot of the arguments, for those who do not wish to read: MASN is asking that the arbitration be set aside due to a conflict of interest. The argument includes the following claims:

  • The same lawyers represented the Nationals, Major League Baseball and the clubs of the three owners who comprised the arbitration panel;
  • “The three arbitrators, MLB and the Commissioner of Baseball, all had a direct and significant pecuniary interest in the outcome of the arbitration.”
  • The authority set up to determine the amount of money the Nats were supposed to get from MASN “exceeded its authority by intentionally refusing to use its established methodology to determine the fair market value of the telecast rights fees as mandated . . .”

Worth noting that there are many levels of conflict of interest here. For all intents and purposes, MASN is the Orioles in this case. The Orioles are the majority shareholders in MASN, they have the same lawyers and, in not paying a lot more money to the Nationals, the same general interests. To the court they are a separate party, to be sure. But I wonder if Bud Selig and Major League Baseball feel obligated to view them that way. Because, either way, the same bad purpose (in MLB’s eyes) is being obtained: the undermining of its arbitration and taking an internal dispute out into the open.

Whether the court is willing or able to untangle all of these many layers of conflict is unclear. It is worth rememberng, however, as we learned in the A-Rod/Biogenesis case, that courts are extremely reluctant to overturn arbitration rulings, so this may all ultimately be an exercise in posturing and delay.

But that’s the legal stuff. The practical aspect of all of this is that, at essence, MASN and the Orioles do not want to pay the Nationals what the Nats and what Major League Baseball, per its arbitration, think their broadcast rights are worth. Or, it should be noted, they may not be able to. You see, per the agreement between the parties, (a) the Nationals are to get market rates for their broadcasts; and (b) the Orioles are to get increases in their payout that match the Nats’ increases. In this market, however, that would probably bankrupt MASN. So no amount of negotiation under the terms of the agreement is likely to solve the problem. It may be an utterly untenable agreement.

So, while this is somewhat amusing from the point of view of baseball’s failed efforts to negotiate a settlement in private between the parties, the parties may now be in an impossible situation. Maybe the court steps in, but it’s hard to see the court wading in to this matter beyond the preliminary way in which it already has. One other possibility is that a third party could step in. As in, the Nats buying their way out of the MASN deal entirely and going out on its own with a separate broadcaster. Which, for their part, MASN and the Orioles probably don’t want, as they make money off of Nats broadcasts and don’t want the competition. But as of now, I see no other way out of it.

For now, though, it’s in the court’s hands. Here are the documents it’s working with right now, including the court order and MASN’s petition to set aside the arbitration ruling:

Order

Petition

Mem

Nationals GM Rizzo won’t reveal length of Martinez’s new contract

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WASHINGTON — Dave Martinez spoke Saturday about managing the Washington Nationals for “many, many years” and over the “long term” and “quite some time,” thanks to his contract extension.

Sharing a table to a socially distanced degree with his manager on a video conference call to announce the new deal – each member of the duo sporting a 2019 World Series ring on his right hand – Nationals GM Mike Rizzo referred to the agreement’s “multiyear” nature, but repeatedly refused to reveal anything more specific in response to reporters’ questions.

“We don’t talk about terms as far as years, length and salaries and that type of thing. We’re comfortable with what we have and the consistency that we’re going to have down the road,” said Rizzo, who recently agreed to a three-year extension of his own. “That’s all we want to say about terms, because it’s private information and we don’t want you guys to know about it.”

When Martinez initially was hired by Rizzo in October 2017 – his first managing job at any level – the Nationals’ news release at the time announced that he was given a three-year contract with an option for a fourth year.

That 2021 option had not yet been picked up.

“The partnership that Davey and I have together, our communication styles are very similar. Our aspirations are similar, and kind of our mindset of how to obtain the goals that we want to obtain are similar. I think it’s a good match,” Rizzo said. “We couldn’t have hit on a more positive and enthusiastic leader in the clubhouse. I think you see it shine through even in the most trying times.”

The Nationals entered Saturday – Martinez’s 56th birthday – with a 23-34 record and in last place in the NL East, which Rizzo called “a disappointing season.” The team’s title defense was slowed by injuries and inconsistency during a 60-game season delayed and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic.

World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg threw just five innings because of a nerve issue in his pitching hand and players such as Starlin Castro, Sean Doolittle, Tanner Rainey, Adam Eaton and Carter Kieboom finished the year on the IL.

“This year, for me, we didn’t get it done. We had a lot of bumps in the road this year. But I really, fully believe, we’ve got the core guys here that we need to win another championship,” Martinez said. “I know Mike, myself, we’re going to spend hours and hours and hours trying to fill the void with guys we think can potentially help us in the future. And we’ll be back on the podium. I’m really confident about that.”

Rizzo was asked Saturday why the team announces contract lengths for players, as is common practice around the major leagues, but wouldn’t do so in this instance for Martinez.

“The reason is we don’t want anybody to know. That’s the reason,” Rizzo said, before asking the reporter: “How much do you make? How many years do you have?”

Moments later, as the back-and-forth continued, Rizzo said: “It’s kind of an individual thing with certain people. I don’t want you to know what I make or how many years I have. Davey doesn’t want you to know. And I think that it’s only fair … when people don’t want certain information out there, that we don’t give it.”

There were some calling for Martinez to lose his job last season when Washington got off to a 19-31 start. But Rizzo stood by his manager, and the team eventually turned things around, going 74-38 the rest of the way to reach the playoffs as an NL wild-card team.

The Nationals then beat the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals to reach the World Series, where they beat the Houston Astros in Game 7.

Washington joined the 1914 Boston Braves as the only teams in major league history to win a World Series after being 12 games below .500 during a season.

“Everything from Day 1 to where he’s gotten to now, he’s grown so much. He’s really become one of my favorite managers of all,” three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer said after helping Washington win Saturday’s opener of a doubleheader against the New York Mets. “Davey really understands how to manage a clubhouse, manage a team. We saw it in the postseason. He knows how to push the right buttons when everything is on the line.”