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: