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MASN: New Year, New Network

By Ken Denlinger   

Let's say that during one of the more than 320 Orioles and Nationals games that the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) will televise this season something on the field seems irritatingly odd. MASN will enhance a feature it began late last season: the immediate opportunity -- via e-mail -- to get a fan's vent to the announcers, who will take it to the source if they cannot offer a satisfactory explanation.

"Not only will fans see everything in front of them," executive producer Chris Glass said. "They'll also be a part of it."

Or as much a part of it as Major League Baseball (MLB) allows. Selected Orioles and Nationals, players as well as managers and coaches, will wear a small microphone during games. However, the live commentary will be limited by MLB's rules, Glass said.

The manager will answer questions from the announcers once during the game, Glass said, probably around the fifth inning. And so will one player, possibly the pitcher for the next game or someone who played well the night before. The idea is to be timely without being intrusive -- and enough comments gleaned from certain situations during games could make for lively and in-depth features later on.

There certainly will be chances to cover every base: pre-game, in-game, post-game and other occasions because, well, MASN has a lot of time on its hands. This is MASN's inaugural showcasing of the centerpiece of what its officials insist will be a long-playing regional sports network: Baseball in the spring, baseball in the summer and, technically, baseball in the fall because the postseason doesn't start until October.   

MASN's pitch to advertisers and fans has been: Imagine! You get two LOCAL major-league teams on one network.

And officials said it will learn from the mistakes of other regional sports networks.

"We have a better sense of how to price inventory," said vice president for integrated sales and marketing John J. McGuinness, who previously worked for Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia and the YES network. "You don't want to go out and club someone on the head. If you're too aggressive, grow your business too quickly, you have to go back and mend fences."

The estimated 320 games MASN will carry include spring training. And there is an arrangement for the scads of occasions when the Orioles and Nationals either play at the same time or overlap.

MASN has contracted with all its cable partners to create a separate channel, MASN-Plus, when necessary. Each channel will have a crawl at the bottom of the picture telling viewers where the other game is located. Not a penny will be added to cable bills for the additional channel, MASN said.

In addition to unique access to its growing number of properties, MASN says it offers permanence.

"Most regional sports networks are on a short leash," said Jim Cuddihy, MASN's executive vice president for programming, productions and operations. "This network and these rights will remain here forever."

That's because MASN is owned by the Orioles and Nationals. When MLB moved the Montreal franchise to Washington two years ago, it offered Orioles owner Peter Angelos a substantial lump sum of money to split the television territory.

The Orioles' television rights have extended from Harrisburg, Pa., to Delaware to Charlotte, N.C. MLB wanted to split the rights, with the Orioles having everything north of the Potomac River and the Nationals everything south.

Angelos refused.

"It was more convenient and more lucrative to take it and run," MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. "He wanted to protect the Orioles and their fan base for the future."

The Nationals are the more attractive television entity, because Washington is among the top 10 markets nationally while Baltimore barely cracks the top 25. Angelos certainly knew that, and a regional network -- MASN -- was crafted.

In the beginning, the O's owned 90 percent of MASN and MLB 10 percent. Under their new owner, the Nationals assumed MLB's position in the partnership, which means their share increases each year by one percent until they gain 33 percent ownership. MASN pays a yearly rights fee to both teams -- $26 million in 2007 and $28 million in 2008, according to Webster. The contracts will be reviewed every three years, he added, to assure the teams get fair market value.

Left out in this arrangement is the local Comcast SportsNet, which carried Orioles' games until its contract ran out after last season. What Comcast SportsNet plans to do without the O's (and with the $18 million in rights fees it saves) is uncertain, a spokeswoman said. It is facing what others in the industry have over the years.       

In Kansas City, for instance, Time Warner's Metro Sports recently lost the Royals to a 12-year deal with Fox Sports Net Midwest. Metro Sports had carried the Royals for four years.

"Properties go back and forth in this business," Metro Sports general manager John Denison told the Kansas City Star in mid-December. "NBC stayed in business without the NFL and now has it back. You make adjustments and move on."

MASN also is planning to move on. It took the Ravens from Comcast SportsNet before this season with a multi-year deal. Among the reasons Ravens' spokesman Kevin Byrne offered for the switch was: "the opportunity to do business with Peter Angelos. We're in the same business."

The Ravens will be pivotal programming for MASN in the fall and winter. But MASN has its eyes on another large catch from Comcast SportsNet: the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitols.

"Absolutely," said Michael J. Haley, MASN's chief financial officer. "If the opportunity arises even earlier (than the estimated 2012 expirations of the contracts with Comcast SportsNet) we'd take advantage of that."

MASN also is working on becoming a larger national and local presence in college basketball, football and lacrosse. It has a three-year agreement with Georgetown to carry at least 10 games per season. It also does dozens games of other area teams -- at a cost to MASN of $30,000 per game, according to Cuddihy -- that otherwise would get no television exposure.

One other contrast between MASN and Comcast SportsNet is a local news operation. MASN doesn't have one and, according to Cuddihy, doesn't plan to add one. He said:
"Our [mission] is to promote, market and brand the teams. And the best way to do that -- outside the games -- is to dedicate shows to those teams … That's the best way for us to serve our audience."

MASN does have cameras inside the studios of a Baltimore radio station, ESPN 1300-AM, and carries live such staples as the Anita Marks Show. That arrangement also allows MASN at least minimal coverage of breaking local news stories.

MASN has already made similar tie-in with a Washington-area radio station. It was announced last week that the network will air live simulcasts of "The John Riggins Show", which airs daily on Triple X ESPN Radio, the flagship radio station of Dan Snyder's Red Zebra Broadcasting.

Communications pros as well as casual fans wonder: MASN has the superior lineup from, say, March through September; Comcast SportsNet is strong from October through at least April. Why don't they merge?

That may happen, but it's unlikely for quite a while that MASN will be the one to broach it. 

Issue 1.36: December 28, 2006