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Comcast, MASN Finally Agree to Play Ball

Comcast Corp. subscribers in the nation’s capital and environs will finally have the chance to see Washington Nationals Major League Baseball games next month on Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

The parties reached an Aug. 4 agreement that will bring the regional sports network to some 1.6 million people in the metro Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, plus those in Salisbury, Md., on an expanded basis. As part of the pact, the parties also agreed to drop various legal complaints against each other. Deal terms were not disclosed, but other MASN carriers pay an estimated $1.35 per subscriber, per month.

Although the contract talks about Comcast airing MASN Sept. 1, the operator is legally required to give its customers 30 days’ notice about the impending change, which pushes its debut to around Labor Day.

Comcast, MASN and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who is also MASN’s majority owner, have been at odds for well over one year, with rancor and lawsuits spilling into the halls of the Federal Communications Commission, Congress and area courts.

MLB awarded Angelos the club’s TV rights when it moved the Montreal Expos to Washington, D.C., before the 2005 season as compensation for the encroachment on what had been the Orioles’ market area.

The dispute was heightened by Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic’s carriage of the Orioles games, but the club’s 10-year contract with that RSN expires after this season. Beginning in 2007, MASN will hold both teams’ rights, with a spillover channel designed to accommodate conflicting contests, according to a MASN spokesman.

Lee Berke, president of sports consultancy LHB Inc. said there are a number of area minor league baseball teams that could help fill in some hours in the Orioles’ absence.

Comcast declined to comment its RSN’s future plans.

The agreement was prompted by the FCC’s July 21 order outlining the approval of Comcast’s and Time Warner’s acquisition of Adelphia Communications Corp., under which the agency said MASN would have to decide by Aug. 4 whether to use an arbiter or avail itself of an FCC administrative law judge to end the stalemate.

Berke said that the FCC merger condition giving regional sports networks not affiliated with Comcast and Time Warner the ability to receive binding arbitration over the next six years is good news for teams looking at carriage to start their own channels.

“Arbitration or the threat of it favors the RSN, as long as they can demonstrate they are asking for reasonable fees,” he said.