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MAS'ed up

Now, this is precious. From Jim Williams' latest submission to the DC Examiner:

I have had the occasion in my more than 25 years of broadcasting and print reporting to interview prominent athletes, sports owners, network presidents and politicians. Few were as straightforward as Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles and the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network.

I met with Angelos in his Baltimore office to discuss MASN, the Nationals, the Orioles and baseball in general. He did not disappoint and answered every question with candor.

Well, color me curious here. In recent weeks Williams has jumped so deep in the tank for Angelos that he could swim through the piping and come out in China. What is more, Angelos is pretty much to straightforwardness and candor as Williams is to accuracy in reporting and predictions worth reading.

In the midst of this interview, Williams adds a parenthetical aside:

It should be noted that when MLB put the Nationals up for sale, each of the nine ownership groups were offered the chance to buy the Nationals with or without MASN. For the record, all nine bidders chose to bid for both the team and the stake in MASN. -- JW

It should be noted that Williams is almost certainly incorrect; as was discussed last summer, MLB required the prospective ownership teams to submit two bids. Eric Fisher, formerly of the Washington Times, wrote about this requirement early last June:

MLB executives declined to discuss the details of any of the bids. But industry sources said the initial offers generally hovered between $310 million and $350 million for the franchise itself and at about $400 million for the Nationals and a minority stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN).

Baseball asked for the two separate bids to get a read on how the prospective owners feel about the equity in the regional sports network, which is controlled by the Baltimore Orioles.

Now, it is true that, by July 2005, the potential ownership teams were expressing fewer reservations of MASN than they had earlier on in the bidding process, though mainly because "it can't get any worse" and the possibility existed that either a) Comcast's lawsuit would spell the doom of MASN (it didn't), or b) the winning ownership team could buy into an even greater share (yipee!) than the pittance MLB purchased with a $75 million outlay to the Angelosians ($37.5 million last June, and with the second half due to be distributed this June).

But, really, do you think the bidders actually had a choice whether to pony up for MASN? If so, I've got a lovely bridge to sell you. Bud Selig negotiated with anything but the Nats' interests in mind, and the principle of it stinks, but whoever wins the bidding will not care about principle too much.

Why?

Because, as Fisher reported last July, something bigger was on the prospective owners' minds:

One other indicator to measure the concern over MASN among the Nationals bidders is a simple ranking of the network on their lists of worries. And for plenty within the group, MASN is not nearly as big a problem as the development of the Nationals' new stadium in Southeast. City officials insist the ballpark project is still on target for its March 2008 opening, with formal offers to landowners in the stadium site being sent out shortly.

Quietly, many of the suitors feel differently and have prepared financial models assuming the 2008 season will be played at RFK Stadium, with some even thinking about part or all of 2009 without the new ballpark. The potential for problems with the stadium also form part of the reason why the bidders are forming and strengthening as many local political alliances as possible.

"There's just so much to do down there. There's no way it's done for Opening Day 2008," another Nationals bidder said. "You have land acquisition issues, environmental remediation issues, political issues, design issues. It's going to be great when it's done, but these projects are always so complex that it's shortsighted to simply assume it will be done [in 2008]."

Read between the lines. The bidders wanted to buy the franchise. (Who wouldn't? As almost everyone believed, DC was a goldmine.) But they were (quite presciently) concerned about getting the stadium on track. So, the bidders wanted as many certain revenue streams in place to cover '08, in the absence of a new park. MASN, if nothing else, offers a somewhat pedestrian yet inarguably steady outlay of $20 million-plus annually. It was better than nothing.

Let's presume that Williams was correct. If, by their own volition, the bidders tossed up a figure that included MASN and not one that didn't (presumably in a later round of bidding---although that wasn't mentioned in the papers when the price hit its current $450 million), they would have almost certainly done so not because MASN was a great deal for the bidders, but because it was the path of least resistance. And it's a valid point in the favor of Angelos: he assumes all the start-up risk.

Nevertheless, our straightforward and candid buddy to the north is straight-up shoveling the stink, as SABR business of baseball chairman Maury Brown notes:

He's operating at a loss, he claims. $15 million in the red due to start up costs for the newly created RSN. . . . [But] Forbes reported that the Orioles operated at a $34 million net operating profit last year -- the highest in all of MLB. OK, so maybe the Forbes valuations aren't entirely accurate given the fact that MLB doesn't open their books to the public, but let's be honest, Mr. Angelos, they didn't screw up to the tune of $49 million.

Brown requests that Angelos open his books. What a capital idea! (And, while we're at it, don't forget to factor in that first $37.5 million payment last June, or the second one this June, for that matter.)

I was critical of Comcast's David Cohen recently, and I'm not being critical of Peter Angelos just to even the score. Heaven only knows that Angelos is a slug regardless of the existence of a scorecard. Just as I'm tired of Comcast roleplaying as crusading populists, I'm tired of the misinformation and mock-beneficance that attempts to buttress the insulting claim that MASN is actually good for the Washington Nationals.

It most certainly isn't. There may be advantageous angles to it (almost all associated with Angelos "assuming the start-up risk"---nicely defrayed by MLB's promised buy-in money, by the way), but it's a sham. Whoever buys the team is buying into a deal that was not negotiated in his/their best interests in mind. Mere puffery to the media might indicate that's okay (and not in the enthusiastic sense), but to a man, I bet each bidder has a dim view on the process.

Nevertheless, MASN's here and in place, and I don't believe it's going away. I don't see any alternative to plugging our noses, requesting that Comcast carry the damned thing, and then enjoying some baseball.

If nothing else, the equation is more than a truism: MORE BASEBALL = GOOD THING.