Rank those in terms of unlikeliness. Tough choice. But that last item hangs over the franchise in a way that remains crippling. It’s front-of-mind because the Lerners are exploring a possible sale, and the knee-jerk impulse is that the MASN entanglement with the Orioles is a potential snag. It’s front-of-mind, too, because MASN’s broadcasters are outliers in baseball in not traveling to any road games — a decision that reeks of financial limitations, no matter the purported reason.
This is good for exactly no one. Seventeen years after the Nationals arrived, the regional sports network entrusted with its broadcasts still isn’t providing the team with the revenue it expected. More than that, it sometimes appears like a low-rent operation that can’t provide the best product for its customers.
That’s a shame for Bob Carpenter, the longtime play-by-play man going on 40 years in the business, and his new color analyst Kevin Frandsen, who replaced FP Santangelo this spring and is proving early on to be insightful and enthusiastic. It’s a shame for all the people who have worked relentlessly over the years — in front of the camera and behind it — to produce a passable product. For three hours a night, they have almost always achieved that.
Some MLB broadcasters still aren’t back on the road. Viewers notice.
Todd Webster, a MASN spokesperson, issued a statement to my colleague Ben Strauss that said: “The global pandemic required all of us to learn new lessons in innovation, resourcefulness, and resilience. MASN is carrying forward some of those lessons.”
How noble. Phrased differently: “We’re willing to save some cash at the expense of the quality of the broadcast. Sorry, viewers.”
Signs of decay are everywhere, impossible to hide. There used to be a studio beyond the left field stands at Nationals Park, the spot from which Johnny Holliday and Ray Knight — and later Dan Kolko and Bo Porter — broadcast pre- and postgame shows. It has been dismantled. Kolko — the popular dugout reporter and backup play-by-play man — was let go by MASN during the pandemic, as were others, and is on the broadcasts only because the Nationals hired him back. He now hosts the pre- and postgame shows—solo—from a small corner of the Nats’ press box.
For a franchise that won the World Series just three seasons ago, the network that carries its games feels unnecessarily held together by duct tape. It’s all rooted in the chaos in which MASN was initially created. That history is relevant — and even amusing — so let’s go over it. But also, eventually, get to this thought: What if, with the Lerners hanging out a “For Sale” sign on the Nationals, MASN isn’t so much an albatross but an opportunity?
First, a reminder about the origin story, because it matters now and going forward. In late 2004, when Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos to Washington, then-commissioner Bud Selig had to extend some sort of olive branch to Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Baltimore’s owner felt — sorry, feels — that the Nationals’ mere existence infringes on his team’s territory, so that branch was control of the Washington franchise’s broadcast rights. The Mid-Atlantic Sports Network was created hastily and controversially.
This was a time, you might recall, when the Orioles had a storefront in downtown DC, hawking orange-and-black gear; when District 12-year-olds grew up on Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray.
But because Angelos had moved the Orioles’ broadcasts from Comcast SportsNet’s Baltimore-Washington network, parent company Comcast prohibited Orioles and Nationals games from being distributed on its cable systems, the dominant carrier in the area. So the tone for MASN was set in those early days. Washington fans clamoring to become familiar with their new team and its players — who were surprisingly in first place over the first half of the 2005 season — couldn’t get the majority of games on their TVs.
“Like this one night I gave out my cellphone number on the air and said, ‘If anybody’s watching anywhere, call this number,’” Mel Proctor, MASN’s first play-by-play voice, told me that June. “And the only one who called was the tape operator from the truck.”
From a broadcast standpoint, it got better — lots better. But there wasn’t — and still isn’t — ancillary programming around the 30 minutes before the game, the game itself and the 30 minutes after. “The Mid-Atlantic Sports Report” always felt more like community cable access television than the kind of next-level roundtable show both Washington and Baltimore deserve.
And here we are now: with MLB’s revenue sharing committee twice ruling that the Nationals should be awarded $100 million, essentially in back pay, by MASN. A New York appeals court upheld the award in 2020. MASN is, of course, appealing. If it feels like this never ends, it’s because it never ends.
The Orioles, still in a rebuild, think they can win without spending
But here’s where there might be some light at the end of a tunnel that for so long has seemed to extend to the earth’s core: We know the Lerners are pursuing at least new investors and, far more likely, a buyer for the Nationals. People around baseball suspect that the Angelos family is preparing to sell the Orioles. If the latter happens, you know what becomes of the Nationals’ broadcast rights? They transfer back to the Nationals.
Suddenly, what had been a burden could become a boon. This is an extraordinarily interesting time in sports media rights. Yes, there remains some nagging uncertainty here, but think about what a potential new Nationals owner who has experience running sports franchises and would love to expand her or his media empire — looking at you, Ted Leonsis — could do not only with the baseball club , but with the rights to stream and broadcast its content. That’s not just the games, which are three-hour commercials for your product. That’s the programming around them — using in-house media personalities to explore and develop the personalities on the team.
Go beyond that. There could be ways to improve the experiences both in the ballpark and on the couch. Either way, there are opportunities that could excite a new owner with vision and innovation. For 17 years, MASN has been held back to such a degree that it hasn’t had much of either.
The of a Nationals’ sale matters to Nationals fans because it will help determine the direction of the roster rebuild possibility currently underway. But keep an eye on a potential O’s sale, too, Nats fans. Bob Carpenter and Kevin Frandsen aren’t traveling for road games, and that’s a symptom of a disease that has plagued the Washington franchise for its entire existence. Yet there might just be a path out — with incredible potential not just for a new owner, but for the team’s fans, on the other side.