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Washington Nationals gain decisive legal victory in long-running MASN fight

Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals gained a massive legal win on Aug. 22 as a New York Supreme Court judge confirmed a league arbitration ruling ordering the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) to pay the club nearly $100 million in additional fees for their 2012-16 local media rights.

For the past eight years, the Nationals have battled in various league and court venues against the rival Baltimore Orioles, the majority owners of MASN, to gain additional rights fees in their unusual shared RSN situation stemming from the 2005 relocation of the Montreal Expos to become the Nationals. MASN and the Orioles had largely been the winning parties in that lengthy and historic fight, and successfully vacated an initial ruling in Washington’s favor by MLB’s Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee, which helps sets local media rights with equity interests in their own regional sports networks. 

The RSDC reconvened and earlier this year again ruled in favor of the Nationals, a decision MASN quickly moved to block. But Justice Joel Cohen said the Orioles and MASN this time failed to meet their “heavy burden of showing evident partiality, corruption, or fundamental fairness” to warrant another legal overturning of an internal arbitration.

Cohen was not persuaded by five different legal arguments the Orioles and MASN made for again vacating the RSDC decision, including a claim that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred irreparably tainted the proceedings by insisting in 2015 that “sooner or later” the RSN would have to pay the additional rights fees. 

“The Court does not believe that public statements such as those referenced by the Orioles are sufficient to throw into doubt the fairness of,” the RSDC process, Cohen’s ruling reads in part.

Cohen last month during oral arguments in the case in New York had also signaled he was “genuinely struggling” on whether a decision to overturn the MLB arbitration would represent an improper retrying of the case itself.

The additional rights fees will now be partially offset by restatements of MASN profit distributions that both clubs have participated in over the years. Cohen also ruled the Nationals are entitled to prejudgement interest in addition to the extra rights fees, with that interest to be determined by a judicial hearing officer approved by the court. 

MASN has paid the Nationals $197.5 million for their 2012-16 rights, the sum the Orioles had proposed. The RSDC ruling, now confirmed by the court, was for $296.8 million. The battle between the Nationals and Orioles has represented a highly unusual legal fight between teams existing in the same US sports league.