Court Rules MLB Can Determine Nationals' Rights Fees

A committee of Major League Baseball owners and executives can determine how much money the Washington Nationals should receive from the Baltimore Orioles for television broadcasts of their games, an appeals court ruled Thursday.

The Nationals called it "a major legal victory," a claim the Orioles disputed.

The 3-2 decision by the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division in Manhattan is the latest chapter in the long-running dispute between the Nationals and the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. MASN was established in 2005 after the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington and became the Nationals, moving into what had been Baltimore's exclusive broadcast territory since 1972.

In November 2015, a New York State Supreme Court justice threw out an arbitration decision that said MASN owes the Nationals $298 million for the team's 2012-16 television rights. That decision was made by the same MLB panel that would take up the dispute again if Thursday's ruling stands, although the members of that panel have changed.

"The Nationals are gratified that the appeals court recognized the importance of enforcing contractual arbitration agreements," attorney Stephen Neuwirth, who argued for the Nationals, said in a statement. "We look forward to finally having the rights fees determined in the forum the parties chose."

The court unanimously affirmed the justice's decision to throw out the previous $298 million payment to the Nationals, a decision that Washington cannot appeal.

"To my knowledge, for the first time in history, an internal MLB arbitration was vacated by the court and was done so unanimously," Arnold Weiner, an attorney for the Orioles, said in a statement. "It's one thing to declare victory, as the Nationals do, and it's another thing to have actually won, which they didn't."

The Orioles and MASN intend to appeal the decision to bring the dispute back to the MLB panel, said Thomas Hall, a MASN attorney. The appeal would be heard by New York's highest court, the Court of Appeals in Albany, and could cause another lengthy delay in the case, forcing the Nationals to confront another offseason of revenue uncertainty.

The Orioles argued that the panel, known as the Revenue Sharing Definitions Committee, was biased in favor of the Nationals. Two justices rejected that claim, and a third said that while the panel was not neutral, the court did not have legal authority to replace it. In a lengthy dissent, Presiding Justice Rolando Acosta, a former college pitcher, agreed with the Orioles, writing that "MLB's pervasive bias and unfair conduct has infected the RSDC."

The teams are apart by more than $100 million on the amount of money the Nationals should receive for TV rights in two five-year periods: 2012-16 and 2017-21.

At the time of the previous arbitration hearing in April 2012, the RSDC included Pittsburgh Pirates president Frank Coonelly, Tampa Bay Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg and New York Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon.

The RSDC now includes Milwaukee Brewers chairman Mark Attanasio, Seattle Mariners president Kevin Mather and Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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