Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Washington Post Sports Watch: The MASN Fight Is A Fascinating Story. Why Isn't the Post Covering It More?

It's a story that has implications for every Washington Nationals fan -- and every Orioles fan -- who watches the team's games on television in the DC area. It's a story that could affect every person in the area who pays for cable television. It's a story that lays bare how corruptly Bud Selig and Major League Bseball act when lots of money is at stake and they don't want their questionable business practices to face any public scrutiny. And most of all, it's a story that has really rich people fighting. Who doesn't love that? And yet with all those elements, why does it seem like the Washington Post Sports section isn't that interested in covering the fight over MASN?

It's not that the Post isn't covering the MASN fight at all. Since the Hollywood Reporter broke the story of the legal proceedings involving the Nationals, Orioles, MASN and MLB late last month, the Post has covered the major legal developments, did have a story about how troubled Major League Baseball is by the fact that the dispute reached a courtroom, and Bud Selig's public comment about the case on Tuesday. But that really just scratches the surface. There's a ton of legal documents publicly available on the Web--why haven't they done an article or two just exploring those documents and some of the interesting and colorful details of the case that they contain? From the method that the original MASN agreement laid out to determine the fair market value of the two teams' rights fees (which required ignoring what other teams received in rights fees and used some formula that had to do with the profit margin of the network) to MASN's claims that MLB told the Lerners when the team was sold in 2006 not to worry about the TV deal because they'd make sure they got a better deal at the reset of rights fees in 2012, there's a lot of juicy stuff there.

But there's much more. How about an article about the state of MASN, nine years after its creation? MASN objects in the court documents to MLB saying that 95 percent of its revenue comes from broadcasting baseball games, but other than George Mason college basketball and some other college football and basketball games, why is there virtually nothing on their two channels of value besides baseball games and replays of those baseball games? (I mean, they're still simulcasting ESPN News a couple hours a day.) How about an article asking experts how much Nationals TV rights really would be worth on the open market? How about a story on the Nationals' threat to remove their games from MASN if MASN didn't pay up? How would that have worked? Where would they have aired? Would they have aired? And how about a story on whether the Nationals, if they do receive a doubling or tripling of their current TV rights, will still claim they can't pay the $30,000 to keep the Metro open if a weeknight playoff game runs late?

None of these stories have been done, but I don't blame Nats beat reporters Adam Kilgore and James Wagner, who have done a good job covering the MASN developments but don't have the time to spend doing the stories I suggested. They have a full-time beat: covering a baseball team playing almost every day in a pennant race. No, the Post--which has gone on a hiring spree lately and has added, or plans to add, a national NBA reporter, two national college sports reporters and a stats blogger--should have a reporter covering the incredibly important subjects of sports business and media.

Think of all the stories a full-time sports media and business reporter could cover just involving local teams, before he even gets to possible national stories:

  • The new partnership between the Washington Times and the Redskins--what does that mean for both parties?
  • If the Redskins did change their name, what are the financial implications?
  • Ted Leonsis and his online Monumental Network--what are his plans? Will he turn Monumental his own cable network to broadcast his teams' games when their current TV contracts run out? And how do the affiliations he's forged with a number of local fan blogs factor into his media plans?
  • How much do the Wizards and Caps make from their local TV contracts? Leonsis has said in the past that one reason the Caps have not been profitable under his ownership (at least according to him) is a poor TV contract. With the bubble in rights fees still expanding and the Caps contract up soon (apparently in 2015) as well as a huge rise in the NHL's Canadian TV contract, what are the implications for a Caps team that should be well into the black?
  • The Wizards lost $13 million last season, the second biggest loss of any team in the league. How and why?
  • Local TV ratings for the Nats regular season and Wizards playoff run were both lower than many expected. Why is that? Something about the city, the particular teams, or something else?
Dan Steinberg does cover some of these issues--particularly the local ratings issues--in the DC Sports Bog, and frequently does a fine job of it. But like Kilgore and Wagner, he's also got a full-time beat which doesn't allow him to spend the kind of time researching and reporting on these issues that a full-time media and business reporter would have.

You'd think that a sports business/media reporter should fit into the Washington Post's new philosophy of trying to get as many Web clicks as possible. No one else is covering these subjects at all in the local Washington, DC sports media, and very few are covering them nationally (Sports Business Journal, Richard Sandomir of the New York Times and Deadspin are the only ones covering sports business type issues on any kind of regular or semi-regular basis that I know of, with a few other writers and publications covering sports media). 

I'm sure someone is saying that no one is interested in sports media and business--that readers would rather just read about the games and the players. And for some people, maybe that's true. But with pretty much every game now on television, with television rights providing huge profits to owners of teams and with ticket costs continuing to rise and price out many average fans, reporting on the business of sports is more important than ever. The Post not covering these issues in a significant way is like the politics section covering the presidential race but rarely writing about the television ads that the campaigns are running or the money that the campaigns are raising. It would be missing a huge part of the story.

But that's what the Post is doing by giving such little attention to sports business and media. And it's missing a great story about really rich people fighting, too.


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