Commissioner Bud Selig said there is a "good chance" the bitter dispute between the Washington Nationals and Baltimore Orioles over rights fees from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network will be resolved before he retires in January 2015, for the first time placing a target date to reach an accord on a contentious, pivotal issue.
As rights fees have skyrocketed across the sports landscape, the Nationals and Orioles have squabbled for four years over profits from MASN, the regional sports network that broadcasts both teams' games. Selig and Major League Baseball intervened to prevent litigation and find a solution.
Speaking Tuesday at the annual Baseball Writers Association of America luncheon, Selig expressed optimism a deal will be struck in the next six months.
"We've spent an enormous amount of time," Selig said. "We're working through a lot of really tough detail. When you have two clubs that have differences of opinions, they're very complex subjects. My objective is to keep away from what used to go in this sport, where you had owners fighting owners publicly. So we're working through a lot of difficulty. I'm satisfied we're at least moving in the right direction."
When asked if he believed the resolution would come before his retirement, Selig replied, "I would say there's a good chance, yes," he said.
The optimism struck a chord because of Selig's pessimism on other issues. Prior to addressing MASN negotiations, he conceded that stadium issues in Tampa Bay and Oakland would not be solved before he retires.
"There are some problems that take longer to solve than others," Selig said.
In recent years, Selig has shied from timetables and specifics, stating only that issued had dragged on longer than he thought, never suggesting the end may be in sight.
The Orioles and owner Peter Angelos have fought to protect the contractual promises made when the Nationals moved from Montreal in 2005. The Lerner family and the Nationals have sought to increase their share of profits from rights fees, which would allow the billionaires to increase payroll.
MASN is controlled primarily by the Orioles and Angelos. When MLB relocated the Expos, in order to convince Angelos to give up territorial rights, it gave Angelos and his sports network the rights to broadcast Nationals games.
The Nationals have asked for between $100 million and $120 million per year, far more than the $29 million they received in the 2011 season. They have sought to enjoy the same skyrocketing increases in television rights as other teams, particularly those also in the top 10 markets.
MASN and the Orioles proposed paying Washington $34 million for the 2012 season, arguing that their proposal extrapolated over the next 20 years totaled more than $2 billion, including the increasing equity stakes.
The Nationals' stake in MASN reached 15 percent this season and, by the terms of the contract, nudges higher by one percent each year until it reaches 30 percent. Based on the proposal of MASN and the Orioles, the rights fee amount would have increased to just less than $37 million in 2013 with an equity stake payment of $8 million.
The Nationals have felt hamstrung by the delay in finding a mutually agreeable solution. The issue has remained stagnant, but if Selig is right, the impasse may end soon.