In a city with two sports teams and a major regional sports TV network that’s owned by one of them, conflict is inevitable.
So, when the Ravens sat down at the negotiating table with the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) last spring to hammer out the details of a new contract, the football team was prepared for a difficult negotation but maintained confidence a deal would get done for their pre-season games and weekly TV shows such as The John Harbaugh Show.
Instead, the Ravens abruptly lost their broadcast partner last week in an 11th-hour flip by MASN owner Peter Angelos, who also owns the rival sports franchise in Baltimore, the MLB Orioles.
The two parties, led by high ranking officials from the Ravens and MASN, reached a verbal agreement on a new four-year deal in April. “It actually went more smoothly than we thought it might,” said a Ravens source. “We went in asking that our old four-year deal just be renewed under the same terms and conditions and they (MASN) were agreeable. The deal was beneficial for both of us. MASN got winter programming exclusive to their network and we were able to bring the shows that comprised Rave TV to the Ravens fan base throughout the Mid Atlantic.”
There were a few new twists to the agreement, including more prominently placed signage for MASN at M&T Bank Stadium and the installation of permanent fiber-optic wiring in the press rooms at the stadium to give MASN the highest quality production capabilities.
“We put in an extensive amount of work and product in June and July,” said a Maryland Stadium Authority source, who was part of the team that supervised the installation. “And the Ravens paid for all of it.”
At stake now, are various forms of Ravens-exclusive programming that range from weekly shows to pre- and post-game specials for both home and away games.
“The deal is dead,” said a Ravens source. “Angelos killed it at the end of July when our staff was already on the street selling packages.”
A MASN source who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the change in the agreement occurred earlier in the summer when Orioles majority owner and MASN managing partner Peter Angelos got involved. When the two parties consummated their first deal in 2006, the elder Angelos wasn’t involved in the final stages of the negotiation. It was more John Angelos and other officials, who were just launching the money-making regional network after the birth of Washington Nationals spawned the deal.
An insider on that initial deal said: “It was a perfect marriage. The Ravens didn’t want to deal with Comcast Sportsnet, which was featuring Washington Redskins programming and treated Baltimore and the Ravens like a second-class citizen. MASN was just getting started and needed fall and winter programming and credibility and market awareness. They had a presence and partnership with the best brand in Baltimore. Everyone was happy!”
This time around, though, citing changes in the upper management structure of MASN, Peter Angelos stepped in after a verbal agreement was made in April and the deal was ready to be signed in late spring.
“Peter didn’t like the deal once he read through it all and saw the terms,” said a MASN source. “He contended that a network should NEVER pay a team a rights fee for programming if it’s not all entirely live. So we had to go back to the Ravens and tell them we weren’t going to pay them the same fee we had provided in the past. We knew it was about to get ugly.”
A source familiar with the negotiations said MASN went to the Ravens with an offer that included a “greatly reduced rights fee” and the freedom for MASN to re-run the exclusive Ravens programming with no additional compensation to the football organization.
At first, it didn’t get ugly because the Ravens weren’t totally sure what the new offer or new terms were going to be. But, eschewing the history of how the Orioles and MASN conduct business under Angelos, they remained patient, hopeful and confident that a deal was sensible and reachable.
“We couldn’t really figure out what they wanted,” says a Ravens source. “They would always talk in generalities like, ‘We need to re-work some things’ and they’d never be real specific about what they wanted changed or what the offer was.”
“We called in early June to remind them that the deal needed to be signed and we were told then that some parts of it hadn’t yet been approved by Mr. Angelos and that they’d get back to us with some revisions.”
As has been customary and legendary from those in the MLB world who’ve dealt with Angelos, those revisions sat on Angelos’ desk for weeks and the “official answer” never came.
Just after the July 4th holiday, the Ravens again contacted MASN and asked for the signed deal so they could continue selling advertising and sponsorships for the various MASN-aired programming.
“We were getting nervous by then,” a Ravens staffer said. “We pressed them a little bit for a signed contract, and that’s when we were told the original deal wasn’t going to be honored,” explained a Ravens source. “We were told at that point that Peter wasn’t happy about paying a rights fee and that he wanted to speak directly with owner Steve Bisciotti.”
The MASN source explained it like this: “Peter never wants to talk to a mid-level or high-level employee. It’s the top of the ladder or nothing.”
That apparently was Ravens president Dick Cass, who allegedly met with Angelos.
“One of Steve’s fundamental beliefs is that he employs good people who understand his business and that’s what he pays them for – to conduct business on his behalf,” said the Ravens staffer. “When Steve got wind of the Angelos request, he said, ‘I don’t need to talk with him about this. You people know much more about this than I do. Get the deal done!’ ”
So that became an issue that no one at either MASN or the Ravens could fix. One person – Angelos – who didn’t want to talk to anyone BUT the owner and another person – Bisciotti – who felt it wasn’t his position to interfere with his people’s work.
“It’s not like Peter suddenly started operating like this,” said the MASN source. “When the time comes for the deal to get done or not, he wants to look the other guy right in the eye or at the very least speak directly with the person on the other end who is his equivalent. This time around, it backfired on us.”
It backfired when the Ravens made a final inquiry in late July and were told that MASN’s position wasn’t changing. A reduction in the rights fee was now the only valid offer and Angelos was adamant that Bisciotti get involved during the final days of negotiation.
Bisciotti eventually did call Angelos, but he did so to simply tell the MASN head honcho, “My people say this deal is no good for us, so we’re going to pass.”
In the aftermath, the MASN public relations people tried to soft-peddle the break-up in early August by claiming the split was amicable. MASN spokesman Todd Webster included a “we wish the Ravens nothing but success” throwaway line when commenting to the local media, most of whom who are on the payroll or in the profit chain of MASN or Angelos himself.
(A request to speak on the record with members of the MASN executive staff about this exclusive story at WNST.net was refused.)
But WNST.net is reporting that the “split” was anything but amicable.
“We’re basically six weeks from the start of the season with a sales package on the street and a handshake for a deal from April and an existing relationship and they pulled the rug out from under us,” says the Ravens source . “There’s no way that’s going to be amicable.”
The MASN source interviewed for this exclusive piece says the Ravens knew in early June there was a potential roadblock with the deal.
“They knew as soon as Peter (Angelos) got involved there was potentially going to be trouble. They knew the deal was shaky at that point.”
When given that response, a Ravens staffer pointed to to the recent work done at M&T Bank Stadium. “If we really thought the deal was in trouble, we wouldn’t have spent all that money to get the stadium ready for MASN.”
A Maryland Stadium Authority source said MASN remains a valuable working partner but they acknowledge it’s not always a bed of roses working with them. “They’ve been involved in some battles with Comcast and WBAL at the baseball stadium that got very ugly. It almost always relates to money and it always involves Peter. And it’s always a last minute kind of thing. That’s their M.O. They wait until the last minute to start trying to get things done.”
And that’s how the deal with the Ravens eventually ended. “We just ran out of time,” says a Ravens staffer. “We had their (MASN) signage up, so that had to come down, and our people are out now trying to re-sell it. We have shows to produce with sponsors lined up and there’s nowhere to air them. We’re scrambling now.”
The break-up with MASN and loss of key programming doesn’t just hurt the Ravens financially – “we were nearly sold out of inventory” the Ravens source said – but it puts a crimp on their regional branding and marketing efforts.
“We count on that programming to satisfy our fans’ needs in the outlying areas that are important to us like Frederick, Hagerstown, York, Harrisburg and Lancaster,” said a Ravens official. “That’s one of the reasons we like MASN so much. They truly are regional for us. And that’s important.”
One local media expert says the break-up was not only initiated by MASN, but might have come more as a result of sagging sales efforts.
“The real truth of the whole relationship with the Ravens is that MASN’s heart was never in it. They just wanted to take something away from Comcast,” said the media source. “They probably lost a lot of money over the last few years with their Ravens programming and they’re getting paid the same amount by a few million subscribers whether the Ravens are on the network or whether they’re airing Hawaiian League Baseball.”
So why enter into a business agreement with the Ravens? What’s in it for MASN?
“They (MASN) owned inventory in each of those Ravens programs, anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes depending on the show and its length,” the media source explained. “And MASN needs to sell that commercial inventory to make up for the rights fee they hand over to the Ravens. If they can’t sell it, the whole relationship becomes a loser for MASN, except they have relevant programming to plug in during the winter months.”
“All you have to do is follow the Orioles broadcasts on MASN and you can pretty much figure out they’re having a tough time selling commercials in the baseball games. I guess you have to ask yourself, ‘If we can’t sell all the ad space in the live programming we air 162 times a year with a Major League Baseball team, what are the odds we can sell ad space in the football season with taped shows?’ And if they were forking over $100,000 or so to the Ravens for the rights fee, that’s a lot of advertising to sell just to make that up, let alone make a profit out of it.”
A Ravens source would not confirm the amount of money MASN provided to the football team, saying only, “It was a six figure deal with our benefit being that we owned most of the time to sell to our corporate partners.”
The local media expert figures that MASN spent the early part of the spring and summer trying to sell their portion of advertising. And when they couldn’t, they decided to go back to the Ravens and change the deal.
“That happens a lot,” says the media source. “You’re on the hook for a lot of money and you figure you’ll sell enough to offset it. When you initially go out and try to sell it and you can’t, you get nervous and try to change the fee structure.”
The Ravens continue to work hard to try and have their programming in place by Labor Day. WNST has been told that Comcast SportsNet is not an option for them.
One less-appealing option is WBAL TV’s digital channel, which would serve as an olive branch from the Ravens since they’d likely make no revenue from the arrangement with WBAL.
“We’d be doing that because we want to help our broadcast partner out,” said a Ravens staffer. “We clearly wouldn’t be involved in the same kind of rights fee deal we had with MASN, but the programming would air and that’s what’s most important at this point.”
The other obvious answer would be to air the unique programming of Rave TV on the team website, which could drive more traffic to their online hub.
The fallout of Steve Bisciotti vs. Peter Angelos and Orioles vs. Ravens will continue to be monitored at WNST.net.