Months of protest from baseball fans have finally scored a legal victory for a regional sports network. An arbitrator appointed by the Federal Communications Commission ruled this week that Time Warner Cable must carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network on its standard cable package.

MASN is a Maryland-based network that carries Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals games, as well as hundreds of NCAA football and basketball contests. The dispute between the network and the cable company began when Time Warner decided to carry MASN only on its digital tier, which is more expensive than the expanded basic service tier, which includes five sports channels. MASN spokesman Todd Webster says this effectively makes his network unavailable to more than a million cable customers in North Carolina. The company launched a protest campaign last summer that garnered support from the likes of Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker. (See “Heroes and Zeros,” Aug. 29, 2007.)

“The conclusion that Time Warner deliberately discriminated against MASN is inescapable from the documents and testimony,” arbitrator Jerome Sussman wrote in his decision. He speculated that the cable company’s motive for discrimination lies in its own channel, News 14 Carolina, which broadcasts some televised sports games and could be in a position to provide more sports coverage if MASN were out of business.

At a second round of arbitration in March, the arbitrator will decide the terms under which TWC must carry the network. Meanwhile, a Time Warner spokesperson says the company will appeal the decision.