The Lerners aren't cheap.
Subjectively this is easily proven. During the lean years we worried for a while that they would run this team solely to maximize profit, but the past few years have shown those worries to be misguided. The Lerners have spent more as the team has turned into a contender. They even spent enough to close in on a Top 5 payroll in 2015. Their payroll will likely be lower in 2016 but fears that they would revert all the way back to a 130 million or so "topped out" base were also unfounded. It appears they will find a happy middle, spend around 145 million and be close to, if not in, the Top 10 payrolls.
The Lerners spend this much while not having a great TV deal in comparison with other teams, meaning that a higher percentage of their revenues are put toward the team on the field.
So the MASN deal is understandable. There is a relationship between revenue and payroll. The team is already likely on the high end of that in comparison with other teams. If payroll has to go higher, then the revenue must go up just to maintain that relationship. That is expected to happen, one way or another, in the next couple of years as the MASN deal is re-jiggered. Whether the Nats get what the MLB promised them (come on, you know that is how it went down) or what is decided by the industry standard method, it will be more money. Putting off contracts until this money is expected to come in is the only way to make this work.
The Lerners are cheap
Objectively though things are different. Most outside team valuations confirm that almost all major league teams turn a profit. Washington is one of those that seemingly do. That could be even underselling what teams make. It isn't clear how much of the ancillary income is included in here. The MLBAM cut? Nearby parking owned by owners that isn't technically part of the club? Increased sale prices for land the owners bought up nearby the tax-payer financed stadium? Plus revenue doesn't consider the greatest money maker in the long run - the increased value of the team when sold.
Sports are one place where telling someone what to do with their money is understandable, even expected. You know when you buy into the business that the people that care about the product aren't just the few employed but millions of others who all wish for the same thing. Success for their team, namely championships. You are supposed to be running a team to win a title, not to compete regularly, and certainly not to make money for yourself.
So the MASN deal is just the extension of an sports owner doing what an owner does. Trying to maintain a steady (and fairly large) profit stream from their professional sports team. The Lerners could spend more and make less but they are not interested in that in the long haul. They have reached the point they are comfortable with. Now it's about maintaining payroll, about not spending more in order to ensure that money is made on this venture, potential wins are a secondary concern.
I've been pretty consistent on where I stand. The industry is cheap. MLB specifically but sports in general. The owners make a ton, they spend less than that and for what amounts to a toy for them but a lifeblood for millions of others that seems wrong. You should always press the owners to spend more because they can and they aren't. Payrolls aren't hard and fast limits against making or losing money, but arbitrary limits against making a whatever amount they wish to make. If an owner doesn't want to spend nearly all his profits on the team, he shouldn't be an owner.
Of course that's not how most fans think. We go by the standard operating procedures that we've seen done for as long as we've followed sports. Think of how we give managers an out for using their #4 best relief pitcher in a crucial spot in the 6th. That's just how everyone does it. We can't blame Joe Manager! We give owners the same sort of out for not spending. Everyone tries to make a bunch on sports. We can't blame Joseph Owner III!
Except we can, and we should. MASN isn't a reason. It's an excuse to keep up a facade. You can spend. You don't want to. Be honest at the very least. It's not like fans won't keep coming. We always do.