- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 12, 2005

NEW YORK — Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said yesterday he still is targeting a midsummer date to select a new owner for the Washington Nationals despite an ongoing lawsuit from Comcast SportsNet that creates significant uncertainty about the club’s future revenues from local TV.

“I know what I said before, and I’ll hold to my original timetable,” Selig said. “I still think this can be done by midsummer. The sooner the better.”

Meanwhile, Selig said the MLB-owned Nationals will have payroll flexibility for a potential pennant chase this summer. The team, 18-16 after last night’s 3-2 loss to Arizona, has been one of the foremost surprises of the season. But the Nationals also are heavily banged up after injuries to several key players, including second baseman Jose Vidro and Joey Eischen, their only left-handed pitcher.

“They will have flexibility. [Team president] Tony [Tavares] knows what he can do,” Selig said, declining to specify any potential increases in payroll.

As of Opening Day, the Nationals had a payroll of $48.6 million, 23rd out of 30 MLB teams.

“Any time if they want to expand the budget, I’ll be armed, ready and able to add payroll,” Nationals general manager Jim Bowden said last night. “But at this time, I have not been given approval to do that.”

Selig’s comments about selecting a new owner in two or three months comes as a shock to many industry observers. MLB executives previously had hoped to choose an owner by January and then by Opening Day. Extended negotiations with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to formalize the Orioles-controlled Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) to serve as rights-holder for both teams’ local TV distribution was the chief reason those timetables were not realized.

Privately, several prospective owners of the Nationals have heard in recent weeks from MLB executives that the Comcast lawsuit would indeed slow the process, as is widely expected.

To that end, interviews with each group to discuss its vision for baseball in Washington — a key step before formal bidding begins — have yet to be scheduled. About a month ago, each of the prospective groups reviewed terms of the Angelos-MLB television deal, but no formal steps in the Nationals ownership process have occurred since then.

“We’re very pleased the commissioner expects this process to move forward on a rapid basis,” said William Collins III, leader of one of nine groups seeking to purchase the club, last night.

Selig’s comments, however, essentially suggest one of two possibilities. Either he expects the lawsuit to be settled quickly and no longer be relevant to the Nationals or expects the process to move forward even with the Nationals’ TV picture still clouded.

Selig declined yesterday to comment on the substance of the CSN lawsuit. A formal response from both MLB and the Baltimore Orioles, each named as a defendant in the lawsuit, is expected by the end of next week.

CSN claims the creation of MASN violates the terms of its TV contract with the Orioles. The Orioles, as majority owners of MASN, intend to move their local pay TV games to the network no later than 2007. CSN, however, says such a move violates its contractual right to match financial terms offered by MASN, as well as providing an exclusive negotiating window until November.

The Nationals are involuntarily embroiled in the dispute because MASN controls the team’s local TV distribution, and one of the remedies CSN seeks in its lawsuit is an immediate halt to MASN operations. Local TV revenues are typically the second-highest revenue source for any MLB club behind ticket sales.

Waiting on a midsummer deadline is nothing new to close observers of MLB’s protracted relocation to Washington. Selig intended to name a new home for the Montreal Expos in time for the 2003 All-Star Game and then before the 2004 All-Star Game but did not announce the move until last September.

Even after MLB selects a new owner, it will take at least 30 to 60 days to close the transaction.

Tavares was not available for comment last night. But the Nationals payroll situation also promises to be a key story within baseball this summer. During the first three years of MLB’s ownership of the Expos, league executives have been quite loath to spend additional money on the roster, particularly because club fiscal losses are believed to have exceeded $30 million in both 2002 and 2003.

The Nationals, conversely, are projecting profits this season, due in large part to mushrooming merchandise and sponsorship sales, and home attendance expected to exceed 2.5 million for the season.

Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this article.

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