- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Communications executive Jeff Smulyan, who is heading one of the groups vying to own the Washington Nationals, said the team’s current television contract is “not the best deal” and suggested that his experience in broadcasting will help him negotiate better terms for the franchise.

The CEO of Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications also rejected criticism that he is an outsider looking to cash in on the District’s success. He is competing against seven groups looking to pay at least $450 million for the Nationals, and touted his bid and local partners before editors and reporters of The Washington Times yesterday.

“The team will have the revenue and the payroll to win,” said Smulyan, who previously owned the Seattle Mariners between 1989 and 1992. “This team has been profitable and will be profitable.”

He said that to reach higher payroll and turn a steady profit he will push for the Nationals to get a larger share of the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, created as part of an agreement with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Major League Baseball, as compensation for the Nationals’ move to the region. Under the deal, the Orioles will own at least two-thirds of the network despite operating in a smaller market.

“It’s not the best deal, clearly we know that,” Smulyan said. “If you look at the two markets together, it’s disproportionate.”

Smulyan and his partners said they could use their knowledge of the broadcasting industry to help spread the distribution of MASN, possibly gaining a larger share of the network in exchange. Currently, MASN can only be seen on DirecTV and RCN Cable, with about half the games on WDCA Channel 20.

“If [Smulyan] can go to Angelos and say 50 percent of 2,000 is better than 60 percent of 1,000, he can increase penetration, increase the revenue and show Angelos how to make it work better,” said prominent District banker Bob Pincus, a minority partner in the bid who headed an unsuccessful effort to bring baseball to the District in 1991.

Smulyan also said he believes he can help end the dispute between MASN and Comcast, which has refused to carry the network on its cable systems, leaving thousands of area fans unable to watch Nationals games.

“There are people who believe we might be helpful, simply because I’ve been in the broadcast business for so many years,” he said. “Obviously there’s something that needs to be done. … The fact that people in Washington can’t see those games on cable is not good.”

MLB is expected to pick an owner within the next month. City sources say Smulyan is being given a strong look along with a group headed by District businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients and another by the Lerner family, which runs a large real estate company in Bethesda.

Smulyan’s local partners include Pincus, former Washington Redskins Charles Mann, Calvin Hill and Art Monk, TV One chairman Alfred Liggins, business executives Ernie and William Jarvis and Dick Wiley, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. The minority partners are expected to put forth at least $100 million for their share of the team.

“He’s committed to this community,” Pincus said. “We are a strong group of local investors. This is not a carpetbagger coming in here.”

Mayor Anthony Williams has long endorsed the Malek and Zients group. In a letter to MLB last week, councilman Vincent Orange (D-Ward 5) said an owner from outside the city would be “unacceptable” because the city would lose out on several million dollars in annual tax revenue.

Observers of ownership trends said a local owner was more important during times when relocation of teams was rampant. Now, Major League Baseball is more stable and is less likely to approve a move unless a team is truly struggling, like in the case of the Montreal Expos.

“Ownership is very close to irrelevant,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and an expert on the business of baseball. “Frankly, I don’t think it matters a great deal. Someone who puts up $450million on an asset will do their best to make it a successful proposition.”

Smulyan has been meeting with city officials and is friendly with Stephen Goldsmith, chairman of the Anacostia Waterfront Corporation, the new agency that will direct development around the ballpark site in Southeast. Goldsmith, who has not endorsed an ownership group, is a former Republican mayor of Indianapolis and the two both serve on the board of directors of Finish Line, an Indianapolis athletic shoe company.

“I’ve had long conversations with Steve,” Smulyan said. “He’s a good friend. When this process was starting, we had some long talks about the opportunities along the Anacostia. This hopefully will be an area that gets redeveloped and creates a major economic benefit.”

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