- - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

There was once a story that Derek Jeter used to give out “gift bags” to overnight female visitors – a tale that Jeter denied.

Too bad. He might need all the gift bags he can acquire to get people into Marlins Park to watch his new baseball team.

Jeter is the face of the new ownership group that has reportedly purchased the Miami Marlins for $1.2 billion (pending approval) – a hefty price for a baseball team that loses money and that no one in South Florida particularly cares about.

Then again, there are only 30 such positions available – Major League Baseball franchise ownership – so if you want to get into the club, you pay the freight, even for a dog of a franchise like the Marlins.

Baseball would seem like a natural in the state of Florida – since the state has been the home of spring training for half the baseball teams in Major League Baseball. Yet the two teams in the state – the Tampa Bay Rays and the Marlins – are perennially bottom feeders in attendance.

Yes, they have different problems – the Rays play in the worst ballpark in baseball, the antiquated domed Tropicana Field, and Tampa is a market lacking big corporate dollars and a fan base on fixed incomes (the NFL franchise, the Buccaneers, struggles to sell out games).

The Marlins play in South Florida, where there is no shortage of money, legal and illegal, but there is no shortage of entertainment, legal and illegal – and three hours at a baseball games doesn’t appear to compete very well, even in the Cuban community, where baseball is a legacy sport. Frankly, unless you are fielding a championship team, it is a terrible spectator sports market.

Yet the Jeter-group was willing to pay $1.2 million for the privilege of this challenge. Why?

Consider this: the departing owner, Jeffrey Loria, purchased the team for $150 million in 2002. Over the last 15 years, the value of baseball franchises has increased 500 percent.

That’s a pretty good return on investment – and actually, the Marlins were sold at an undervalued price, considering the Seattle Mariners were sold by Nintendo last year to a minority investor at a $1.4 million valuation.

So now Nationals fans will have Derek Jeter as a rival in the National League East – and another chapter is written in the remarkable story of the three-franchise deal in 2002 that wound up with the return of baseball to Washington. And Jeffrey Loria was likely the driving force behind the trifecta franchise deal.

Loria, whose profession was that of an art dealer, once owned the Class AAA Oklahoma City minor league club. He nearly wound up buying the Orioles in 1993, losing out to Peter Angelos in a bidding war in bankruptcy court, coming up $1 million short of the $173 million winning bid by Angelos.

Loria resurfaced in 1999, brought in by commissioner Bud Selig to infuse money in the struggling Expos. Loria reportedly used his $50 million investment to become the team’s managing general partner, and eventually bought out other partners who could smell the death of baseball in Montreal until he owned nearly 100 percent of the team.

Then, in a stroke of luck for Loria, the Boston Red Sox were on the market, and Selig wanted to engineer the sale of that storied franchise to a group that included former Orioles owner Larry Lucchino, former San Diego Padres owners Tom Werner and Florida Marlins owner John Henry.

Loria was then given the money he needed to buy the Marlins from Henry for $150 million when Major League Baseball took the Expos off his hands for $120 million. That set the stage for baseball to move the franchise to Washington three years later, and then the sale to the Lerners in 2006 for $450 million (what do you think the return on that investment is now for the Lerners? Forbes latest franchise value for Washington is $1.6 billion).

Perhaps the biggest question in all of this is why was baseball so willing to bend over backward to help Loria, who would never win a Dale Carnegie contest. They steered him into the Expos ownership and then took the franchise off his hands, giving him a chance to buy the Marlins. Now Loria gets to cash out with a $1.2 billion sale.

That’s a heck of a gift bag from Major League Baseball.

• Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.

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