- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2002

Washington's hot pursuit of a Major League Baseball team is expected to lure additional suitors, MLB officials and current bidders say, but existing covenants involving the District of Columbia and Virginia governments will present significant obstacles for any new bid.

In recent days, Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder and Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson have expressed interest in owning a Washington-based baseball team, and additional area bidders are expected to surface in the coming months.

Any new bids, however, will need to mesh into an ongoing quest for baseball now entering its 31st year. In Northern Virginia, a bid group led by telecommunications executive William Collins has paid $3.6million to the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority since 1997 to be the Commonwealth's favored party with MLB. And in the District, a recently signed two-year pact between the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission and Fred Malek provides the group led by the District financier an exclusive window to use RFK Stadium for baseball and negotiate with the city to build a new baseball-only stadium.

Both contracts can and might be shelved if MLB issues a firm directive concerning baseball in Washington falling outside the scope of those agreements. But the parties involved believe their pacts demonstrate to MLB their commitment to local baseball and provide protection against rival bids.

"We are still renegotiating a new agreement with the Stadium Authority, but we think our exclusivity is pretty strong," said Mike Scanlon, spokesman for the Collins group. The group, comprised of nearly two dozen area businessmen and corporations, is expected to sign an extension to its deal with the stadium authority later this month. The current accord expires May31. "We're always willing to talk to anybody interested in helping bring baseball to Virginia, but we've been at this a long time."

After more than three decades of frustration, hopes for a local team have resurfaced strongly following a January comment by MLB commissioner Bud Selig in which he said relocation was coming to baseball "much, much sooner than later," and that Washington is "the prime candidate" for a team move.

Snyder and Johnson declined to comment yesterday, and little is known about the details of their interest in baseball. The pair have not made any contact with either MLB or the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, and have not articulated any ideas about a potential location for a new stadium, how to pay for it or how their interest differs from that of Malek or Collins. In his stewardship of the Redskins, Snyder has turned the franchise into the top money generator in all of professional sports. But he is also working with his fourth head coach in less than three years, and other efforts, such as fielding an Arena Football League team and moving training camp to Redskin Park, have either sputtered or been delayed.

Johnson has unsuccessfully sought to purchase several sports teams, including the Washington Wizards and Charlotte Hornets. The Collins group, through an intermediary, sought out Johnson to join their group about seven years ago, but he declined.

Bobby Goldwater, DCSEC executive director, said the Snyder-Johnson interest helps validate Washington as a partial solution for baseball's numerous fiscal woes. But the Malek deal requires the commission to use "its reasonable best efforts" to promote that group as the preferred local owners. The contract stipulates that if any other bidder secures an MLB franchise during the exclusivity period, the Malek group must receive either the opportunity to buy a minimum of 10 percent of the team, or a recoupment of expenses and lost opportunity costs of up to $4million.

"Today, we are working with the Malek group. We believe that presents the best chance right now to help bring baseball to the District," Goldwater said. "If baseball mandates something else, we'll need to go in that direction. We are trying to make ourselves as prepared as possible for baseball, and this agreement is certainly part of that."

The genesis of both agreements was to demonstrate to MLB a relationship between the bid groups and their respective governments, and how those relationships could more quickly lead to public financing for new stadiums. In both Northern Virginia and the District, plans are now beginning to lay the outline for new ballparks costing between $300million and $400million.

The Collins and Malek groups, meanwhile, have also made overtures to each other about partially merging should MLB place a team in the area.

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