- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 18, 2002

The endgame in the three-decades-long struggle to return the self-styled national pastime to the national capital or its surrounding region is about to begin in earnest. The lords of baseball and the prospective ownership groups will be extremely interested in the discussion that will occur this evening, when two committees of the D.C. Council (finance and economic development) hold a joint meeting. The agenda includes a discussion of a recent stadium-site evaluation report and the extent to which the District's elected representatives believe public funds should be spent building the ballpark.

The report identified five possible locations in the District for a big-league stadium. Depending upon the site, the costs for a 41,000-seat ballpark with 90 luxury suites and 2,000 high-priced club seats range between $342 million (RFK Stadium area) and $542 million (Mount Vernon Square). The likely tenant has been known for years. As early as the 2004 season, the perennially financially strapped Montreal Expos, a team that is collectively owned by baseball's other 29 franchises, could be playing baseball in RFK Stadium, the team's temporary home until a new ballpark is built.

Both Major League Baseball (MLB), a multi-billion-dollar entertainment industry, and the prospective ownership groups, which comprise some of the wealthiest businessmen in the region, are keenly interested in having taxpayers fork over as big a chunk as possible to finance their playpen.

The interest of the 29 owners is clear: The more public money extorted to build the ballpark, the more dollars baseball's 29 current owners can extract from the D.C. ownership group that wins the likely bidding process. In February, MLB purchased the Expos for $120 million. For the 2002 and 2003 seasons, MLB will likely spend $60 million keeping the franchise afloat.

Make no mistake: The owners are salivating over the "capital gain" they expect to extort from the winning D.C. ownership group. They know that the Cleveland Indians, which once was virtually bankrupt, fetched an astonishing $320 million in 1999. And they know that in 1998 the Cleveland Browns, an expansion football team, commanded $530 million in a bidding contest. Most important of all, the baseball owners know why: The fact that both teams play in publicly financed stadiums caused their franchise values to soar far beyond what they otherwise would have been. For their two-year cumulative investment of roughly $180 million in the Expos, baseball owners expect to receive as much as $350 million for the team and perhaps more, depending upon the intensity of the likely bidding.

Of course, the various D.C.-area groups competing for the franchise know that the value of their investment will largely depend upon the extent to which they can convince elected officials to commit taxpayer money for a revenue-gushing, state-of-the-art ballpark. Luxury suites. Club seats. Personal seat licenses. Naming rights. Parking fees. Concessions revenue. Signage. Broadcast rights in a hugely upscale, largely untapped market. If taxpayers were to bear much of the risk by financing a ballpark, the largest physical investment expenditure a team will have, the sky would be the limit for profits to be realized by already-wealthy, now publicly subsidized, relatively risk-free owners.

The D.C. Council should repudiate Mayor Anthony Williams' ill-advised offer of $200 million in public subsidies. Necessary infrastructure improvements? Yes. Corporate welfare? Never.

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