- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 19, 2002

Robert Johnson, newly anointed owner of an NBA expansion franchise in Charlotte, N.C., said yesterday he still intends to bid for a District-based baseball team.
But the billionaire who just beat NBA legend and rival Charlotte bidder Larry Bird in a $300million game of franchise poker will face another series of major hurdles before he could add a second sports team.
Among Johnson's unresolved baseball issues: No sports team owner in modern history has assumed control of two major league teams in different markets within six months; Major League Baseball intends to make a decision on where to relocate the Montreal Expos by next summer. Also, Johnson himself acknowledges Charlotte is currently his primary sports priority.
And Johnson yesterday again said he believes the District must pay "the lion's share" of a new baseball stadium projected to cost between $342million and $542million, a tough assumption considering the District recently closed a $323million budget gap next year and continues to fret about helping fund a ballpark project.
However, a new District-based baseball stadium will not be financed in any way using general fund revenues from the city sgovernment, D.C. Council members Harold Brazil and Jack Evans said yesterday.
The statement is not surprising, considering the recent cuts made by the city and the fact that financier Fred Malek, head of a District-based bid group for baseball, has never sought general fund money for a stadium. But the comment, along with bullish support from Brazil and Evans for seeking a team, represents the strongest and most significant stance by the Council in Washington's 31-year campaign to bring back baseball.
But Johnson who is now the first black to hold majority control of a team in the four major sports leagues said he is not concerned about the odds against having a hand in both. The founder of Black Entertainment Television told Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, head of NBA expansion committee and owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, that he will continue to pursue baseball. Johnson also hsd been in contact in recent days with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, an influential member of MLB's new Expos relocation committee, as well as District officials to reconfirm his quest for baseball in the city.
"I'm still committed to baseball," Johnson said. "I firmly believe I can do both. I told the NBA I intend to do both, and I believe both teams can be a real catalyst and asset to their communities. I remain anxious to learn of baseball's ultimate plans for the Expos."
Johnson, whose key partner is Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, additionally has an unconventional plan for purchasing the MLB-owned Expos: assuming only 51 percent of the team's equity from baseball initially and then buying the rest over several years. Such a model, while seen in other industries, is not common to pro sports.
The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission is halfway into a two-year agreement with Malek's bid group for exclusive negotiating rights to use RFK Stadium for baseball. And the two sides have collaborated on a detailed study that has produced five candidate sites for a District-based ballpark. The study was sent to MLB executives last month.
But the agreement still allows baseball to designate its chosen owner if Washington receives a team. If MLB picks somebody besides Malek and his partners, they would receive either an opportunity to buy up to 10 percent of the D.C. team or be reimbursed up to $4million for their efforts. As a result, sports commission executives have remained in contact with Johnson.
"The relationship with Bob Johnson continues and will continue for some time," said John Richardson, sports commission chairman. "He continues to express interest in baseball."
The new Charlotte NBA team, quickly replacing the relocated Hornets, will begin play in the 2004-05 season and move a year later into a $260million downtown arena. Johnson beat out a bid group led by Bird and Boston businessman Steve Belkin, who until only days ago were thought of as clear favorites ahead of Johnson.
Both Johnson and NBA commissioner David Stern downplayed the role of race in the decision, instead highlighting Johnson's track record and liquid wealth. The self-made Johnson sold BET to Viacom in 2000 for $2.3billion in stock.
"Both groups had a lot to offer and we found ourselves wishing we could select both," Colangelo said. "But we are confident that Mr. Johnson's background, resources and track record of success in the entertainment industry will make him an outstanding NBA owner."
Johnson said he will maintain his primary residence in the Washington area and commute to Charlotte "as often as necessary."
The NBA Board of Governors will formally approve Johnson as owner of the still-unnamed Charlotte franchise next month.

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