- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 10, 2002

Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson said yesterday he has not put in any official bid to purchase the Montreal Expos.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that Johnson had told Major League Baseball he wanted to purchase 51 percent of the Expos and move the team to the District; the report referred to the offer as a bid.

But Johnson told The Washington Times yesterday that he has only had "informal conversations with Major League Baseball representatives" about acquiring a franchise and has given them nothing in writing. As far as his 51 percent plan, Johnson said he "put that concept in the [Post]." Major League Baseball officials could not be reached for comment on Johnson's plan.

Johnson said he will meet today with District Sports and Entertainment officials to discuss the future of major league baseball in the city and funding for a new ballpark.

Johnson also told The Post the city would have to build the stadium. But yesterday he said he expected that anyone who wanted to own a team in the District would have to contribute to the construction of a ballpark.

"From what I have been told, [the District is] looking for a private-public partnership, so the owner will have to put up some money," Johnson said.

Johnson said under his plan, he would purchase 51 percent of the Expos, leaving baseball with the remaining 49 percent. Over the next three or four years, Johnson and the remainder of his ownership group would purchase the 49 percent share of the team to complete the deal. Johnson said Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder would be one of the minority owners in the 49 percent group.

The 29 existing owners shared in the purchase last winter and operation of the Expos, whose losses could be as much as $40million this year and $60million next year if the team stays in Montreal.

"I've got to think that Major League Baseball recognizes the problem they face," Johnson said. "They have a team that the league owns that is losing $30million a year, with only a few viable cities to move the team [to]. A stadium will have to be built and the owner will have to put up a significant amount of money to finance the stadium, and if the owner has to put up a huge amount of money for the team, it will be almost impossible for someone to buy a Major League Baseball team. The way it is now, the league will have to carry those losses for three or four more years, because they can't contract the team now.

"What I propose is a way out of the dilemma," Johnson said. "They can cut their losses in half by selling the team and allow it to move to the District. Then they would get their upside in the back end when their 49 percent ownership is acquired, based on the value of a Washington, D.C., franchise, instead of a losing franchise in Montreal. I would share in the losses for a few years, and their 49 percent in the back end would have significant value."

The Washington Baseball Club, the ownership group led by financier Fred Malek, has an exclusivity agreement with the District for the use of RFK Stadium until a new ballpark could be constructed. But Robert Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said the terms of the agreement allow the District to welcome other ownership groups, under certain conditions.

"If baseball designates another ownership group, they could negotiate the use of the stadium," Goldwater said.

Winston Lord, executive director of the Washington Baseball Club, said they would not stand in the way of another group seeking to bring a baseball team to Washington if they were successful.

"We have always said that our primary goal is to return baseball back to the District," Lord said.

Under the terms of its exclusivity agreement with the District, the Washington Baseball Club has the opportunity to invest up to 10 percent in any ownership group and be reimbursed up to $4million for their work in that effort.

Currently there are no black owners in major league baseball. Both Johnson and the Washington Baseball Club, whose general partners include Frank Raines, chairman of Fannie Mae, would give baseball the opportunity to change that.

Both the Malek group and Virginia Baseball, the group led by telecommunications executive William Collins, which wants to put a franchise in northern Virginia, have already submitted bids to purchase the Expos. Tonight, the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority will select an architect for its plans to build a ballpark. That choice became apparent yesterday when HOK, one of two architecture firms under consideration, dropped out of the process, leaving HKS as the lone firm under consideration.

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