- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 22, 2002

Recent weeks have been rather tough on the Washington area's pursuit of baseball. Just as the game's leaders secured labor peace and put off any elimination of teams for four years and a move of the beleaguered Montreal Expos appeared close at hand, tough questions have circulated around baseball and many media circles.
Where would a new stadium go? How would it be financed? Is the ownership prepared to absorb eight-figure losses while operating at RFK Stadium? Isn't RFK dilapidated? Is the fan base truly sufficient to support a team?
These are all fair questions, and ones groups led by Fred Malek in the District and Bill Collins in Northern Virginia are working to address. But when you add this increased level of scrutiny to baseball's ongoing, formal consideration of the Expos' future, it lessens the hope of baseball in town for 2003, and maybe much longer than that. A tentative lease deal for the Expos to play another year at Olympic Stadium is in place and all it lacks is a declaration from baseball that the Expos will be in Quebec for 2003 and the signing of those documents.
As a result of this pressure, bid groups in both the District and Northern Virginia are aiming to put the questions to rest once and for all in the next few months. In the District, a document containing several proposed sites for a ballpark, backed by traffic, environmental and economic studies, as well as prospective financing models will be presented to the public in early October and to MLB soon thereafter.
Malek's group also has been working with design and planning firm NBBJ to develop a detailed task list for the renovation of RFK Stadium, which would be the home of any local team for at least three years.
"The idea, obviously, is for baseball to have a very clear idea what our vision for the city and baseball is, while still providing some flexibility for baseball to have input," said Winston Lord, executive director for the Malek-led Washington Baseball Club.
In Northern Virginia, meanwhile, talk of a conditional award of a franchise has picked up some steam. In that scenario, the local area would receive a team only after specific targets on ticket, luxury seat and sponsorship sales, media contracts and stadium financing are met. This conditional model for relocation has been used frequently in the NBA and NFL and forms a part of the expansion process in any pro sport.
At the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority's meeting last week, executive director Gabe Paul said he has told MLB that he would be open to such a situation, primarily as a way to get around the game of chicken that appears to be developing around baseball in Washington. MLB executives ideally would like a signed promise from prospective local ownership and government for a stadium before awarding a team. The local entities, conversely, would like a team first.
"The days of building a stadium on a [speculative] basis are over," said Michael Frey, Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority chairman. "You can no longer expect elected officials to get into any large building project without knowing the entity is actually coming."
District baseball advocates, also confident that any defined targets for landing and supporting a team could be met once presented, similarly have backed the idea of a conditional award.
"A final package for a new stadium, in our minds, absolutely requires the input and guidance of Major League Baseball," said Bobby Goldwater, executive director of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. "That's exactly the sort of conversation we want to have with them."
The Northern Virginia contingent also is a few weeks away from selecting an architect to design a ballpark for the commonwealth and aims to have a new plan for financing presented to legislators in Richmond in January. That last part, however, remains a tough task in light of Virginia's ongoing budget crisis.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and timing is sensitive. Baseball executives, particularly commissioner Bud Selig and president Bob DuPuy, want to conduct a thorough, measured study of their options for the Expos. They also don't want to botch another entry into a new market as they did Tampa Bay and Miami. That tilts the scales in favor of remaining in Montreal next year.
The Expos, however, remain one of the worst draws in baseball, and are the game's worst revenue producer. Keeping together this year's competitive team would likely require boosting payroll from $37million to nearly $60million, money that won't be found if the club stays under MLB ownership. And there is no guarantee the talents of manager Frank Robinson and general manager Omar Minaya can be retained in that tenuous situation. That tilts the scales in favor of moving before next year.
"Keeping the Expos in Montreal another year is certainly not an ideal situation," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports industry consultant who has worked on several team relocations. "But when you combine the franchise cost, a new stadium, initial losses on team operations, and in the case of Washington, possible indemnification to the [Baltimore] Orioles, you're talking something close to three quarters of a billion dollars. That's a huge responsibility for any city.
"So the best thing for baseball is to conduct this like an expansion, make it competitive, and see what cities really do want to have this," Ganis said.

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