- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 21, 2003

Fred Malek’s Washington Baseball Club has reached a one-year extension of its exclusivity deal with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission, keeping WBC as the city’s preferred baseball ownership group.

The two sides signed a two-year memorandum of understanding in January 2002, creating a formal framework by which a ballpark could be developed in the District and providing Malek some protection against competing bidders seeking to own a local team.

The extension, completed late Friday, became necessary because Major League Baseball’s ownership of the unprofitable, vagabond Montreal Expos has extended beyond the intended one-year tenure into a third year. Permanent relocation of the club is now targeted for the 2005 season, but even that timetable is not guaranteed.

“This [extension] was always going to get done,” Malek said. “But after all the changes we’ve had at the sports commission, it’s very gratifying to have a sensible deal in place that keeps us going forward together.”

The last nine months have been a period of turmoil within the sports commission, with its mission, organizational structure and fiscal policy coming under significant review by the D.C. Council. Former chairman John Richardson and executive director Bobby Goldwater both resigned under political pressure.

Malek’s original deal with the sports commission provided it with exclusive use of both RFK Stadium and a subsequent new ballpark. Had those terms been broken, most likely by MLB’s direction, Malek would have been entitled to receive either a chance to become an equity holder in the new ownership group or lost expenses and opportunity costs up to $4million.

The new agreement removes the opportunity costs from a potential repayment to Malek. Should someone else own a District-based team and Malek not be involved, the total repayment to him would be $1.23million. The money, amounting to expenses already paid out by Malek’s group in the pursuit of baseball, would come mostly from the new owner, with the sports commission aiding the transfer.

“This deal gives us a lot of comfort, and I believe keeps us way out in front in this race,” said Jack Mahoney, sports commission interim chairman. “We’re not going away easily, that’s for sure.”

Immediately after the completion of the extension, Mahoney briefed John McHale, MLB executive vice president and a key figure on its relocation committee.

“John was very upbeat and certainly appreciated hearing what we had done,” Mahoney said.

Jack Evans, D.C. Council finance committee chairman and a strident critic of sports commission fiscal policy, also helped broker the new deal.

“This is a much better package,” Evans said. “The cost structure to the city has been reduced, and we’re still putting out what remains a very serious ownership group.”

The extension also comes in tandem with the announcement of David Bradley and Jeffrey Zients joining Malek’s group as general partners. Bradley is the chairman of Atlantic Media Company, publisher of several magazines including the Atlantic Monthly and National Journal. Zients is the chairman of the Advisory Board Company, a District-based health care research and analysis firm.

“We’ve had plenty of people approach us wanting to get involved, and we’ll expand the group assuming we reach the finish line,” Malek said. “What David and Jeff do for us is add quite a lot of intellectual capital. They’re both very, very sharp.”

With those additions, the full WBC membership now stands at Malek, AOL co-founder Jim Kimsey, Fannie Mae chairman Franklin Raines, local real estate investment executive and philanthropist Joe Robert and local attorneys Stephen Porter and Paul Wolff as general partners. Former Washington Redskin Darrell Green, District power broker Vernon Jordan and Dennis Hightower, former president of Walt Disney Television, are WBC limited partners.

Meanwhile, Evans and Malek said a property known as Banneker Overlook in Southwest has emerged in recent weeks as a new stadium site candidate, joining New York Avenue NE, RFK Stadium and another spot near the Washington Navy Yard.

The new site, near the promenade at L’Enfant Plaza, would easily beat the other three sites in terms of proximity to central Washington, access to major roadways and multiple Metro lines, as well as providing a peak vista of the monuments and Capitol Dome. The site, however, would require some elevated construction over Interstate 395 and is one of the smaller parcels being considered for a ballpark.

“There a lot of questions with that spot, money not the least of them,” Evans said. “But it is very interesting and not something to be dismissed out of hand.”

The Banneker Overlook site, owned primarily by the National Park Service, is also a candidate to be the home of the forthcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Other pieces of the District’s baseball proposal, including a financing plan led by ballpark-related revenue bonds, have received little attention over the last five months. During that time, MLB’s eagerly awaited plans to relocate the Expos in time for the 2004 season were scrapped, and Evans refused to let the local ballpark bill leave his panel without some relocation covenant from MLB. The covenant did not come as MLB insisted each relocation candidate first produce solid stadium financing plans.

“Nothing really has changed there,” Evans said. “If they want to do the deal, they need to contact me, contact the city and say they definitely want to do the deal. If they do that, this absolutely can get done. There are many avenues we can pursue to get it done.”

Baseball is now expected to conduct site visits during the late winter or spring to a growing list of candidates that includes the District; Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Monterrey, Mexico. In the meantime, the Expos are splitting a second season between Montreal and San Juan.

Northern Virginia, also seeking a team through the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, already holds a similar exclusivity pact with the Virginia Baseball Club, led by William Collins. The former telecommunications executive pays $1million per year for its relationship with the stadium authority, now in its sixth year, while Malek’s group pays no front-end fee to the D.C. sports commission.

Collins and the authority, should they land the Expos, also would seek to use RFK Stadium on a short-term basis while a new Virginia ballpark was developed. The new Malek pact does not bar them from doing so, but District officials will in no way promote the Northern Virginia baseball lobby or RFK’s availability to them.

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