- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

NEW YORK Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson is effectively out as a serious ownership candidate for a Washington-area baseball club after he said yesterday his interest in pursuing a team has cooled.

He also said he favors economic terms for acquiring a team that are far different than anything being discussed within the District government or Major League Baseball.

Johnson, also the owner of the NBA's expansion franchise in Charlotte, N.C., wants the District to pay the "overwhelming share," if not all, of the construction costs of a ballpark, projected to cost between $342.3 and $430.7 million. Johnson also wants MLB officials not to seek a premium on the $130 million team owners paid Jeffrey Loria last year to acquire the Montreal Expos.

City officials are seeking to cap total public-sector involvement in a new ballpark at 80 percent and actually prefer that percentage to be closer to 65 percent. A series of potential tax measures in the District on ballpark-related revenue and large businesses aims to reap as much as $275 million to fund bonds for a stadium, leaving the remaining construction costs to team owners. That private sector stadium bill could reach as high as $165 million.

MLB executives, meanwhile, have made no secret of their desire to beat that $130 million sale price for the Expos significantly, to cover heavy losses incurred this year and last while operating the fiscally struggling club.

"I'm not as intrigued as much as I was before in baseball," Johnson said yesterday at the World Congress of Sports, a premier sports industry conference here. "If this gets into a competitive bidding situation and requires a huge cost commitment [of private capital], there's no way we could be players in this."

Johnson said without public dollars paying for almost the entire stadium, it could not be a "value proposition" for him.

Johnson announced his intentions to seek a District-based baseball team nearly a year ago, teaming with Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder. Johnson met last year with the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission to discuss his interest.

But since those meetings, Johnson has made national headlines by becoming the first minority to hold controlling interest in a major league sports franchise. In Charlotte, Johnson paid $300 million for the franchise, an NBA record for expansion clubs, but is receiving a new downtown arena almost entirely paid for with public dollars. Johnson also retains management rights to bring non-basketball events to that arena.

"Dan feels the same way I do [about baseball in Washington]. It all depends on how the economics are. Is it going to be a relatively simple transaction?" Johnson said. "But $165 million? That certainly would be way outside my willingness to do."

Also hindering any nascent baseball effort by Johnson is his preference to buy 51 percent of the Expos now and the remaining portion over the next several years. Such an elongated process is contemplated by MLB executives.

The District still has two prominent baseball bidders. The most well known is a group led by District financier Fred Malek, which is working jointly with the sports commission on pursuing the Expos. The other is Long Island real estate executive Mark Broxmeyer, who has made his interest known in recent weeks.

Malek, while not specifying a dollar figure or percentage, has said repeatedly that he is committed to paying his "fair share" for a stadium.

Team ownership, however, will become an issue only after MLB selects the Expos' home. A decision on that is expected by midsummer, though MLB commissioner Bud Selig has suggested further delays are possible.

District officials will travel to Phoenix next Thursday for a meeting with MLB's relocation committee. Government officials will outline a proposed stadium financing plan, as well as discuss three proposed stadium locations in the city. The leading candidate is a spot near the intersection of New York and Florida avenues NE.

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