Sunday, July 18, 2004

The District’s baseball lobby is convinced it will win the Montreal Expos.

Northern Virginia’s baseball lobby is convinced it will win the Montreal Expos.

Obviously, somebody has to be wrong.

Both jurisdictions sent officials to Houston last week to lobby executives and owners in Major League Baseball for support of their bids. But afterward, as usual, reading the relocation tea leaves remains a thoroughly maddening and often contradictory exercise.

One high-ranking MLB executive was overheard during the All-Star break saying residents in Herndon would need to start preparing for noise from a nearby ballpark. But MLB sources say at least one key member of the relocation committee is dead set against Northern Virginia’s plan to build a ballpark near Dulles International Airport, believing the site is far too remote from central Washington to support a team during competitively lean years.

So what should people believe? Where is the smart money in this horse race?

It is certainly safe to say that, barring a shocking choice in favor of Norfolk or Las Vegas, the Washington area stands alone in the Expos chase. Ever since news broke two months ago of Northern Virginia’s plan near Dulles, industry conversation has focused almost exclusively on Greater Washington and which local bid best serves the area, as well as the long-held objections of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

As this race approaches a probable conclusion by next month’s owners meeting in Philadelphia, the other clear indicator is that the deliberations are all about money. Every major factor being considered — demographics and population, stadium financing, national and local sponsorship, transportation and so on — ultimately has a dollar sign attached to it.

How much will MLB reap for the Expos when the team is sold? What is the projected attendance in each locale? How much will the relocated Expos generate in revenue sharing dollars for lesser-heeled clubs, as opposed to remaining the leading recipient of those funds as they are now? How much will Angelos need to be compensated for any negative economic impact upon his club, and does that change depending on where the Expos are located? How does a Washington area and its large TV market help national broadcast negotiations that MLB wants to reopen now that the sport is posting a remarkable resurgence in popularity? How does a Washington area team assist in national sponsorship sales?

These are the key questions being asked within the relocation committee, and MLB commissioner Bud Selig confirmed last week that turning the Expos into a big revenue producer would be a key component of the decision.

“There are a variety of factors, but that’s absolutely part of it,” Selig said.

Predictably, both local bids believe they have the upper hand in answering these revenue questions. The District is relying on more than a decade of success for urban ballparks, as well as the more than 20million tourists that descend upon the city every year, mostly during the summer. Despite a financing plan yet to be made public and a radical stadium design plan should the ballpark be placed at Benjamin Banneker Park in Southwest, the city’s sales pitch is still one of comfort and predictability.

Cities like Baltimore, Denver, San Francisco, Houston and Seattle have ensured stable if not spectacular futures for themselves through urban ballparks, so why not Washington, the logic goes. In fact, the assumption within baseball for years has been that an urban ballpark cannot guarantee success for a team, but the lack of one virtually guarantees a long-term inability to compete.

Conversely, Northern Virginia is essentially forfeiting Capitol Hill and most of the District and suburban Maryland through its far more separatist talking points. But the commonwealth still believes it will become the true financial winner through greater corporate support, as well as the potential for an MLB payment to Angelos that is sharply reduced or eliminated altogether by increasing the distance from Camden Yards.

So who’s right? Time will soon tell. In the meantime, the optimism and hubris remain unchecked.

“I think we’re closer to getting the team than we’ve ever been,” said Keith Frederick, chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority.

Said District Mayor Anthony Williams last week: “Our confidence has never been higher. What we’re here [in Houston] to do is continue to make our case, position our bid forward, and I believe it will carry the day for us.”

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