- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

What started out as a dream of baseball’s next big-market team has become much smaller.

Virginia’s willingness essentially to forfeit suburban Maryland and the District to the Baltimore Orioles should it move the Montreal Expos to a site near Dulles International Airport leaves it with a market of about 2.3million people and less than 900,000 TV households. The numbers are roughly the size of Pittsburgh, one of baseball’s struggling small-market franchises, and are definitively smaller than 25 other current MLB markets.

The reduced market size also puts Virginia back into relative parity with other competitors for the Expos, including Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas; and Norfolk.

“It’s not solely about the numbers. There are a lot of other critical factors, including how much Northern Virginia is willing to pay to see the Expos and the state of the local economy. One can be successful at those sorts of numbers,” said Rodney Fort, a Washington State University economist who frequently studies the business of baseball. “I can understand what they’re trying to do, but it seems to me the best course is to position the team where you can generate as much revenue as possible.”

The entire metro area includes about 5.5million people and 2.22million TV households.

The commonwealth’s recently amplified separatist attitude is borne of both necessity and conscious decision. The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority attempted for years to put a stadium in Pentagon City, within clear sight of central Washington and easily accessible to Interstate 395 and Metro. Heated landowner and government resistance killed that proposal, and efforts now are focused on a parcel near the Dulles Toll Road and Route 28.

The Dulles stadium plan, formally announced Monday, would require at least an hour’s drive in rush hour for anyone east or north of the Potomac River and is designed to act as a crucial salve to the heated objections of Orioles owner Peter Angelos. The distance also makes large-scale attendance from Montgomery County, Prince George’s County and the District rather unlikely.

Games of a Virginia team would be televised in the District and Maryland, but much like plans for stadium sponsorship and gate attendance, sales efforts on the other side of the Potomac River would not be extensive.

Rather than lament that scenario, Virginia baseball boosters are relishing it. Preliminary studies conducted by prospective team owner William Collins predict less than one in seven fans supporting a Virginia team would come from outside the commonwealth. Corporate sponsorship would be similarly concentrated in Virginia.

“This is the true epicenter of the market,” Collins said. “Any other business looking to relocate would be looking here.”

But is what’s left enough for Virginia not only to survive but thrive? Boosters are actively touting the 36 Fortune 100 companies operating in the immediate area, as well as Loudoun County’s status among lists of both the wealthiest and fastest-growing jurisdictions in the country. The involvement of three major homebuilders in the Dulles bid strengthens the financial outlook considerably. And authority officials believe stadium construction bonds can be paid off even if attendance inexplicably plummets to 1million a year and the lowest level in baseball.

What’s lost, however, is doing regular business with prominent sectors of Washington proper, such as the K Street legal community and Capitol Hill lobbyists. The situation becomes further muddled when considering the commonwealth is still relying on the use of RFK Stadium in the District as a temporary home for the Expos.

Some analysts don’t expect the separatist stance to last long.

“If they get the team, there will be a sales force in Washington. It would be the height of foolishness not to have one. The city is too fertile to avoid voluntarily,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports industry consultant. “What they’re trying to do, and I think it has merit, is make a clear distinction between themselves and the District and the impact on the Orioles. If they show they don’t need D.C., they’ve broadened their case.”

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, appearing yesterday on WTOP-AM’s “Ask the Governor” program, acknowledged the entire region suffers from severe transportation problems that limit the potential geographic draw of a team. But he downplayed Virginia-centric comments coming from Collins and the stadium authority.

“If you had a stadium in D.C., would you say that’s excluding residents in Loudoun [County]?” Warner said.

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