Friday, November 5, 2004

Major League Baseball is expected to announce the name of the Washington team within the next two weeks, and Nationals is the likely choice.

Commissioner Bud Selig hoped to delegate primary responsibility for choosing the name to the team’s new owners. However, the process of selling the club began recently and will not be completed until late December at the earliest, and MLB officials do not want to wait that long to have the name in place.

Heavy marketing to sell tickets, merchandise and sponsorships is expected to begin later this month, efforts that require a team name to succeed fully. The new name will replace Expos, which was used by the franchise during 36 seasons in Montreal.

“We’re about 10-15 days from having this done,” team President Tony Tavares said. “We’re getting real close.”

Industry sources said Nationals is a near lock to overtake Senators and Grays after a whirlwind, closed-door evaluation that involved focus groups, marketing executives and polling data.

Renaming a team in a major sports league typically is a 12- to 18-month process, time that simply was not available in the mad dash to establish the franchise in Washington.

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams also factored into the decision. Mr. Williams lobbied strongly against the resurrection of Senators, the name used by both of Washington’s previous major league teams.

Mr. Williams said yesterday that he talked with MLB executives within the last week about the issue.

“I’ve articulated that I do not support Senators as a name. I believe that is the wrong name,” Mr. Williams said, citing the District’s lack of voting representation in Congress. “I think [MLB] listened. They understand my position.”

Had Senators been selected, MLB officials would have needed to get permission from Texas Rangers owner Tom Hicks to use the name. The rights to that name moved with the franchise when it defected to Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 season.

A new logo and uniform designs for the Washington team also are nearing completion, industry sources said. The team colors predictably will be red, white and blue. It is not known which of the three will be the primary color for caps and uniforms.

The clear aim is to put caps, shirts and other team merchandise in stores in time for the holiday shopping rush, which begins in less than three weeks, to exploit fans’ excitement about the return of baseball to the city.

Nationals was the primary name of Washington’s first American League franchise from 1905 to 1957, a period that included a 1924 World Series title. At several points during that long stretch, however, Senators was used as an alternate nickname.

The Washington franchise is collectively owned by MLB owners, as it has been for nearly three years. The new owners, once selected, will have the right to seek a new name.

Meanwhile, Mr. Williams said yesterday the city’s stadium-financing bill is solidly on track and likely will be approved by the full D.C. Council when it conducts its first vote on the measure on Tuesday.

The bill calls for funding for the renovation of RFK Stadium for short-term use for baseball, the construction of a ballpark in Southeast and a $450million community-benefits fund. It passed 3-2 on Wednesday in both the council’s finance and economic development committees.

The city’s business community, which will shoulder a significant portion of the stadium bill through the payment of gross-receipts taxes, is unhappy with a revised version of the legislation.

The latest version calls for a hefty increase in the top-end fee in the gross-receipts tax, as well as part of the tax collection funneling into the community-benefits fund, a deviation from the original designed purpose of the tax.

But Mr. Williams said the changes were necessary to protect small businesses from paying a disproportionate share of the tax, as well as to create a solid revenue stream to act as seed money for the community-benefits fund.

The fund is designed to aid libraries, recreation centers and other city amenities. The fund’s other major monetary source, a tax-increment financing district, has come under strong attack by some council members.

“We’re continuing to work with the council members, the business community to get this done,” Mr. Williams said. “I think we want to do what we can to specify and strengthen the measures in the bill.”

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