Saturday, September 25, 2004

The D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission last night approved the memorandum of understanding that will govern the widely expected move of the Montreal Expos to the District. The unanimous vote, which came after a 31/2-hour closed meeting, represents the final step from city officials before Major League Baseball executives announce the Expos’ new home next week.

The 30-page document will oversee the primary terms of the relocation of the Expos to Washington, the short-term use of RFK Stadium and the construction of a new, $440 million stadium, now targeted for a site in Southeast near M Street and South Capitol Street.

“This completes our work,” said Mark Tuohey, sports commission chairman. “On the basis of this agreement the decision will be made.”

The document and vote are the direct result of five months of intense negotiations, including more than 20 hours of face-to-face talks in recent weeks. The memorandum of understanding will be sent this weekend to MLB executives.

Last night’s vote was an internal canvassing of the sports commission directors. The formal review of the financing package for the new stadium and RFK Stadium improvements will lie with the D.C. Council. But that process will not begin until MLB awards the Expos to the District.

City officials said legislative effort must begin within the next week to 10 days, or there will not be enough time to renovate RFK in time for the 2005 season or approve the new stadium funding before the terms of three key supporters on the council expire.

“It has to be done next week,” Tuohey said. “Fortunately there is no scenario in my mind that pushes this beyond next week.”

MLB owners are expected to conduct a conference call to vote on the Expos relocation next week, after which the decision will be announced. Industry sources are so sure of the Expos move to the District that they are referring to the rival bid from Northern Virginia in the past tense. The Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority has yet to concede anything publicly.

Meanwhile, MLB officials continue to press the idea of a regional sports network as a key means to defuse a tense battle with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos over the future of the Expos. The RSN concept, while still a conceptual stage, would give Angelos at least part ownership of a sports channel that would air Orioles games and join Comcast SportsNet in the Washington/Baltimore corridor.

Angelos remains the primary opponent to baseball in greater Washington. He lobbied his case Thursday during a meeting of MLB’s executive council. Discussions between MLB executives and Angelos are set to continue over the weekend, industry sources said yesterday.

The Orioles already control the distribution and advertising sales of its over-the-air broadcasts, but gaining the same dual revenue stream for its cable TV games — of which there are more and draw a more dedicated fan base — represents a much more lucrative proposition.

The RSN discussions are being aided by Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and currently an influential industry consultant. Pilson, who attended Thursday’s MLB executive council meeting in Milwaukee, yesterday declined comment. MLB executives have a gag order on him, keeping him from speaking on the subject.

Several other MLB teams run their own RSN or are considering starting one, including the New York Yankees, New York Mets and Minnesota Twins.

The ongoing TV talks are an indication of what baseball is doing to placate Angelos. MLB President Bob DuPuy said Thursday no discussions have occurred in regard to compensating Angelos with either a lump sum or annual payments. However, DuPuy did talk about protecting all franchises directly affected by the Expos move. And yesterday industry sources said MLB executives are worried about Angelos filing a lawsuit should the Expos move to Washington.

Angelos was not available for comment yesterday.

Comcast SportsNet is the only dedicated sports channel for both Washington and Baltimore. CSN’s current contract to air Orioles games runs through 2006. Its role, if any, in the RSN discussions, Angelos and D.C. baseball, remains uncertain.

CSN executives declined to comment specifically on the situation, but it’s possible the cable giant could be part of the equation. CSN’s predecessor, Home Team Sports, had internal plans dating to the mid-1990s to create a second, sister sports network if the Washington area ever got baseball. Comcast is a partner in a new digital cable venture from the Atlanta Braves called BravesVision.

“Everything right now about this is still guess and speculation, so it’s really tough for us to respond,” said Chris Helein, CSN spokesman. “What we can say is that if and when something happens, we’re obviously going to be very interested in developing and maintaining relationships with the Orioles and another team in our area.”

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