- The Washington Times - Monday, September 27, 2004

In unveiling his ballpark-financing plan, Mayor Anthony Williams appears to have given his answer to a question we asked in December 2002: How many hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funds are D.C. officials willing to transfer to the pockets of various prospective ownership groups — whose principals have net worths in excess of hundreds of millions of dollars — so that these groups can then pay top dollar ($350 million or more) for the Montreal Expos? The answer appears to be north of $500 million. And, unless the proper safeguards are incorporated into the final agreement between the city and Major League Baseball (MLB), the final total could be much higher.

A few years ago, MLB’s 29 other franchises bought the virtually bankrupt Montreal Expos for $120 million. They have been keeping the team on life support ever since. In the meantime, they have been dangling the franchise in front of Washington’s legacy-seeking mayor, whose public-financing packages kept getting bigger and bigger as he continued to outbid himself.

If all goes according to plan, MLB will soon hold an auction for the franchise, which will then be heading to Washington, one of the richest markets in the world. Bids will likely begin at $300 million. They could easily exceed $350 million, or three times what MLB paid for the franchise several years ago. Given how such bidding wars for sports franchises have skyrocketed in the past, the winning bid could conceivably be much higher. After all, the profit potential is almost limitless for a team playing in the country’s soon-to-be fourth-largest market, which happens to include four of the nation’s 10 highest-ranked counties in terms of disposable income.

The potentially record-setting baseball bidding war has been made possible by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the costs of the $440 million ballpark package will be paid by taxpayers. Even the team’s expected annual rent of $5.5 million pales when compared to what the Baltimore Orioles pay to play in their taxpayer-built stadium. The Orioles’ rent is $8 million, or nearly 50 percent higher. The mayor’s plan would also allow the team’s new owners to pocket the income from the naming-rights fees for the publicly owned facility. That income could total $200 million over 25 years.

Thus, the present value of the mayor’s largesse easily exceeds $500 million. And that is before consideration of the inevitable construction cost overruns, which conceivably could exceed $100 million. Who would be obligated to pay for them? Will the final agreement protect the taxpayer? The D.C. Council — whose approval is necessary and, unfortunately, probable — needs to take a skeptical look at the mayor’s offer. At an absolute minimum, any approval by the council should require that MLB and the new owners be obligated to pay for any cost overruns that, for whatever reason, are not absorbed by the contractors.

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