- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 2, 2005

The relocation to-do list for Washington Nationals president Tony Tavares, once a 12-page, single-spaced document with hundreds of tasks, is down to 54 items.

But with Opening Day a mere 33 days away, don’t mistake the shortening list as a reason for calm. Still unresolved are many key elements of the club’s new existence, such as implementing a plan for local TV distribution, finalizing the detailed franchise budget until new ownership arrives and helping select the architect for the Nationals’ planned stadium in Southeast.

“If you see me hanging off the Washington Monument, you’ll know why,” Tavares said.

That said, the Nationals’ organizational progress to date reflects some important successes in what is perhaps the strangest and most frenetic pro sports team relocation in decades.

Despite nearly leaving Washington in a bitter stadium funding debate, having all business activities suspended by Major League Baseball for a week and remaining the property of the other 29 team owners, the Nationals have taken the nation’s capital by storm.

With only a minimal level of marketing and team operations spread about four offices in three jurisdictions, the team’s ticket sales have raced past 20,000 full-season equivalents, merchandise has run scarce in many retail outlets, vendors of all types are beating down the team’s doors to do business and RFK Stadium remains on track to be ready for an April3 exhibition against the New York Mets.

“We’re still not where we want to be yet. I’d much prefer having only five or six things left on the list,” Tavares said. “But we’re going to get there, and we’ve been warmly received by the fans, which is great. There’s a lot still to do, but that’s why you keep the list. People still have to remember that this is all being done incredibly fast.”

The Nationals’ local TV situation stands as easily the biggest obstacle for Tavares. While every other team begins to prepare its TV crew for the regular season and broadcasts a selection of spring training games, the Nationals sit on the sideline. The team’s local TV distribution remains tied up in unresolved negotiations between MLB and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to protect him financially from the arrival of the Nationals.

Central to those talks is a new regional sports network that would air both the Orioles and Nationals and be owned primarily by the Orioles. Last week, MLB president Bob DuPuy said he hoped a deal could be completed “within a few days,” ending more than five months of negotiations. But as of yesterday there still was no deal, and without a deal, MLB is prohibiting Tavares from conducting any formal negotiations toward a TV agreement that would serve as either a placeholder or complement to the forthcoming network.

After the many headaches required to land a radio contract — agreements with both Clear Channel Communications and Infinity Broadcasting fell apart before a deal materialized two weeks ago with Bonneville International Corp. — the delays are the last thing Tavares wants.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “We’re absolutely getting pushed up against the wall.”

Once Tavares gets clearance to proceed on the Nationals TV distribution, he said he is prepared to move quickly on both basic carriage agreements and hiring of technical and on-air talent.

Assuming more clarity is a plan to begin selling single-game tickets. Fans will able to buy individual games around March 14 for all games except the April14 home opener against Arizona. For that much-coveted contest, the Nationals are developing a two-tiered distribution process in which a lottery for the right to buy available seats will be followed by a first-come, first-serve sale for what’s left.

Both parts of the sales process for the home opener are expected to begin in the final week of March. Before that, partial-season ticket holders will be offered the chance to buy seats for the opener.

Other items on the Tavares to-do list run from nearly as urgent to comical. A slate of celebration events for the first Nationals homestand, including a luncheon at the Washington Convention Center, fireworks and an unveiling of the team’s new mascot, needs more attention. The detailed franchise budget until new owners arrive is not yet done. No public address announcer has been hired. Several sponsorship deals need to be closed.

And a final disposition is needed for Youppi, the Montreal Expos’ Hall of Fame mascot. Youppi did not move with the franchise to Washington, and a deal is in the works to transfer the mascot’s rights to an undisclosed Quebec business.

The progress of renovations at RFK Stadium, meanwhile, provides a greater level of comfort. Despite the recent snow and a one-week delay for the installation of the playing field sod, officials at the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission insist the facility will be ready for the Nationals’ April3 exhibition.

“We’ll still proceeding very well, on time and on budget,” said Allen Y. Lew, sports commission chief executive officer.

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