- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The Washington Nationals are expected to earn about $100 million in local revenue this season, a figure that would represent nearly a sevenfold increase over their last season in Montreal.

The Nationals have shown — without even playing a game at RFK Stadium — an ability to generate money never seen in the club’s previous incarnation as the Montreal Expos. The Expos earned $15 million last year, the least amount in baseball.

However, the franchise’s fortunes have improved dramatically since the team was awarded to the District in September. The Nationals likely will rank in the top half or top third among Major League Baseball’s (MLB) 30 teams in revenue this season.

The Nationals have sold more than 22,000 season tickets and more than 75,000 single-game tickets, producing more than $44 million in gate revenue.

Attendance at home games this season is projected by Nationals President Tony Tavares and industry analysts to reach 2.5 million. With an average ticket price of about $24, that would mean another $17 million in gate revenue.

“We’re looking at $90 to $100 million [in local revenues] for the season. It’s obviously a much different situation than last year,” Mr. Tavares said.

That estimate does not include money the team will receive from national sources like MLB’s TV contracts with ESPN and Fox.

The estimate also is more than twice what was generated by the National Hockey League’s Washington Capitals last season and slightly more than the total revenue of the National Basketball Association’s Washington Wizards.

Yet, it trails by far the revenue of the National Football League’s Washington Redskins. The Redskins reap more than $250 million in total revenue per year, about two-thirds of it from local sources.

“The [Nationals’] figure might be a bit optimistic, considering they’re playing at RFK and the team probably isn’t going to be all that competitive. But this is the first year back in Washington, and it’s a great market,” said Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College economics professor and a frequent author on baseball finances.

TV broadcast rights, the second-biggest revenue producer for most MLB clubs, is a nettlesome question for the Nationals.

The team’s future on local television — and the revenue that comes with the broadcasts — remains undetermined because of the ongoing negotiations between MLB and Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos.

Mr. Angelos is seeking a deal that would protect him financially from any consequences of the arrival of the Nationals so close to his franchise.

Mr. Angelos wants to put the Nationals on a new regional sports network that he controls, and is thought to be willing to pay up to $25 million per year to the Nationals for televising their games.

However, only 13 days remain before Opening Day, and it seems likely the Nationals this year will be forced to accept a sum that is less than market value for their broadcast rights.

Still, even negotiating broadcast rights for the Nationals is a marked change for the club: The Expos spent many of their final seasons in Quebec without a local TV or English-language radio contract or both.

The Nationals’ local revenue, which also will be buttressed by sponsorship, concession and parking income, is expected to yield an operating profit between $10 million and $20 million.

MLB, which still owns the club, will keep the windfall, though much of it will be used to defray the club’s operating losses from Montreal and to fund operations, upkeep at RFK and the player payroll of $47 million.

No guidelines have been established on how to split the money if MLB succeeds in selling the club by the end of the season, as it intends. The Nationals already have collected millions of dollars in season-ticket and sponsorship contracts for the entire season.

“That’s all going to be subject to negotiation,” Mr. Tavares said. “Whether the money is prorated, somebody keeps all of it or something else; it’s complete conjecture at this point.”

The point could be moot: Mr. Tavares said there is little chance the club will be transferred to new owners before the end of this season.

MLB executives originally targeted early January, then early April to determine the new owners. However, they missed both deadlines because of the delays in negotiating with Mr. Angelos.

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