- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 29, 2005

On Tuesday, Major League Baseball’s Manhattan headquarters will resemble the scene from “Jerry Maguire” in which Tom Cruise stared desperately at the fax machine waiting for some life-altering news.

One by one, nine groups bidding to buy the Washington Nationals will send in their initial offers. And with those numbers, the long-overdue process to liberate the club from its four-season stint as a ward of baseball’s state finally will move from talk to action.

Baseball intends to use this first round of bidding as a shakeout process and eliminate the not-so-serious players as quickly as possible. The remaining finalists will be invited back to New York to interview with MLB executives and describe in detail their vision for the Nationals and their connections to Washington.

From there, a more intense round of bidding will start. Once a buyer is chosen, MLB will conduct its usual review of any incoming ownership group, beginning with detailed background checks and finishing with a vote by other club owners.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig aims to select the new owner by midsummer, but many baseball insiders still believe fall is a more likely target date.

As of now, the Washington Baseball Club, led by District businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients is almost universally acknowledged as the early leader. The group has been seeking to buy a Washington baseball club for six years, enjoys an extensive working relationship with the District government, gave the Nationals a significant boost last fall in season-ticket sales by providing club officials its mailing list, and holds a deep familiarity with ongoing efforts to build the team’s new ballpark near the Anacostia River waterfront.

And last week the group added to its ranks Colin Powell, one of the most widely respected men on the planet and a force within Washington for decades. The long-discussed addition prompted at least two competing groups to acknowledge privately that the Malek-Zients group put itself in an extremely formidable and perhaps unassailable position.

“Would baseball really turn this group down now just to get another $20million?” asked one industry executive close to the bidding process.

But internally, the Washington Baseball Club has worked to avoid lapsing into overconfidence. Rival Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, also has plenty of friends within the uppermost reaches of baseball.

So, too, does Northern Virginia businessman William Collins III, who has stumped twice as long for Washington area baseball as Malek. And District entrepreneur/philanthropist Jonathan Ledecky has the most experience actually owning a Washington sports team through his days as a key player in Ted Leonsis’ Lincoln Holdings and also claims to have the financial wherewithal to outlast any of his competitors.

Developer/financier Franklin Haney Sr. lurks as a potential dark horse and is said to be developing “a substantial offer” for the Nationals.

Meanwhile, the big mystery factor in the race is Mark Lerner, son of noted local developer Ted Lerner. The entire Lerner family is notoriously press-shy about any of its business dealings, and Mark Lerner has said precious little about his bid or plans for the Nationals. But none of his competitors doubt he also has the money to make a purchase of the team happen.

The Nationals are expected to sell for at least $300million, but beyond that figure two significant X-factors remain in determining the final sales price.

MLB executives want a sizable return on their investment in the Expos-turned-Nationals, who started as a $120million purchase from Jeffrey Loria and then soared toward $200million through accumulated operating losses. With nine groups of type-A, driven businessmen all clamoring for the Nationals, MLB appears in a strong position to pit them aggressively against each other.

The other nebulous element is the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). Though the network is controlled by the Baltimore Orioles, a minority share in MASN will go to the new Nationals owners — if the suitors bid enough for it. Baseball is asking for two bids Tuesday, one for just the club and another for the club and the share in MASN.

Complicating efforts to put an accurate valuation on the MASN equity, however, is an ongoing lawsuit by Comcast SportsNet (CSN) against the Orioles and MLB.

The Bethesda regional sports network accuses the Orioles of violating key terms of their contact with CSN by announcing plans to shift local pay-TV games to MASN no later than 2007. The Orioles, who are preparing a countersuit against CSN, believe they have a solid legal defense. But the litigation nonetheless places a cloud over the future of MASN and, in turn, the Nationals’ revenues from local TV.

Furthermore, many prospective Nationals owners do not believe the prospect of being so tightly joined at the hip with the Orioles and team owner Peter Angelos is nearly as beneficial as MLB executive would have them believe, even with the establishment of guaranteed rights fee payments to the Nationals.

Summer usually is a slow time around Washington. Not so this year with the backroom drama for the Nationals ownership set to unfold.

“We’re all waiting to see how this develops. It’s going to be a fascinating ride,” said a source close to one of the bidding groups.

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