- The Washington Times - Friday, September 16, 2005

Of the eight bidders vying for ownership of the Washington Nationals, only one has owned a major league baseball team before — and it wasn’t pretty.

Yet former Seattle Mariners owner Jeff Smulyan remains highly regarded by baseball’s inner circle and has been mentioned in national reports in recent weeks as one of the bidders receiving strong consideration to purchase the Nationals.

Smulyan, chairman of the board of Emmis Communications, an Indianapolis-based company involved in radio and television, owned the Mariners from just 1989 to 1992 before being forced to sell the team because of financial losses.

Now, 13 years later, he wants back in the game and said his tenure in Seattle, while good preparation for owning the Nationals, can’t be used as a basis of comparison for what he would do as an owner in the District.

“The parallels between Seattle and Washington are so totally different 16 years later,” Smulyan told The Washington Times in a telephone interview. “It is a different time.”

Smulyan’s ownership in Seattle started out with much promise. He bought the franchise from Southern California real estate developer George Argyros for $76 million and put into place a number of innovative features to market the team. But a number of factors, including a lack of success on the field and the unfriendly confines of the Kingdome, resulted in a bitter ending for Smulyan. The franchise was sold for $100 million to a group whose main investor was the Nintendo Corp.

“The team had never had a winning season [it’s first came in Smulyan’s last full year, 83-79 in 1991]. The affinity for the game was just not there. It was a different time for baseball and certainly a different time for me. Probably, and I have been free to admit this, our tenure in Seattle was one of the toughest times I’ve ever had.

“When we bought the team, we said, ‘Look, if we can’t make it work, we will sell it,’ ” Smulyan said. “After three years, our company at the time was just not capable of taking the losses. But at the same time, I think the people we had did a marvelous job. Attendance went to record levels. We had the first winning team. We won all sorts of marketing awards. So I was very proud of some of the things that happened there.”

Smulyan was not loved when he bowed out of Seattle. He was criticized in the local media for his comments about the community’s failure to support baseball, and there were numerous reports about trying to move the team to the Tampa Bay area. But a lease agreement with King County, which had been redone to make conditions more favorable for Smulyan, required him to exhaust efforts to find local buyers before moving the franchise.

Former U.S. Senator Slade Gordon, who was in office at the time and helped recruit Nintendo as part of the group that bought the franchise, was one of Smulyan’s critics.

“It was certainly not a happy time for Seattle or for baseball in Seattle, and it probably wasn’t a happy time for Jeff Smulyan,” Gordon said. “It was clear in the last year of his ownership that he wanted to move the team to Tampa, and we retained it only because he had agreed to offer it for sale to a party who would keep it in Seattle at a price that would be set by an appraiser. He and his predecessors had convinced fellow owners that Seattle was a terrible baseball town and that his failure there was due to the city and not to him. It is very safe to say that Seattle was very happy to see him leave.”

But George Duff, who was president of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and heavily involved in the effort to keep baseball in Seattle, said he believed Smulyan worked hard to make baseball work there.

“He worked very diligently on trying to sell baseball to Seattle,” Duff said. “It was an uphill climb at the time. They were still in the Kingdome, and the team had not had success for quite a long time. Jeff worked hard at the public relations side and getting baseball support from the community.”

The new owners also had problems surviving in Seattle and were making overtures about the team relocating if they did not get a new ballpark in 1995. The Mariners’ drive into the playoffs that season helped push support for what is now Safeco Field.

Smulyan said he thought the criticism was unwarranted.

“Did I think some of the things that were said about me in Seattle in my last six months there were unfair? Yes,” he said. “But as I tell my kids, life is not always fair. I have gotten a lot of breaks from people who have said nicer things about me over my life than I probably deserved. So if I had one six-month period in Seattle where they said nasty things about me, so be it.”

Despite the tough times in baseball, Smulyan — who started the first sports talk radio station, WFAN, in New York — has built Emmis into an influential radio and television company.

And despite the tough times in Seattle, Smulyan wants back in the game as owner of the Nationals.

“I would love the challenge of being the steward of the Nationals because it is a totally different market with a totally different attitude toward baseball, a totally different opportunity,” he said. “Do I believe we would be good stewards and make the community pleased? I really do.

“The Seattle situation, I was proud of the people we had and the job they did,” Smulyan said. “I wish it had been more successful, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But it is totally different than Washington. But I think it does prepare you for the things you go through because you really understand the challenges [of owning a team].”

Smulyan recently added two local investors, communications executive Alfred C. Liggins III and lawyer Richard Wiley, the former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, The Washington Post reported Thursday. They are one of eight bid groups that could pay up to $450 million to buy the Nationals from Major League Baseball.

Other bidders are an investor group led by former Texas Rangers partner Fred Malek; District businessman Jonathan Ledecky; Maryland developer Mark Lerner; Franklin Haney Sr., a businessman with ties to both Tennessee and Washington; a Virginia-based group led by Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord and William Collins III; former Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten; and a team of California billionaire Ron Burkle and Chicago attorney Yusef Jackson.

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