The Lerner family will not officially take control of the Washington Nationals until at least next month, but the group is expected to play an immediate role in addressing several areas of uncertainty that have plagued the team.
The team’s new stadium is being built on an ultra-tight budget. Many fans can’t catch the team’s games on cable. Attendance has dipped dramatically since last season.
With the city’s contribution toward the new ballpark legally capped at $611 million, fans and some city officials are expecting the Lerner group to contribute to the ballpark construction. To stay under the cap, the city has been forced to remove many high-end materials and design aspects, including plazas and limestone facades. City officials also are seeking funding for an underground parking garage for the site and could need additional funds to achieve a special certification for environmentally friendly design.
But the new owners said they do not anticipate contributing additional money toward the ballpark.
“We have to get in there and figure out what is in and what is out, but we believe the project can be done for the budget that is set,” Mark Lerner said in an interview. “It’s part of the building business. We do it all the time.”
While MLB and the D.C. Council battled over the lease and construction agreements for the team’s new ballpark over the last year, fans began turning away from the team, as evidenced by this year’s attendance, which is about two-thirds the size of last year, and thousands of season-ticket holders decided not to renew after last season.
Mark Lerner said the new group will work to improve the experience for fans at RFK Stadium, including upgrading the concessions.
“I’d like to have a heart-to-heart with the vendors,” Lerner said. “As building managers, we wouldn’t tolerate that in our buildings.”
City officials said the new owner could help improve the relationship between city residents and the team.
“We will immediately begin to develop a dialogue because the fact of the matter is that we need to work together both in the short term and the long term to meet the goals of the community,” said Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.
Mark Lerner, son of the team’s patriarch Ted Lerner, said the group will work to bring fans to games through an aggressive community relations plan, which it plans to unveil later this month after getting approval by other MLB owners to take control of the Nationals.
“My family and our partners are committed to making this a family-oriented and enduring franchise,” Mark Lerner said. “We want to bring baseball back to the people of D.C., both inside and outside the stadium.”
A small budget for marketing and promotions also has prevented the team from creating the kind of buzz needed to lure fans to the ballpark. That has concerned some city officials, who point out that much of the city’s ability to pay for the stadium is tied to taxes on tickets and concessions.
“If we don’t get the fans out there, we won’t be able to afford the stadium, and it will be a nightmare,” said D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, at-large Republican.
Team officials have blamed much of this year’s attendance woes on the feud between Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos and Comcast Corp. that has left nearly half of all Nationals fans unable to watch most games on cable. Comcast has refused to carry the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which produces most Nationals games and is owned by Angelos, because of a dispute involving the rights to broadcast Orioles games in 2007.
MLB officials are close to working out a compromise between Comcast and Angelos, and the D.C. Council this week passed a bill to pressure Comcast into carrying MASN in the city. But it’s widely believed that a new owner could help bring all sides to an agreement sooner.
“There’s only one acceptable solution, and that’s for all the games to be on in every home in the Washington area,” said Stan Kasten, expected to take over as president of the Nationals. “Since it’s in everyone’s best interests, that’s what we’re going to have since nothing else is acceptable. We’re going to get there.”
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