- The Washington Times - Friday, May 5, 2006

When MLB Commissioner Bud Selig announced Wednesday the sale of the Nationals to the Lerner group, he gave Ted Lerner the opportunity to set a new direction and tone for the team that, since the end of the honeymoon late last season, needs both. The sale will be approved by the other MLB owners later this month, and the Lerner group will take full control of the team in June. Mr. Lerner and new Nationals President Stan Kasten, an experienced manager whose 17-year tenure as president of the Atlanta Braves ended in 2003, will have several challenges — both on the field and off — to counter slacking attendance and bring the team to life. No issue, however, is more pressing than correcting the Nationals’ blatantly unfair television contract.

According to the current television arrangement, the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network owned by Baltimore Orioles boss Peter Angelos airs most Nationals games. Comcast, however, refuses to carry MASN, and since Comcast provides cable to 1.3 million viewers in Washington, those fans aren’t able to watch the games on cable. Washington is the eighth-largest media market in the country, according to Nielsen Media Research, and three of the larger markets support two teams. Fully capitalizing on this market is essential to increasing the current payroll and financing the team’s long-term competitiveness.

Mr. Kasten downplayed the importance of payroll as a benchmark for performance, calling it “the wrong question.” He insisted instead that money spent on developing a minor-league team, including better scouting, was “the way you do it.” It’s hard to dispute the success Mr. Kasten had with this system in Atlanta, turning the Braves into a perennial contender and recording more wins than any other Major League team during those years and a World Series title. But a good Nationals’ farm system is years away from producing such a strong team, and for a team still trying to establish itself in its market it would be a mistake for the new owners to allow the Nationals to wallow near the bottom of their division. Payroll may not be the definitive measure of team’s caliber, which Mr. Kasten proved by spending money wisely with the Braves. But even Atlanta had a big payroll; for all but one year between 1994 and 1999 it was the third largest in the league.

The new owners need to put a competitive team on the field sooner rather than later. No matter how strong their minor-league program, to be on par with their division rivals the Nationals will need a payroll comparable to that of the New York Mets ($101 million for 2006), the Philadelphia Phillies ($88 million) and the Atlanta Braves ($90 million). The current $63 million simply won’t cut it. As the Angelos/Comcast television strife means the owners take over the team with one arm tied behind their backs, we think it’s good that the Lerner group has pockets deep enough to still bid competitively in the free-agent market — if they’re willing to spend the money.

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