Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Major League Baseball wants to select finalists to buy the Washington Nationals within the next two weeks, industry sources said yesterday, providing another indication of its desire to find new owners for the franchise as soon as possible.

MLB received initial offers last week from seven bidding groups for the Nationals, owned by the other 29 team owners since early 2002. A specific date for the cutdown has not been established, nor has the number of finalists. But in follow-up conversations with prospective bidders, MLB executives have made plain their desire not to have the process resemble the protracted decision to move the former Montreal Expos to Washington.

“If anything, this thing is starting to move faster,” a source close to the bidding process said. “They’re definitely moving along with some diligence. I think there’s a pecking order. They’ll do interviews with the leading candidates and move this thing along as soon as they can.”

MLB executives declined to comment yesterday on the Nationals sale. Last month, commissioner Bud Selig said he intended to select the club’s new owner by midsummer, remarks that have been followed up by a flurry of behind-the-scenes activity. If that were not to happen, industry sources said MLB is targeting Sept. 1 as a back-end deadline to make its choice on the Nationals. Such a move would still allow two months to close the transaction before the Nov. 1 start of the club’s next fiscal year.

Bidding on the club are groups led by District businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; local philanthropist Jonathan Ledecky; Sallie Mae chairman Albert Lord; financier and developer Franklin Haney Sr.; real estate titan Mark Lerner; Indianapolis radio executive Jeffrey Smulyan; and a team of California billionaire Ron Burkle and attorney Yusef Jackson.

Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, is still lurking around the auction. Kasten, a longtime friend of Selig, has not submitted a formal offer but continues to seek financial backers to mount an offer or to join one of the other bid groups, baseball sources said.

Most of the initial offers have hovered between $380million and $400million for the Nationals and a minority stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), according to industry sources. It is expected the price will elevate slightly from there as another round of competitive bidding forces the suitors to improve their offers.

Two elements of uncertainty, however, surround those bids: the future of MASN and the status of the Nationals’ planned stadium in Southeast. Comcast SportsNet has sued MLB and the Baltimore Orioles, majority owner of MASN, claiming breach of contract, and seeks to halt efforts by MASN to build itself and gain wider distribution.

And real estate and development executives around the District have begun to express growing doubt privately that the new ballpark, located near the Anacostia River waterfront, will be ready in time for its scheduled April 2008 opening. City officials are making offers to landowners in the ballpark site, with a goal of acquiring and rezoning the property by the end of the year.

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