Friday, April 7, 2006

Baseball season is under way, and construction on the Washington Nationals’ new ballpark is set to begin. But one key piece of the puzzle remains absent: someone in charge.

Nationals and city officials said Major League Baseball must name an owner for the franchise as soon as possible so that big decisions relating to the team, its television deal and its ballpark can be made.

“Owner input would be very useful — the sooner the better, and hopefully baseball understands that,” said Bill Hall, chairman of the baseball committee for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

The Nationals franchise has been owned by the 29 other major league teams since 2003, with club president Tony Tavares running the operation. The arrangement, coupled with uncertainty about the new stadium, has placed the team at a disadvantage in nearly every respect, from payroll to marketing to negotiating for strong broadcast deals.

“The key issue for the new owner is acting with some certainty on some issues,” Tavares said. “He’ll be able to act in a more decisive way than I can. It’s time for people to get some certainty. I’m looking forward to it. I know most of my staff are looking forward to it.”

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who has the final say in who owns the team, is conducting final interviews of bidders and could make a decision any time. Eight groups have bid for the team, which is expected to sell for about $450million.

The groups last week were provided information outlining the stadium lease agreement between the Nationals and the city, as well as the agreement governing construction of the ballpark. In addition, groups were told they could review the team’s most recent financial statements, as well as financial data of MLB Advanced Media, the league’s Internet division.

It’s still unclear which bid group Selig prefers, but the front-runners are believed to include Jeff Smulyan, an Indianapolis communications executive who has teamed with several local businessmen and power brokers; the Washington Baseball Club, led by local businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey Zients; and a group led by the Lerner family, who own a prominent local real estate company.

The Lerner group also could merge with Stan Kasten, a former executive with the Atlanta Braves, who submitted a bid of his own. None of the bidders has been eliminated officially from contention, however, and Selig has been known to try to assemble an ownership group with which he is comfortable.

City officials are particularly anxious for an owner to be named because of several upcoming decisions related to the new ballpark, to be located along the Anacostia Waterfront. Construction of the stadium could begin this month, and officials would prefer owner input about aspects of the ballpark design, including the location of an adjacent parking garage.

In addition, architects and the construction team would like to consult the owner about changes to the design of the ballpark and the materials used to build it. The sports commission has required the construction team to build the ballpark for no more than $320 million, and efforts to stay under that cap have forced some more expensive materials and design aspects to be removed.

“I think it will be interesting to see what input the new owner has in the design,” Hall said.

Nationals officials said a new owner also could help resolve a dispute between the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which broadcasts Nationals games, and Comcast Cable, which has refused to carry the network. MASN is owned by MLB and the Baltimore Orioles under an arrangement to compensate Orioles owner Peter Angelos for the Nationals’ move to the region.

MASN and Comcast yesterday traded offers, with the network submitting a sheet of terms equal to what MASN’s five current distributors are paying for the network. Comcast, meanwhile offered to equal the Orioles’ payment to the Nationals, currently about $21 million, in exchange.

The House Committee on Government Reform is holding a hearing on the dispute today.

“The biggest thing that can happen for us is getting the TV deal squared away,” Tavares said.

Some bidders for the team, including Smulyan, have indicated a desire to alter the television deal so the Nationals receive a greater share of revenue from the network. But MASN officials say they will resist a change because long-term contracts with five distributors are already in place.

“The new owner will hopefully be able to convince Comcast to end its blackout of the Nationals television network,” MASN spokesman Todd Webster said. “It’s a very good TV deal for the Nationals and the owner. It’s in the owner’s best interest to get Comcast to sign on.”

Bidders for the team said the most important task for a new owner is to establish a more positive relationship with community members, many of whom soured on baseball during the long struggle with the D.C. Council over the stadium lease agreement. Decisions regarding players and coaches would not be a priority, they said, especially because the new owner would not take over control of the team until midsummer at the earliest.

“I think absolutely the most important thing is for the new owner is to re-establish a relationship between the ball club and the community,” said a representative of one bidding group, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of an MLB request to avoid commenting to the media. “There’s just been a tremendous amount of damage done.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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