SBJ/August 22 - 28, 2005/Other News

Lease delays D.C. owner selection

Major League Baseball’s selection of a new owner for the Washington Nationals is being delayed by a still-incomplete lease agreement for the team’s new ballpark.

The lease agreement between MLB and the District of Columbia for the ballpark, set to open in 2008 in southeast Washington, is expected within two to three weeks and is not expected to become a major impediment. To that end, the lease terms will derive extensively from the baseball stadium agreement struck last fall by the two sides. But MLB executives, convening last week in Pasadena, Calif., with team owners for quarterly meetings, said a final lease represents a firm prerequisite for selecting new owners for the Nationals.

“We’re definitely going to need to have that finished up first,” said MLB President Bob DuPuy. “We’re not going to make a recommendation to [Commissioner Bud Selig] until the documentation is completed. That has been actively in process over the last week or so. It’s being done by MLB with the stadium authority and then will be assigned to the new owners.”

MLB’s stance on the lease agreement means the announcement of the chosen Nationals owner will not be made until sometime in September at the earliest, more than eight months later than first expected following the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington. Previous timetables of January, April, July and now August vaporized amid several issues, most notably lengthy negotiations with Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to link the local television rights of the Orioles and Nationals.

Mark Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, said he is aware of the city’s position in the overall process to select the team’s new owner. The commission will hold a special meeting Friday to select the lead contractor for the ballpark project. Bidding for the high-profile job are Turner Construction Co., Clark Construction Group LLC and Barton Malow Co.

“We’re aware of what we need to do,” Tuohey said. “There are a few relatively minor issues with the lease still needing to be sorted out.”

Bidding on the MLB-owned Nationals 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 Seattle Mariners owner Jeffrey Smulyan; former Atlanta sports executive Stan Kasten; and a team of California billionaire Ron Burkle and Chicago attorney Yusef Jackson.

Kasten and Smulyan each met with MLB’s relocation committee, now leading the sale process, immediately following the two-day owners’ meeting, part of an overall review process in which each candidate received at least two sit-down sessions with baseball.

DuPuy dismissed industry rumors that MLB would soon establish a set price at which to sell the Nationals. Bidding for the club is expected to reach $450 million. Beyond price, factors such as ties to district government will weigh heavily in the final selection.

World Baseball Classic progresses: Announcements from MLB on venues for the World Baseball Classic are expected in early to mid-September after lengthy meetings last week in New York involving baseball, the players union and representatives from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.

Team owners from the Japanese leagues want to play in the inaugural event, slated for March 3-20, 2006, but players there voted recently to decline the invitation, believing the Classic should be played during the summer. MLB refuses to disrupt its own regular season to make that switch. Once announced, the schedule of games for the World Classic will include an Asian pool of early round games, likely in Tokyo, with further rounds to follow in Arizona, Texas and California.

TV network set for winter debut: MLB’s Baseball Channel, approved by team owners a year ago, is now being eyed for a winter launch, DuPuy said. Early plans called for a late summer or autumn launch. But several key details remain unresolved, including the exact programming mix for the network and how it will co-exist with baseball’s wildly successful Internet division, MLB Advanced Media.

“We’re still moving forward and intend to be on the air sometime during the winter, certainly before Opening Day ’06, and we’re interviewing CEO candidates,” DuPuy said.

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