SBJ/May 15 - 21, 2006/This Weeks News

Kasten’s eager to build a team from scratch

The $450 million sale of the Washington Nationals to a group led by Maryland developer Ted Lerner, expected to be approved Thursday by MLB owners, reflects a bullishness in baseball’s economy, the vibrancy of the Washington market, and the team-friendly elements of the lease for the club’s forthcoming $611 million ballpark.

Stan Kasten (right) and Nationals owner Ted Lerner
at the sale announcement May 3.
That approval, however, also means the immediate delivery of a laundry list of headaches, ranging from the team’s compromised distribution of local game telecasts to problematic operations at RFK Stadium, the club’s current home, and a fractured relationship with the D.C. Council and local fan base.

Stan Kasten, the former president of the Atlanta Braves who inherits the same title as well as part ownership of the Nationals, joined Lerner’s bid group in March after determining he could not win on his own. The merger ended an off-and-on, 2 1/2-year discussion about working together.

Kasten spoke recently with SportsBusiness Journal about the impending challenges. The following is an abridged transcript:

A lot was made about your groups, both separately and together, not saying anything publicly about your bid. What was the reasoning behind that?

KASTEN: When I’m doing any kind of business, when I’m working on a trade, when I’m working a player contract, I don’t talk about it until it’s done. It’s how I believe deals are done most efficiently, without the interjection of extraneous forces such as media attention. But also, it doesn’t alert my competitors as to what I’m doing.

Everything you do is being observed by your 29 other competitors who are trying to beat you, so it’s best for your competitors to not know what you’re doing. And so I do all my business that way.

As for Ted, he’s a builder. He’s not in a business where he’s in the public eye, and we had a process that was being done privately, and he chose to remain private. But he has no fear of the media. It wasn’t part of his former life, but he’s going to be available.

Do you feel that strategy was truly determinative in how MLB Commissioner Bud Selig selected the winning bid?

KASTEN: Yeah. Bud has to have a comfort level on behalf of the owners, and the owners have to have a comfort level, and the strength of your partners — how much you can count on them — is critically important. We were definitely selling that.

I understand the competition point; your silence certainly frustrated the other bidders. But what about the stadium lease? Why didn’t you try to lobby for votes to get this passed sooner, given how close this came to failing?

KASTEN: I’ve always considered that highly presumptuous to do that. Who am I to do that? I didn’t have this team [yet]. If I were lucky enough to get this team, my first order of business was going to be to contact those people, and that’s now already happened.

Does it frustrate you now having seen the Braves go up for sale? Does part of you wish you went after that instead?

KASTEN: No. No. I had this conversation with Ted. He asked me the same thing, but it’s not what I want to do. I have built these things, all of which I am proud of. I need to find the next thing to build, something bigger and better than anything I’ve done before. I have found it: The opportunity to build a team from scratch, build a stadium from scratch, in one of the greatest cities in the world. For someone who does what I do, that’s the top of the mountain.

About building the stadium: The timetable that’s in place is more aggressive than anything that’s been done in the Northeast in the modern era. Can it really be done [by March 2008]?

KASTEN: It’s going to be a challenge, but I know the record here of the people who built the convention center [and will also build the stadium]. It’s a very good one. They’re obviously very professional. My partners, the Lerners, this is what they do, so any contribution they can make will only be a plus.

What are your thoughts about RFK Stadium? The [D.C. Sports & Entertainment] Commission continues to struggle with game operations for Nationals games, and complaints continue to pile in from all corners about how the stadium is run.

KASTEN: Hopefully, whatever problems we’re having to confront down there are short-lived, because one way or another, we’re going to be out of there relatively soon. We’ll do what we can in the meantime, and we expect to do a lot, but again, our eyes are on the long term, and the long term is about the new stadium.

You’ve made comments about trying to resolve the [Mid-Atlantic Sports Network] debate with Comcast. What can you really do about this? The positions on each side now are so entrenched.

KASTEN: Hopefully, my intercession at this late juncture can be a positive force. My only agenda is the only one acceptable to everyone, which is all the games being on TV. I know that’s the end result that works best for everyone. It’s also the same result that all the external forces, such as Congress, want to see. I’d like to think we can get to a solution without the intercession of those external forces, because that does us no good. We’re all grown-ups here.

What is your opinion of the deal MLB made with Peter Angelos? While the carriage dispute goes on, many critics continue to attack the original agreement that preceded all of this.

(Editor’s note: The deal gave Baltimore owner Angelos 90 percent ownership of MASN, which is airing Nationals games this season and will add Orioles games next year. The agreement also provides that Angelos’ ownership stake not drop to lower than 67 percent in future seasons despite Baltimore’s standing as a smaller media market than Washington.)

KASTEN: I’m not going to second-guess or criticize. We have our deal. It’s something we have accepted with our eyes open. It is what it is, and we’re prepared to move forward. We’re not going to complain about anything we just bought.

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