Monday, November 28, 2005

It's time for an owner to step forward

It would be easy to criticize the D.C. City Council for its attempt to get a better deal now that the Nationals have performed so well financially and the cost of the proposed stadium is rising. The Council has given us a lot of evidence that it can snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and that it can act in a way contrary to the will of the clear majority of both greater metropolitan area residents and those who live in D.C.

But the council is only doing what Major League Baseball is doing. Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf, and their minions want to squeeze as much cash out of the Nationals as possible. That's why they've held up the sale of the team, and that's why Reinsdorf is dickering over seemingly inconsequential details that, although worth millions, are rounding errors in terms of the entire deal.

After losing $80 million over their last three years in Montreal, the franchise made $10 million in after-tax profit last season. All Major League Baseball and the D.C. City Council are doing is maneuvering to reap the benefit of the Nationals' surprise financial performance and avoid paying a share of the rising stadium costs. There is nothing wrong with either of them doing so, but they've both shown the ability to create a train wreck where there was once agreement. That's the problem, of course: Reinsdorf, Cropp, Catania, et al., are so stubborn and tone deaf to the public will that they will risk cratering the deal to get what they want. You hope that they'll step back from the precipice, and they probably will, but it's more than a little discomforting as a fan to watch the sausage being made.

But amidst this cacophony of shrill voices is an opportunity for a prospective owner. Now is the time for the true ownership group of the franchise to step forward and show leadership, commitment, and ingenuity. Now is the time for an ownership group to offer to commit millions of its own dollars to the building of the stadium. Now is the time for an ownership group to put its own money on the line and commit its future to the team and the city. Abe Pollin did just that when Robert Johnson criticized him for feeding at the public trough by not putting up his own money to build the MCI Center, and Pollin gained enormous credibility and good will when he stepped forward to invest in the arena.

All of the ownership groups say they're committed to D.C., but none of them have been willing to back up that claim in the only way that really matters--money. If one of them were to do that, they'd immediately become the favorite of the City Council and the fans. They'd improve their position in the ownership derby, and they'd create good will among fans that will be both enormously valuable in the future and long-lasting. Given the team's economic performance to date and its significant profit potential, there is more than enough room for an ownership group to take this bold step.

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