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Potential Nats Owners Are Going to Bat

By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page D01

MLB has received about half a dozen $100,000 deposits from would-be buyers of the Washington Nationals, and the league expects several more after the D.C. Council this week formally agreed to build the Nationals a stadium on the Anacostia waterfront, according to senior league officials.

But baseball still faces several obstacles as it seeks to sell the team, including Baltimore Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos's continued opposition to a Washington team, and it has yet to establish a firm timetable for finding an owner.

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Baseball hopes to sell the Nationals for at least $300 million before Opening Day. But according to individuals interested in bidding as well as some investment bankers, Angelos's claims to the television rights to the entire Baltimore-Washington region has spooked some would-be owners. The Nationals' new owners would need revenue from Washington area television rights to pay for a competitive team.

Baseball President Robert A. DuPuy said MLB has received bids from between four and eight parties so far. The bids include a $100,000 partially refundable deposit from each as well as detailed personal and financial statements. The league continues to accept applications and pushed back the deadline after the D.C. Council originally refused to guarantee the entire cost of the new stadium. The council on Tuesday agreed to build the facility without qualification.

DuPuy would not identify the bidders. But a local group jointly headed by businessmen Fred Malek and Jeffrey D. Zients said it has placed a deposit. And two sources familiar with the sale process said the Washington-based Theodore N. Lerner family, headed by real estate developer Ted Lerner, is believed to be another front-runner from the Washington area.

"We have submitted our phase one materials and we are awaiting guidance from Major League Baseball on the next step," said Malek, who at one time was a part-owner of the Texas Rangers with President Bush. "So far, the deliberative and thoughtful process has proven to be the right way to go."

Stan Kasten, former president of the Atlanta Braves and the NBA's Atlanta Hawks, also has talked to investors about putting together a group or joining an existing one.

Several telephone messages seeking comment from the Lerners over the last several weeks have not been answered.

Baseball and Angelos have been negotiating on a financial package since September, but the talks stopped earlier this month shortly before the Nationals shut down operations until the D.C. Council passed the stadium agreement.

"The discussions with Peter Angelos were put on hold given the events of the past week, but we fully expect resolution of that issue prior to the time bids are submitted," said DuPuy, who has handled the negotiations between the league and Angelos.

Angelos declined to comment when reached by telephone, but he has said privately that he is prepared to sue the league if he and baseball don't reach an agreement. The agreement would include guarantees from MLB that the Orioles would sell for at least $365 million if Angelos puts the franchise on the market. Angelos also is pressing for a majority of the revenues from a newly created regional sports network jointly owned by the Baltimore and Washington teams.

Some bidders and investment bankers have expressed concern about bidding on a team without a media deal in place and with it still uncertain whether Angelos will be part of that deal.

"In any transaction, media revenues are extemely important to the financial viability of the team," said Sal Galatioto, head of sports business for Lehman Brothers. "And in order to make an intelligent offer, you have to have a firm idea of what the media revenues are going to look like."

One option is for baseball to pursue a separate local television broadcasting agreement for the Nationals without the Orioles' participation, although Angelos has privately told people he could take legal action to prevent that. Angelos and DuPuy declined to comment on the likelihood of a separate deal and its ramifications for the Orioles.

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