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Green Bay on the Potomac: Why D.C. Should Own the Nationals

Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page B08

If the District is going to pay most or all of the costs of a new baseball stadium, why shouldn't it own the team and earn the profits the stadium is likely to generate? Or, put more directly, if the District is absorbing most of the costs of attracting baseball to Washington, why shouldn't the District own the team?

Consider the economics of the stadium deal. The District could spend as much as $631 million to build a stadium. The new owners of the baseball team will pay Major League Baseball about $300 million for the team, to be known as the Nationals -- a team the league acquired from its previous owner in 2002 for $120 million.

Control of the stadium and a huge chunk of the profits it generates -- concession sales, naming rights, parking revenue -- will go to the team's yet-to-be determined owners. Those owners also will enjoy the profits from ticket sales, merchandise and TV rights. Given the level of fan commitment to purchase season tickets, those profits could be munificent.

A municipally or community-owned team could use these profits to cover the costs of a stadium -- including acquiring land, environmental cleanup, expanding Metro and construction.

How might municipal ownership work in the District?

The District could find the financing to buy the Nationals by selling 49 percent of shares publicly, as the Cleveland Indians baseball team and the Boston Celtics basketball team have done. The District also could float Class B stock or sell small-denomination -- of say, $100 -- bonds redeemable only for face value. The idea would be to tap into regional enthusiasm for baseball, and let the fans pay for -- and own a chunk of -- the team.

The Green Bay Packers -- one of the most venerated and successful teams in professional football -- is community-owned. The nonprofit Packers is financed through the issuance of stock, and more than 100,000 people own shares in the team.

Packers stock cannot be resold, except back to the team for a fraction of the original price. Limited transfer -- to heirs and relatives -- is allowed. No dividends are paid. To prevent any one person from gaining control, no one is allowed to own more than 200,000 of the more than 4.7 million shares of stock.

With similar municipal or community ownership, the Nationals' profits could be directed to paying off bonds floated to pay for the stadium. And Major League Baseball has ensured that the team will be profitable because its owners will capture so much of the revenue associated with the new ballpark.

Green Bay shows that structures can be put in place that lead to effective management by a publicly or community-owned team. The Packers' stockholders elect a board of directors, which elects an executive committee. That committee directs management, which handles the business of the team.

While a Green Bay-style approach isn't guaranteed to work in Washington, fans here have had plenty of experience that shows that single-person or group ownership doesn't automatically bring success either.

What is more certain are the economics and control issues. With municipal ownership, the District never again would face shakedown threats that the team would move unless some new demand from commercial ownership was satisfied. And the District would get back some financial return on the hundreds of millions it is preparing to pour into the stadium.

A community-owned stadium still wouldn't be the smartest priority for a city with so many unmet needs, but it would be a lot better than the giant giveaway the District now plans.

-- Ralph Nader


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