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D.C. Baseball's Hidden Costs

By Marion Barry
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A27

The relocation of a Major League Baseball franchise to the District of Columbia is cause for both elation and pride for Washington area residents. Baseball is, after all, one of America's greatest pastimes. Games are not just games, they are great social events that bring families and friends together on a Saturday afternoon.

But the relocation of a major league team to the Washington area also raises fundamental questions about responsibility -- particularly about whether the multimillionaire team owners can hold communities hostage to their terms, which require taxpayers to shoulder the burden while owners skim the cream. I want baseball to come to Washington, but I don't want to see the District pillaged in the process. Rather, the District should stand up for itself, use its considerable leverage and ask for the burden to be shared by the owners -- who can more than afford it -- so that the city's essential human and educational service budgets aren't neglected for a Saturday afternoon thrill.

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MLB's proposal -- swallowed with little question by a mayor sworn to represent the interests of D.C. residents -- is unfair and exploitative. As cities such as Seattle and San Francisco have shown, arrangements can be made so that the team owner -- in the spirit of shared responsibilities and benefits -- picks up part of the tab.

What should particularly bother D.C. residents are the secret parts of this deal, whereby MLB plans to stick the people of our city with hidden taxes -- most notably in the form of increases in cable and satellite rates -- by heisting TV broadcast rights from the owners of the new Washington Nationals and thus from the city at large.

In most instances, owners of sports franchises get the financial crown jewels -- the television broadcast rights -- which help make them a success and defray costs of such things as, say, stadium construction. In New York, the Yankees were able to convert their broadcast rights into a $1.2 billion new television network.

But here in Washington, the MLB owners seem to be patronizing us and apparently want to withhold these rights and instead transfer the lion's share of them to our new team's rival: Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Not surprisingly, Angelos intends to follow in the Bronx Bombers' path, leveraging these rights to force the creation of a new, superfluous, sports network that will -- if experience is any guide -- hike monthly satellite and cable prices for D.C. residents by $2 to $3, notwithstanding the mayor's promise to protect taxpayers.

This kind of Robin Hood-in-reverse practice is nothing new to District residents, who are used to non-taxpayers making full use of the rich resources of the city. But for baseball owners to start the practice is something new. And D.C. television viewers will not be the only ones footing the bill. The uncompensated transfer of the broadcast rights to a rival is the equivalent of MLB dictating to the Nationals that they must trade, at the very least, one Alex Rodriguez to the Baltimore Orioles for nothing.

The new owner of the Nationals, whoever it is, will be under unprecedented pressure to make a new team solvent -- and thus vindicate the public's huge investment in the new stadium. With the usurpation of the TV rights, the new owner would be greatly handicapped in satisfying the thirst of Angelos, who, with his saber-rattling, threatened to veto the relocation unless he was compensated.

The team doesn't need Angelos as its partner (through a forced marriage) in creating a new sports TV network. When a second local sports network is created -- as happened in New York -- cable and satellite customers' bills for local sports TV double. But when the teams in a local market agree to create a single network -- as happened in Chicago -- there is plenty of revenue to go around, and cable and satellite customers get a better deal.

As much as we all want baseball games to take our kids to -- and I do -- we should not allow our enthusiasm to sanction mendacity, and, in particular, to give the green light to powerful new corporate interests to treat the District and its people like second-class supplicants and pawns. Baseball is more than possible in the District: It's within our grasp. But if I'm going to sign my name to a deal that commits taxpayers, then the deal better be fair. And right now, it's all give and no get for the taxpayers I represent.

The writer is the former mayor of the District of Columbia and D.C. Council member-elect from Ward 8.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company