On Tuesday, two Washington area groups will put down $100,000 each for a shot at something variously described as a risky game for rich men, a practically foolproof way to mint money, a vanity investment and a commercial enterprise not much different from any other. It is the business of owning a major league baseball team.
Washington hasn't had a team since the Senators left town two decades ago. Now hopes are rising that baseball will return as the National League edges toward allowing two more teams -- somewhere. Tuesday is the deadline for applying for a franchise, and around the Capital Beltway, investors have been groping through the haze that perpetually shrouds the finances of major league baseball as they decide whether they want in.
Metropolitan Washington Baseball L.P. is headed up by Washington developer John Akridge and Sovran Bank/D.C. National President Robert Pincus. Capital Region Baseball Inc., which wants eventually to build a new stadium in Northern Virginia, has developer Mark Tracz and attorney Ira Saul at the helm.
For now, the two groups, in the spirit of the business they aspire to, remain deliberately secretive. Their leaders court the press; their backers stay in the shadows as reporters try to ferret out their identities. Attorney Donald Dell and boxer Sugar Ray Leonard have turned up among the backers of Akridge and Pincus.
Why do people invest in baseball? "Owning a baseball team is a shortcut to instant prominence, instant fame, big ego massage," said veteran sports columnist Shirley Povich. "This is what drives them in most cases."
The ranks of major league team owners are full of larger-than-life figures, in many cases people who acquired that stature after buying the team. George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner -- they and others like them have created the impression that baseball is forbidden turf for conventional corporate investors.
Executives may share that belief. "A lot of corporations don't understand sports," said Robert Wussler, who heads the video entertainment unit of Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat) of Washington. "Some boards would look at sports as being somewhat frivolous, that it's more hobby than real business."
But the list of corporate investors is long and expected by some to keep going up as costs rise. Anheuser-Busch Cos. owns the St. Louis Cardinals. The Chicago Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs and Comsat has a controlling interest in the Denver Nuggets.
Some companies like the publicity baseball brings in; others, like Comsat, seek to integrate the team into other aspects of their business. It hopes to bolster a video service it offers in hotel rooms by putting Nuggets games on it.
For all the talk of risk, baseball to many outsiders seems an attractive business to be in, provided you stay awhile. Although some teams lose money, baseball has had only one really abject failure in memory: the Seattle Pilots, who ended up in bankruptcy court 20 years ago before being bought to become the Milwaukee Brewers.
Capital gains have been generally strong too: Edward Bennett Williams bought the Orioles for $12 million in 1979 and his estate sold them for $70 million in 1988. "Very, very few people have lost in investing in a ball club," said Gabe Paul, a former major league investor who retired in 1984.
Today the league is asking $95 million for each of the new franchises. That is just key money, the right to spend tens of millions more paying salaries, buying equipment, getting the team in operation. What potential investors must do is decide whether they think they can run the business profitably at these high prices. How much will they make from ticket receipts? From concession stands and parking? From cable television?
In many businesses, solid information would be there for the asking in the annual reports of other companies. In this one, considerable guesswork is required, because none of the 26 major league teams is publicly traded. "No one has seen the balance sheets and financial statements of any baseball team other than the owners," says Robert Pincus.
Never mind -- there is a cadre of consultants out there waiting to make educated guesses. They conduct studies of demographics, of local geography or tourism and stadium size, and come up with estimates. They also claim connections that yield gems from the books of real teams. Such are available "if you can make friends in high places," said Deborah Nungester of Public Financial Management Inc., a Philadelphia firm that is consulting for the Tracz/Saul group. "People will help you out. They won't give you exact figures but they will give you a range."
Both of Washington's investor groups, clearly, believe they can make things pay at a $95 million entry price tag. In recent weeks, the two groups have been hard at work looking for backers as the deadline drew near. "Basically we just pounded the pavement all over the United States of America," said Ira Saul. Specifically, his group made calls locally and in Richmond and New York City.
The idea is not just to get money, but a certain kind of money. The league tends to favor local investors over out-of-towners. It likes participation by minority citizens. It wants a relatively heavy reliance on equity as opposed to loans -- 60 percent equity, 40 percent loans is often mentioned as a typical mix in baseball financing. No one knows precisely how much these each of these factors weighs.
Armed with a prospectus, Tracz and Saul and group members made the rounds. They targeted wealthy individuals and large companies. In Washington, that has often meant real estate, the area's great concentrator of wealth. Given the ongoing slump in property values, however, the going was often tough, Saul said.
Most every industry these days is seeing foreign capital in large volumes and it is starting to show up in baseball too. Suntory Ltd., a large Japanese brewing and foods company, earlier this year agreed to pay an estimated $3 million for a White Sox farm team, the Birmingham Barons. But Saul said his group did not seek out foreign money. Why? "Baseball is generally grouped with mom and apple pie and the American flag," he said.
Once investors are found, banks must be lined up to finance the remainder of the project. Banks look at the same imponderables investors do: What income will be generated from this intangible asset, permission to stage baseball games? According to Saul, if a project includes construction of a new stadium (as his does), banks feel a bit easier about lending. There is something tangible to grab if the venture goes bad.
All their work may well be for nothing. By many accounts Washington ranks far down the list of places the National League wants to have a new team. For one thing, the Baltimore Orioles have argued strongly that Washington already has a team -- them.
But in the meantime, the two groups pursue the area's old dream of bringing back baseball, achieving along the way a genuine mingling of business and pleasure.