Robert Johnson said yesterday he plans to continue efforts to return Major League Baseball to the Washington area even after the billionaire District businessman was awarded an NBA expansion franchise in Charlotte for nearly $300 million.
A source close to Johnson, the founder of Washington-based Black Entertainment Television, said Tuesday night that Johnson was unlikely to continue pursuit of the Montreal Expos to play in either the District or Northern Virginia for the 2004 season.
"That was false information," Johnson said following a news conference announcing his selection as the first black majority owner in one of the four major North American professional sports leagues, pending approval by the NBA's board of governors next month.
Later, in a telephone interview following his return to Washington, Johnson, who is joined in his bid for the Expos by Redskins owner Dan Snyder, said he made it clear to the eight committee members during an hour-long meeting on Monday that he had no intention of dropping his baseball bid. He is the leader of one of three local groups seeking to end MLB's 32-year absence here.
"They asked me, 'Are you still going to do baseball?' " Johnson said. "And I said, 'Yes, I'm going to do baseball in Washington, D.C., that for me, not to be part of a group . . . to bring baseball to the Nation's Capital, would be sort of against my business interests in town and my desire to be involved with the business and sports community in Washington, D.C.' "
Johnson reiterated that he would have to be the lead investor in any baseball ownership group, a condition MLB could mandate if it chooses either Washington or Northern Virginia. William Collins III, a telecommunication executive in Alexandria, has said he personally would consider such an arrangement if MLB decides on Northern Virginia.
Collins, who is backed by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), is a partner and key financial backer of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority.
The District government is in partnership with Washington Baseball Club LLC, a partnership led by financier Fred Malek. Malek is bound contractually to the city, but sources familiar with the situation said Malek and some of his partners would not align in a deal with Johnson. If baseball awarded the Expos to Northern Virginia, a source said Malek would consider heading an ownership group there only if a new ballpark was inside the Beltway with Metrorail access.
Malek declined comment, pointing to his exclusive deal with the District government.
MLB named a relocation committee last month to recommend to Commissioner Bud Selig which city the Expos should be sold and relocated to in the 2004 season. The Expos are the MLB team with the least local revenue and are owned by the 29 other clubs. Robert DuPuy, MLB president and chief operating officer, last week called the Expos' relocation MLB's highest priority.
The committee has notified government officials in at least four jurisdictions, including the District and Northern Virginia, that in January it will invite them to meet with the committee to discuss sites for a new ballpark and how those sites will be financed. The meeting could take place as early as late February. The jurisdictions were told not to bring an ownership group as part of a delegation.
Sources confirmed that Portland, Ore., and Charlotte also were notified to expect an invitation to appear before the relocation committee. Charlotte will be invited to discuss later relocation possibilities.
Staff writer Rachel Nichols contributed to this report from New York