Business leaders seeking to bring the Montreal Expos to southeastern Virginia launched a season ticket drive Wednesday aimed at convincing baseball that the area can support a major league team.
But the television, radio, billboard and newspaper blitz could backfire if baseball promoters in this sprawling port area of 16 cities and counties, collectively known as Hampton Roads, fail to muster enough season ticket commitments to impress baseball officials.
"Is it a risk? Of course it's a risk, but it's a calculated risk," said William Somerindyke Jr., one of a pair of 26-year-old financiers leading the drive for the Expos. "It's a risk if the campaign flops. But if we get a very good number and get the passion of the community behind us, then it's a success in baseball's eyes."
Somerindyke and his partner, Jason Osborne, who run a private consulting practice here, have an uphill battle against wealthier and better known bidders such as Washington and Northern Virginia. Others in the six-city race include Monterrey, Mexico; Las Vegas; and Portland, Ore. The Expos are expected to sell for at least $200 million.
A decision by Commissioner Bud Selig on where to relocate the Expos, a financially struggling team owned by baseball's other 29 teams, could come by mid-summer. Baseball officials said last week that all six cities are still in contention.
Norfolk has a $300 million financing package in place for a 38,000-seat stadium that would open in 2007 along the Elizabeth River in its downtown. A tax on hotel rooms and rental cars is accumulating money in an escrow account that would help pay for public bonds if baseball comes here. The rest of the $25 million or so in annual financing would come from stadium taxes on tickets, concessions and player payroll, according to officials here.
Somerindyke and Osborne said they have public commitments from more than 35 area businesses and organizations -- from Bank of America to Hampton Roads Toyota Dealers -- to purchase luxury suites at the stadium.
Their business model calls for a large amount of revenues coming from television and radio sales stretching down into North Carolina. The local Norfolk Tides, a Class AAA New York Mets affiliate, draw about 7,300 a game at the 12,000-seat Harbor Park, according to a minor league baseball Web site. The park could be expanded to 18,000 to 25,000 to accommodate the Expos for Opening Day next April, according to Osborne.
But there hasn't been much buzz, although ticket sales were said to be brisk by mid-afternoon Wednesday.
"We've got to get all the cities in a frenzy," said Billy Wray, 61, who owns a Norfolk trucking firm and committed to four season tickets. "It ain't happening yet. We've got to get the momentum going."
Somerindyke's and Osborne's fellow investors are still a mystery, although the pair said that baseball knows the names of their backers. Washington's group is led by financier Fred Malek, a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, and includes America Online mogul Jim Kimsey, real estate businessman Joe Robert and Franklin Raines of Fannie Mae. Northern Virginia's group is led by businessman William Collins.
Somerindyke said that ticket commitments were averaging one per minute by mid-day, with fans putting down only $100 toward future season tickets.
Hampton Roads has only about 1.9 million people compared with about 5.9 million in the Washington/Northern Virginia market, according to one study by the Virginia Baseball Authority. And the average household income in the Norfolk area is around $58,000 (63rd nationally) compared with around $85,000 (second) in Washington/Northern Virginia.
Monterrey has nearly 4 million people, Portland has nearly 3 million and Las Vegas has 1.6 million.
In recent years, Hampton Roads has failed to land an NHL and NBA team. It was once home to the American Basketball Association Virginia Squires, but they folded when the league shut down in the 1970s.
The federal government employees 50,000 military and civilian personnel in the area; the largest private employers are shipbuilder Northrup Grumman Newport News (18,000) and Sentara Healthcare (15,000), according to the Hampton Roads Economic Alliance, an arm of the business community.
"We are the largest region in the country without a major league sports team," he said. "There are close to 3 million people within 100 miles. What that shows is an untapped market."