The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why owning a baseball team isn’t like owning a shopping mall

Ryan Zimmerman (11) helps owner Ted Lerner during the Nationals' World Series rally in 2019. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

On the day he chose the Lerner family as the new owners of the Washington Nationals, Bud Selig, then the commissioner of Major League Baseball, had a conversation with Ted Lerner, the billionaire real estate developer and patriarch of a deeply rooted Washington family. For $450 million, the Lerners had been granted the right to join a fairly exclusive club. But they had also entered a new realm.

“I said to him this morning, ‘Whether you know it or not, your life took a very dramatic turn in the public,’ ” Selig told The Washington Post on that May day in 2006. “I’m not sure he really knows it.”

Implied but unsaid: Owning a baseball franchise isn’t like owning a mall. Customers aren’t emotionally invested in which department store franchise becomes the anchor tenant in a real estate development. They care deeply about who plays third base or whether the organization is adept at developing pitching.

That’s why a not insignificant portion of the fan base felt some fear — and, relatedly, some disappointment — at last week’s news that the Lerners will at least explore selling the Nationals. (Psst. The strong feeling here is they will sell the Nationals.) It’s just jarring and leads to so many questions. Will the new owners commit to providing a competitive payroll? Will they retain and/or hire the requisite staff needed to build a consistent winner? What are their ties to the Washington market? This is, after all, a town that has twice been stripped of a big league club — and there are fans who are scarred by it. How will new owners improve — or worsen — the experience for fans at Nationals Park? And OH MY GOODNESS WILL THEY PAY TO KEEP JUAN SOTO? There’s a tremendous fear of the unknown. The Lerners were known.

Will the Lerner family sell the Nationals? Your questions, answered.

The effectiveness of sports owners is debated ad nauseam by fans. The common narrative: An owner who spends generously and wisely builds a winner. But there’s more to it than that, too. There’s a civic element to owning a sports franchise because your customers are fans, and fans talk about your business as “we” — we can win this game, we need this position, how will we do this season.

So who owns the local baseball team matters — as does who owns the local football team, which around here is another story altogether. But maybe there’s something in the contrast between Daniel Snyder and Ted Lerner. Washington’s NFL franchise has struggled enormously under Snyder, who has become reviled by his own fan base and whose tenure has included investigations by both the league and Congress. For almost everybody involved, it can’t end soon enough.

Yet in a perverse way, Snyder’s passion for the newly renamed Commanders — one that dates all the way back to rooting for his Redskins as a child — is what fans want from their owners. Strip away all the negativity that comes with his ownership, and what you have is a fan who wants to win a championship and wants it badly. In 1999, Snyder bought the franchise for $800 million. Forbes now values it at $4.2 billion. Snyder is under fire and could stand to make an enormous profit. Yet he passionately hangs on.

This is in no way to suggest that Snyder is a better owner — a better face — than the Lerners. He’s not, and we don’t have the time or the space to list the reasons.

But the Lerners’ decision to at least explore a sale shifts the view of their ownership. A month ago, it read as a stewardship of the national pastime in the nation’s capital, which just so happens to be Ted Lerner’s hometown. Now, it feels much more transactional.

Listen, this is their right. They bought the franchise for $450 million. Forbes now values it at $2 billion. It’s easy for those of us who don’t stand to make that kind of profit — and then, perhaps, reinvest that money in businesses that give a greater return on investment than sports franchises — to turn it down. Given that the pandemic has adversely affected all sorts of businesses — including commercial real estate and Major League Baseball — there are plenty of businesspeople who could easily assess a sale as simply smart business.

What sports fans want from their teams — and their teams’ ownership — isn’t just smart business. Smart business must extract emotions from the decision-making process. Sports are inherently emotional. Not for front offices that make the best decisions. But for the people watching the games and buying the tickets. People plop down on a couch or in the stands 162 times a year to root for a baseball team. They don’t invest that kind of time or emotion into the fortunes of a mall.

The Washington Nationals might be for sale. Then what?

The Nationals were already undergoing a rebuild that is painful for a fan base that became spoiled by annual contention. Now, there’s another layer of uncertainty on top of that. Whether it was their fault or not, the Lerners lost two of their best homegrown position players — Bryce Harper, now a two-time National League MVP, and third baseman Anthony Rendon — to free agency. Any delay in securing Soto, their best homegrown product, makes for an uneasiness in the fan base. There are plenty of people who believe the Nationals are a more attractive asset with Soto locked up for a decade or more — even at an annual salary of $40 million. But would Soto sign an extension before he knows for whom he would be working?

What fans knew about the Nationals, under the Lerners’ ownership, is that when it was time to provide payroll so the team could contend, the family did just that. From 2012 to 2020 — a span that included four NL East titles, five postseason appearances and the 2019 World Series championship — here are the team’s ranks in major league payrolls, according to Spotrac: 16th, 11th, eighth, fifth, 15th, sixth, fifth, seventh and seventh. Considering that entire span came during a time when the Nationals’ revenue from its TV deal with MASN was a fraction of what the team believes it should have been, those commitments are real.

Now? Well, supporters can’t be sure.

Maybe this works out the best for all involved. Maybe a group led by a local anchor — yes, Ted Leonsis or David Rubenstein or both — comes up with the money to buy the team and commits to both the rebuild that’s underway and the resources that will elevate it beyond that, on the baseball and the fan experience sides of the franchise. The Lerners can go back to being the lower-profile business community pillars they were previously. If that’s the case, there are no losers.

But whoever steps into this ownership — this stewardship — must be prepared for the public element of it all, not to mention the questions that come with it, questions about commitment to the product and commitment to the community. Owning a sports team isn’t like owning an office building. People care to the point of tears, both of pain and of joy.

Loading...