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Some History of the Expos Relocation to DC and My Nationals Park Mea Culpa

28th March 2008

The turning point for my studies in sports as a business may have had far, far earlier beginnings, but there is certainly no point more important for me than the relocation of the Montreal Expos. As one that resides in Portland, OR. I worked closely with former Indiana Pacers general manager, and now owner of several NBA D-League teams, David Kahn on some of the material that was submitted to MLB regarding why the Portland market could support the relocated Expos and how to fund the development of a new stadium.

Of course, the story of the relocation ends in Washington, D.C. where the Expos became the Nationals.

The final part of this event culminates Sunday when the Nationals take the field against the Atlanta Braves at the newly completed Nationals Park, a $611 million ballpark along the Anacostia River in the Near Southeast area.

Since becoming a sports business analyst and reporting on it, there has never been a project that I have followed more closely.

There is also never been a process that I have been more critical of.

I deemed the project a “boondoggle” based on the ever increasing price tag that was estimated to build the stadium that would be home to the then Expos, should MLB decide to take up the District on their offer.

Understanding that any stadium that the relocated Expos would play in would be coming with the least amount of assistance from the new owners, the District, as early as 2001 mentioned a price tag of approx. $300 million and grew to what is now $611 million, based on the conditional award of the franchise.

In other words, give the District the team, and they’d build the stadium.

MLB knew that this method of awarding the team first would place the power with the city that won the bid, and initially balked at the notion of conditional award, at least until other markets, such as Portland, helped leverage DC into more concessions.

It also would give MLB time to try and deal with Peter Angelos, the Orioles owner who was hell bent on stopping any relocation into the region, due to the dilution of the fanbase, both at the ballpark and via television territory.

When the time arrived and the award was finally given to DC on September 29, 2004, it seemed fitting and sad that MLB made the announcement on the final game of the season for the Expos in Montreal.

To get around Angelos, baseball awarded the Orioles owner an exceptionally lucrative stake in a joint regional sports network that would become Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). The deal gave Angelos 90% of MASN, and pays the Nationals $20 million a year to control the rights to their newly created broadcast area. The Nationals’ stake in the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN) will increase to 33 percent over the next two decades.

It also seemed fitting that a battle royal would happen over the funding of the stadium.

The funding for the ballpark, however, came with plenty of controversy, and nearly created a legal battle with MLB when the $581 million that the District was now on the hook for, got locked up within the political wranglings of the DC Council.

Facing a December 31st deadline to get the financing in place, Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp, threw a wrench in the works by saying that changes to protect the District needed to be in place. The changes would later be called “Cropps’ Cap” in reference to the capping of public funds.

The key provision would be a guarantee that the city’s costs for the project would be capped at the $535 million the council approved, plus $54 million in bond financing fees. Any additional costs would have to be covered by the league, the owner of the Washington Nationals or private developers, Cropp wrote at the time.

New Years Day arrived, and the deal was still not reached.

On January 5th of 2006, MLB filed for arbitration.

The “best way to move the process forward for the benefit of the District’s baseball fans is through the mediation process,” MLB COO Bob DuPuy said in a written statement at the time. “It is our contractual right to seek mediation as a tool to convince the parties to fulfill their obligations as set forth in the contract that was agreed to more than a year ago.”

18 months after DC Mayor Anthony Williams had agreed to give MLB a stadium in exchange for the Expos, the final Council vote went 9-4 in favor of the funding deal on March 8, 2006. Finally, a D.C. stadium funding deal was approved.

It is still one of the most generous deals given by a municipality for stadium development in the history of Major League Baseball.

My Nationals Park Mea Culpa

By this point in time I had seen the massive escalation of funding, the aggressive construction schedule needed, the capped funding provision, and said, “There’s no way it will make it on time or on budget.”

There would be complications with the site location selected along the Anacostia. There would be delays in getting the stadium built due to the weather. There would something that would take the already overpriced stadium cost with ever-so-thin funds set aside in case of complications, and blow a hole right through the top of the cap.

To the credit of the DCSEC, and the Nationals ownership, namely president Stan Kasten, the ballpark is opening on time and on budget.

There are still problems to be dealt with. Parking is going to be a headache, possibly for years to come. But, after watching the process for more than seven years, the hurricane of controversy has given way to the good feeling of seeing the stadium come online, and the Nationals have a permanent facility with which to play in.

For all the years of saying the stadium would be a boondoggle, I’m left with a feeling that while the public still has paid too much, “boondoggle” was more than a bit too much.

It is a fine ballpark that the Nationals will call home. Pedestrian in most aspects of its design, and not something that will be looked upon as a signature ballpark by newer MLB standards, it will be much like Great American Ballpark, or Citizens Bank Park, which is nothing that DC or the Nationals should be ashamed of. It’s still beautiful and glorious in its own way.

So, as the Nationals play their warm-up event today against the Baltimore Orioles in an exhibition, I have to say that while I was right in seeing the scales tipped too far in favor of the new Nationals ownership when came to funding, I was wrong in how the ballpark would be completed, once the hullabaloo over funding passage arrived.

On Sunday, I will sit a coast away from the Nationals and Braves game, and slip on a cap with a curly W and set the channel ESPN to watch the drama of Nationals Park unfold and say that it is a good day for baseball, and more importantly, a good day for baseball in Washington, D.C.

To see details of the Nationals Ballpark, as well as funding information, see the following on The Biz of Baseball:

Renderings of the New Nationals Ballpark. Also, those interested in the technical details should read the “No-Relocation” Agreement between MLB & the DCSEC, the DC Ballpark – Project Labor Agreement, and most importantly, the DC Baseball Stadium Agreement (2004).


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Maury Brown

Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey. He is contributor to Baseball Prospectus, and is available as a freelance writer.

Brown’s full bio is here. He looks forward to your comments via email and can be contacted through the Business of Sports Network.

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