Monopoly Game

If the Washington area gets a major-league baseball team, how badly would it hurt the Orioles? Two-team markets exist, but with varying degrees of success.

July 30, 2000|By Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan | Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

The Chicago White Sox are the talk of the major leagues, with the best record in the American League and a young, exciting team. So why isn't anyone going to see them?

The Oakland Athletics are in playoff contention for the second year in a row with an appealing club that should be packing them in at Network Associates Coliseum. But attendance has been so disappointing the franchise wants to move farther away from the cross-bay rival San Francisco Giants.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos looks at those situations and serves them up as proof that baseball promoters in Washington and Northern Virginia should not try to wedge a second team into the Baltimore/Washington market. He acknowledges that his franchise holds a monopoly on Major League Baseball in the area, but he insists that is in the best interests of both the industry and its fans.

"If you take this monopoly and reduce it to two halves," Angelos said, "you're going to have two have-nots."

Others aren't so sure. There is little doubt the Orioles would be hurt by a competitor in Washington. The team, which sells almost a quarter of its tickets to fans from the Washington area, would find itself suddenly sharing that lucrative base with an unwanted rival. Money from TV and radio would also drop, as fans switch allegiance and broadcasters divide the marketplace.

The Orioles, and their owner, might also suffer a loss of prestige and value if the club were no longer the de facto team of Washington, the franchise of choice for Presidents and lawmakers.

But the franchise would survive, according to independent economists familiar with sports. And, they note, there would be advantages. A Washington franchise would figure to be a great convenience for fans of the national pastime in the national capital. It might even keep prices down for ticket-buyers and for local companies that do business with the Orioles.

Baseball apparently has been examining the possibility of making Washington available to the Expos if they fail to get a stadium deal in Montreal, but it is unclear whether that or any other team would move to either downtown Washington or its Virginia suburbs.

In 1997 baseball owners considered the area the next best candidate for expansion when they awarded teams to Phoenix and Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla. Meanwhile, no one disputes the emergence of Northern Virginia, home of America Online and other high-tech companies, as one of the nation's most affluent regions.

The demographics have changed dramatically since Major League Baseball twice moved teams out of Washington because of apathetic attendance. The Senators' franchise left after the 1960 season to become the Minnesota Twins but were immediately replaced with an expansion team. It moved to Texas after the 1971 season.

"I was sorry 29 years ago when we left there," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig, "but we haven't moved a team since then so there's nothing really to talk about. When there is, Washington and Northern Virginia will get every consideration."

Selig acknowledged that the well-being of the Orioles' franchise will be an important factor in any decision on the return of Major League Baseball to the Washington area.

"One thing I've always said, I thought we made an essential mistake years ago with San Francisco and Oakland and ended up with two owners struggling," Selig said. "What I don't believe in is moving a team into other people's territory. My obligation is to protect all 30 franchises."

If that sounds like music to the Orioles' ears, it doesn't necessarily mean that Selig would block the arrival of a Washington team. He said Thursday that Major League Baseball still intends to study the impact of a second team in the market - and he likely would act in concert with the will of a majority of owners, not all sympathetic to Angelos, who angered many of his baseball brethren when he was the only team owner to refuse to field replacement players during the baseball strike in 1994.

Though baseball has been able to control franchise movement for nearly three decades, a maverick team owner might decide to relocate over the objections of the sport and its commissioner,

"It wouldn't kill the Orioles, but it would knock them down a bit," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist and author of "Baseball and Billions: A Probing Look Inside the Big Business of Our National Pastime."

Sharing the wealth?

The Orioles are among the richest teams in the game. A recent report by Major League Baseball said the team had the third-highest revenue among the 30 franchises, behind the Yankees and Indians. Orioles per-game attendance was the highest in the American League last year, averaging 42,914, although it has been declining in recent seasons.

Thanks to the appeal of Camden Yards - and its cut-rate lease with the state - the team sold for a record $173 million in 1993. Many experts think it could command a price twice that today, on par with the $320 million the Indians were sold for last year.

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