For the Last Time... Hopefully

I've written several articles on the Expos' sad situation and why they should be moved to Washington DC - downtown or suburban Virginia, it doesn't matter to me - yet I'm continuously amazed by the variety of excuses people come up with to keep them away.

Washington/Baltimore can't support two teams

For example, Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who understandably wants to hoard his enormous cash cow, recently stated that baseball "wouldn't put a team 35 miles from St. Louis.  Why do it with Baltimore?"  Interesting, but that is one of the worst analogies I've heard on this topic.  First of all, the St. Louis metropolitan area has a population of only 2.5 million people.  The DC metro area, without Baltimore's 2 million, has a population of over 5.5 million.  How about this... let's answer Angelos' question with another question: if there wasn't baseball in Boston, would you put a team there?  How about Philadelphia?  Detroit?  Because that's how big the DC metro area is without Baltimore.  It makes no sense not to have teams in those cities, just like it makes no sense not to have a team in the nation's capital. 

He then argues that putting a team in DC will divide the resources so much that both teams will be crummy.  There are two teams in the Bay area, both of whom seem to do very well in the standings.  In fact, they have finished either first or second in their respective divisions in each of the last five years, proof that their success is sustainable.  They both have good front offices who seem to understand how to win on a budget.  The Bay area has fewer people than than Washington/Baltimore.  So is Angelos trying to convince us that an East Coast city of equal size just isn't as capable of supporting two baseball teams as a West Coast city?  Because geographically, that is the only difference between the two; demographically, they are nearly identical.  Is it possible that having a competent front office has a little more to do with a team's success than the size of the city it's in?  A big city certainly helps, but being in a smaller city does not preclude an organization from putting a competitive product on the field.

The new team will kill the O's

According to the O's, a new team will take away a quarter of their customers and half of their TV revenue.  According to two independent studies, the cost in fan attendance will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 7-13% and the local TV revenue decrease will be negligible.  With TV, it's not a zero sum game, meaning if one team wins the other will lose.  If both teams are good, people will watch both.  If one team is good and the other is not, people will tend to watch the better one, but the losing team will still have it's adherents. 

Regardless, the Os' say that one of their primary sources of income - luxury suites and boxes - aren't sold out now, and another team would further deplete their coffers.  Maybe we should look at why the boxes aren't filled because they certainly were when the Orioles were competitive in the 90s and they had several consecutive years of sell-outs.  Is the lack of corporate interest due to the market being saturated? Or it because the Orioles haven't had a team that finished above 5th worst in the American League for the last 6 years?  No corporation is going to try to entertain potential clients by taking them to see an awful team. To all those Baltimore civic leaders who cry havoc and gnash their teeth that a DC team would relegate the O's to the second division... they might want to read the sports pages more often; the O's have been exactly that - second division - for the last 6 years and it has nothing to do with market size and everything to do with the the poor decision-making of their front office.  Thankfully this year they are finally beginning to reverse the trend.

If the O's lose so few fans, doesn't that mean that DC can't support a team?

But using the independent studies' numbers, if the Os only lose between 7-13%, isn't that proof that DC won't support a team?  Doesn't that show how little interest there is in baseball in DC? Well, no.  It only shows how little interest there is in the kind of baseball the O's have been playing. 

For one, that 7-13% represents a very small portion of the DC metro area that's willing to drive one to two hours in Beltway and I-95 traffic to see the Orioles.  Numerous studies have shown that the way to bring in customers and make money in baseball is to put a good team on the field.  From 1998 up until this season, the Orioles have been worse at that than just about any organization in baseball.  They had a good team and made a terrible one.  At least the Devil Rays have an excuse: they've never been good.  Baltimore has not kept their good talent, done little or nothing with their farm system and have overpaid numerous mediocre free agents.  They have been a textbook example how not to run a franchise.  Why would people fight the hassle of three hours driving (2 hours there, one going home) to watch a wretched team?   That 7-13% the O's would be losing are the diehard baseball fans.  However, if the O's ever decide to put a good team on the field, they could make that up in spades from an increase in local attendance.  At their peak, the O's were drawing more than 3.5 million fans per season.  Take away 13% of that and they'd still draw over 3 million, which is 600,000 more than they drew last year.

So is that 7-13% enough to support a team?  No.  But that isn't the entire population that would be attending.  In fact, that is a very small fraction of the 5.5 million potential fans a DC team would have.  Put a team downtown, and it would draw heavily from the city and the nearby suburbs of Bethesda, Chevy Chase, College Park, Arlington and Alexandria.  Put a team near Dulles and it would draw from one of the fastest growing areas in the country (Fairfax and Loudon Counties) and from an area that extends south to Richmond and west to Winchester and Harpers Ferry.  Fairfax County alone has a million residents, and adding those of Loudon and points south and west would bring between half million and a million people.  That's excluding DC and it's immediate neighbors.  Without even including the Maryland suburbs like Laurel and Columbia that could potentially be drawn away from the O's, a DC team based in suburban Virginia would have an exclusive fan base larger than Tampa, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Denver, and yes, Portland, Oregon.

There are some who state that a team in the DC area would actually stimulate growth for the Orioles, in part because it would force them to be much smarter about their operations and that an intense rivalry would do wonders for marketing possibilities.  After all, we are talking about a region that ranks among the top 2 or 3 in the nation in disposable income.

DC has never supported a team

Another false argument is that DC never supported it's team.  This is false in two ways.  The first is that when measured by cost per win, the Senators were one of the most lucrative franchises in the American League until the mid-50s.  True, they had mostly terrible teams, but the payroll was very cheap too.  The Griffiths simply got what they paid for.  Had they not been so reluctant to integrate, the Senators might have become pretty good. 

The second way is that DC actually supported two teams.  No, not the Orioles.  The Homestead Grays were one of the most successful Negro League franchises and outdrew several major league teams, including the Senators.  Interestingly enough, the Griffiths got a chunk of the Grays' earnings too by allowing them to play at their ballpark, Griffith Stadium. 

I still get people trying to tell me that DC "lost" two teams.  I'm not going to get into the Griffiths' history and the issue of race because that really requires a book to run down all the details.  But I'll be happy to address the last incarnation of the Senators and their owner, Bob Short. 

You might be thinking... hmm, Bob Short... that name sounds familiar... and indeed it should.  The Minnesota native and trucking magnate was so enamored with the Minneapolis Lakers that he bought his home team in 1958.... and then moved them to LA two years later.  Of course, he sold them five years after that because, well, they weren't his home team anymore, now were they?  In Decemeber of 1968, he was working as the Democratic National Committee Treasurer in Washington DC when he bought Senators with an eye toward moving them when their stadium lease expired after the 1971 season.  Is this fact or opinion?  Well, considering he talked his players out of buying homes in the DC area from the day he bought the team, one might conclude that he had a plan already in place.  Want more evidence?  He neglected to pay rent for RFK Stadium for much of the final year of the lease.  This was before he got permission to move the team.  Does that sound like a guy who's planning to keep his team in town?  As early as 1970, a year before Short got his permission from the other AL owners, Texas doubled the size of Turnpike Stadium, which was later renamed Arlington Stadium when it was officially announced that the Senators would be moving to play there.  In addition to the stadium, Short was given 10 years of broadcast revenue up front, regardless if he kept the team or sold it.  In a not-so-surprising move, he sold the team two years after moving it to Texas. 

So, was Bob Short an owner exhausted by his unsuccessful efforts to entice fans to a moribund franchise, or was he an unscrupulous, carpet-bagging opportunist looking for a quick way to make a buck at our nations' capital's expense.  Gee, tough call... may I look at the evidence again, Judge Ito?

If baseball is to move the Expos and not contract them, there really is no legitimate alternative other than DC.  In previous columns, I've covered the facts regarding the competition and there are simply no facts to support any other location as being more lucrative and viable than putting the Expos in DC, either in the city or in Northern Virginia.  Many have tried to manufacture arguments for places like Las Vegas, Portland and Monterrey but none of them are supported by facts.  If baseball decides not to put a team in DC, it is because they have another agenda, not because they want to put the team in a location where it and baseball as a whole will fare the best.