Happy New Year to 2023, and we can finally, and properly refer to 2022 as last year. For the Washington Nationals, that was a year to file away in the “not repeat” file. With 107 losses and the trade of Juan Soto, the team has moved on to being a team in transition, but also one in a state of flux with regards to the ownership situation. The team was not sold last year as most expected.
“Word is the Nats are almost sure to sell,” Jon Heyman wrote in the NY Post in June 2022. “They’re expected to fetch at least $2 billion, but the behind-the scenes goal is $3 billion.”
Almost sure to sell, but when? That Heyman quote was from the Spring of last year, and the only person to answer the question as to when the team will be sold is Nationals’ principal owner, Mark Lerner — and he has not talked publicly since April 11 of last year. While Ted Leonsis and his Monumental Sports & Entertainment group was seen as the frontrunner as sources told us when we broke the news in August, you have to wonder if Leonsis waited too long with skyrocketing prices for sports teams that include the Phoenix Suns, and possibly even the Washington Commanders.
“I’m not allowed to talk about the process — but I love [Washington, D.C.], and I love all of these teams,” Leonsis said to WJLA’s Scott Abraham.
While the main characters are not talking, there are plenty of people speculating on what might happen. One source told us that with new valuations in the sports ownership business that certainly new buyers could emerge, and it would not be out of the realm to think that an under-bidder for the Commanders pivots to the Nationals.
A source last week still believes that Leonsis has the best chance to buy the team, but they are far far apart on a price per sources. A principal owner has until almost November before any substantial decisions have to be made with the team — but keep in mind that general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez are only under contract for this year, as the Lerners picked up their lucrative options on July 2, making each one of them top-10 earners in their peer groups per sources.
With the Nats first Spring Training game on February 25, we are just 55-days away from game action, and 88-days until Opening Day. The good news for any potential owner is seeing that the team only has one long-term contract (longer than two years) remaining on the books with Stephen Strasburg‘s $35 million a year deal set to expire in four years after the 2026 season. The issue is that Strasburg has pitched a total of eight games over the previous three seasons while being paid $105 million — and that’s $13 million per start. Even Strasburg does not know what his future holds, and it is possible that the team works out a buy-out of his remaining contract.
After the Nats made their first postseason in the 2012 season, season ticket sales boomed, and the team set a Nationals Park record with 32,746 average home attendance in 2013. Last year, attendance was only 25,017 per game, and it could be even lower this year and mirror 2009’s attendance of 22,435 per game. A new ownership group can see that the fans will return with winning.
The issue with the team on the business side is getting paid fair market value on their TV contract. The MASN TV deal is still being appealed in the courts with much uncertainty for the future. It is the MASN situation, rather debacle, that has been the issue in selling the team per sources. It has also been anti-competitive as the Nats get paid almost $60 million a year less than their division rival Phillies that play in a smaller market. That disadvantage has plagued the Nats and caused them to actually lose money. That is not a good look when you open the books to potential buyers of your business.
For baseball fans, they care about wins, and the fan experience, not about the team accounting. If anything, the Lerners are making it easy for any new owner to look good after the current spate of losing. A new owner can swoop in and inherit a premier farm system which was something that the Lerners did not get when they bought the team. They had to endure losing coupled with a poor farm system from the decimated Expos’ years. Recently, fan resentment has soared. A new ownership group could step in as the savior of the franchise.
The Lerners will always have those winning years from 2012-2019, culminating in a World Series championship, but the last thing that some remember is how you left them. It is, what have you done for me lately for those who crave the instant gratification. Baseball can be cruel with its cyclicality of the ebbs and flows of winning then losing. The good fans understand that and stay, however as shown, the attendance suffers during the losing.
While those 107 losses are a stain on the record, a new owner will likely celebrate the fruits of those losses as they smile for the cameras when the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft is named, and a farm system that hopefully moves into the elite minor league systems in baseball. If that happens, it should be good times ahead, and it is an opportunity for a new ownership group to change the mindset as a new voice and accentuate the positives. That should not be hard, especially if they spend “big” in free agency. Coupling elite prospects with key free agent signings was how the Nats of the previous decade became winners and champs.
So this new year could come with some positives. Let’s hope 2023 is better than 2022. Happy New Year!