Commentary: This Waiting Game Is a Smart Play

For the past two seasons, the future of the Montreal Expos has been hanging like a pop-up in the thick air of a July afternoon. But is Major League Baseball now ready to act?

Commissioner Bud Selig is scheduled to get a report from MLB's relocation committee at the All-Star Game in Chicago on July 15, which has prompted speculation that the owners may be ready to transplant the Expos to Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, or Portland, Ore.

But don't count on a decision this week, or even this year. Here's why waiting would be the smart play:

-- With valuations in a spiral, only desperate sellers (read: AOL Time Warner (AOL ) Inc., owner of the Atlanta Braves) are pedaling franchises. "The last two years have been the worst in recent history for selling a sports franchise," says Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp.

Some of the 29 MLB owners, who collectively own the Expos, believe the team could fetch $200 million to $250 million when the economy comes back. So there's no reason to fall into the same trap as Walt Disney (DIS ) Co., which unloaded the world champ Anaheim Angels in May for a bargain $180 million. Besides, the low-payroll Expos eked out a $300,000 profit last year, and this season revenues should be higher.

-- Public dollars for new stadiums are scarce, raising doubts about the palatial ballparks suitors are promising. In Washington, which would provide $339 million in public money for a $421 million facility, Mayor Anthony A. Williams was counting on a $4.5 million-a-year tax on players. MLB has told him the tax won't fly. And Williams and MLB are at a standstill over his insistence that the franchise be awarded to Washington before stadium plans go forward. MLB also has encouraged Northern Virginia investors to increase public spending for their ballpark.

-- The line of ultra-rich investors waiting to buy the Expos is painfully short. Portland has been trying for years to secure Nike Inc. founder Phil Knight or Microsoft Corp. billionaire Paul Allen as lead investor. For now, its bid lacks any owner.

Northern Virginia has a large buyers group, but some wonder about the financial muscle of the lead investor, former telecommunications exec William L. Collins III.

The Washington group, led by GOP insider and Bush family friend Fredric V. Malek, has the money and connections. But baseball sources say Peter G. Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles has vowed not to let fellow owners forget Malek's role in a Nixon Administration controversy. As a Nixon aide, Malek counted Jews working at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With more questions than answers, MLB owners may likely decide the best decision now is no decision. This time, that might be the right one.

By Mark Hyman

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