A New Game For Johnson

A New Game For Johnson

BET founder and CEO Robert L. Johnson is making a play to become the first African American majority owner of a Major League Baseball franchise. He plans to acquire a majority stake in the Montreal Expos and move the team to Washington, D.C. — the only major city in the U.S. without a baseball franchise. Johnson plans to purchase 51% of the Expos, leaving baseball with the remaining 49%. Over the next three or four years, he and the remainder of his ownership group, which includes Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, would purchase the remaining 49% of the team. Johnson and Snyder would also form a joint venture to create a regional cable television sports network delivering professional football and baseball content to the Beltway.

Such a deal would be worth an estimated $400 — $450 million, according to Dr. Andrew S. Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College. There would also likely be additional millions required to build a new stadium for the team.

Johnson’s play will not be uncontested, however. Two other investor groups are competing for the same franchise. While Johnson has yet to do so, the Virginia Baseball Club and the Washington Baseball Club, two investor groups set up to acquire the Expos, have already submitted bids to Major League Baseball, the sport’s governing body and the Expos’ temporary owner.

Johnson’s Washington, D.C.-based rivals boast four heavy-hitting African Americans on its roster though it’s uncertain whether their combined ownership would constitute a majority stake. Fannie Mae chairman and CEO Franklin D. Raines is one of the general partners in the Washington Baseball Club, with former Walt Disney Co. executive Dennis Hightower, lawyer Vernon Jordan, and Washington Redskins defensive back Darrell Green as limited partners.

For Johnson, price will make or break the deal. He says that financing is not an issue, but what does concern him is the potential return on his investment. Johnson is not yet certain how high he’d be willing to go for the Expos but he may pay less than Zimbalist’s high-end estimate of $450 million. The African American billionaire says he has it “on good information” that the Anaheim Angels are available for between $220 million and $245 million, and believes that the Expos would sell for less than the defending World Series champions.

Johnson is optimistic that he could turn the struggling team into a profitable venture if it was moved into the eighth largest media market in the U.S. “If you could get a baseball team into D.C. at the right price, you could create a valuable baseball asset because Washington, D.C., is anxious to have a team. You’d have tremendous fan support, tremendous local business support, and potential for revenue from regional sports network telecasts,” says Johnson. Washington, D.C. has not had a major league baseball franchise since 1972 when the Washington Senators moved to Texas and became the Rangers.

Being the African American majority shareholder in his investor group may help Johnson further. “Baseball is going to be on the hot seat if they