The Nationals have been on the market for a good portion of the past year. The Lerner family first announced in April they were looking into sale possibilities for the franchise. Subsequent reports suggested the family was hopeful of completing the process by the early-December Winter Meetings.
That obviously did not happen, and it doesn’t seem a resolution is imminent. The Talk Nats blog reported Tuesday afternoon that negotiations were not close to the finish line. That aligns with their reporting from late November, when Talk Nats wrote the franchise’s uncertain local broadcasting situation related to the ongoing MASN dispute was keeping the Lerners from settling on an agreeable price point with the Ted Leonsis group that had emerged as the frontrunner in discussions.
TV rights remain the biggest issue in the Washington sale. As part of the relocation efforts to move the franchise from Montreal to Washington nearly two decades ago, MLB (which owned the Expos/Nationals at the time) agreed to tie its local broadcasting rights to the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. MASN is jointly owned by the Nats and Orioles, but the Orioles’ ownership share is roughly 77% while the Nats own around 23%. That agreement, a condition of the franchise’s relocation into the Orioles’ geographic territorial rights, caps the Nationals’ TV revenue by making it impermissible for them to sell broadcasting rights to a regional sports network.
Leonsis owns NBC Sports Washington and would almost certainly prefer to broadcast Nationals games on that network if he took control of the franchise. Doing so would require negotiating a way out of the MASN contract with the Orioles, though, and it’s not clear whether the Baltimore organization has any interest in doing so. MLB has gotten involved in an attempt to broker a settlement between the franchises, but there’s no indication they’ve made progress to this point.
Uncertainty about future local TV revenues is an obvious concern for a possible buyer. Against that backdrop, it’s now a real question whether the Lerner family will sell a majority stake at all. Talk Nats suggested it’s possible the Lerners pivot to selling a minority share of the franchise. Chelsea Janes and Barry Svrluga of the Washington Post echoed that sentiment this evening, writing that the Lerners now seem likelier to take on a minority partner than sell the franchise entirely. Nothing has been formally decided. Both Talk Nats and the Washington Post suggest possibilities range from no change in the ownership structure at all to a deal of a minority share or a sale of the controlling stake coming together.
Janes and Svrluga suggest a middle ground may be to sell a minority share with a path to that buyer taking over majority ownership down the line. The Dolan family took that tack with the Guardians last summer, immediately selling roughly 25-30% of the franchise to David Blitzer in a deal that reportedly gives Blitzer the option to purchase majority control six years thereafter.
It’s an ongoing saga that obviously hasn’t resolved as the Lerner family had envisioned. There are still myriad possibilities that’ll hang over the franchise for as long as this process remains up in the air. The franchise is amidst a full rebuild and ran out the worst team in the majors last season. They’ve made a few short-term free agent investments this winter, bringing in Dominic Smith, Corey Dickerson, Jeimer Candelario and retaining Erasmo Ramírez on one-year contracts worth a combined $10.25MM. Their biggest investment of the offseason was a two-year, $13MM pact for starter Trevor Williams.
Roster Resource projects the franchise’s player payroll around $104MM. That’s $31MM south of last season’s Opening Day figure. It’d be the franchise’s lowest season-opening payroll since 2012, although it’s possible GM Mike Rizzo and his staff have some more spending room to add another veteran target or two to supplement a young roster.