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Washington Nationals sale rumored, as Lerners evaluate future of team

Nationals Park 2018

A Washington Nationals sale may be in the works in coming months, as the Lerner family will be discussing the future of the team with investment bankers from Allen & Company.

This is not a particularly surprising move: Within the Lerner family, Ted Lerner is now 96 and there’s a certain amount of estate planning that should be undertaken. Although there are some areas of upside for a potential buyer–naming rights to the ballpark, increased national MLB media rights, increased sports-betting revenues–there are also some issues on the horizon, including resolution of the team’s spat with MASN over broadcast revenues, deferred contract payments to the likes of Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, potential Nationals Park upgrades, $500 million in debt and baseball’s aging demographics. The Nationals don’t seem particularly well-positioned to take advantage of baseball’s future trends: upgraded ballpark experiences and an emphasis on streaming, though sports betting at Nationals Park is on the horizon.

And a sale is not a certainty: there are three generations of Lerners working for the Nationals, and one potential outcome is that the ownership is restructured with the family retaining control. From The Washington Post:

Mark Lerner, Ted Lerner’s son who now serves as the club’s managing principal owner, told The Washington Post in a statement Monday that the family has hired New York investment bank Allen & Company to research potential investors, and possibly buyers, for the Nationals.

“This is an exploratory process, so there is no set timetable or expectation of a specific outcome,” Mark Lerner said in the statement. “The organization is as committed as ever to their employees, players, fans, sponsors and partners and to putting a competitive product on the field.”

But there are plenty of intangibles to owning a Washington MLB team when it comes to prestige, and it is the sort of prestige money can buy. Insiders say the final price for the team could well exceed $2 billion if a bidding war erupts, and the early talk is that there are plenty of potential suitors out there. Mentioned as potential buyers in various media reports:

  • A group that includes Monumental Sports’ Ted Leonsis and David Rubenstein. Leonsis is a major player in the Washington sports scene via Monumental Sports, which controls the Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals, Washington Mystics and other sports and eSports entities. Whether Leonsis participates individually or via Monumental Sports, where his partners include Laurene Powell Jobs, remains to be seen. Rubenstein is one of the founders of private equity firm Carlyle Group and is a major player in the Washington scene. serving as chairman of the board of directors for the Council on Foreign Relations and the chairman of the board of trustees for the Kennedy Center.
  • Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment is a major presence in the arena-sports world as the owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, NHL’s New Jersey Devils, the e-sports franchise Dignitas and manager of Newark’s Prudential Center. Of the named partners, Josh Harris is a co-founder of Apollo Global Management and David Blitzer is an executive with Blackstone Group. They were a losing bidder for the New York Mets, in which Steve Cohen purchased the team for $2.4 billion. (Leading the sales process for the Wilpons: Allen & Company.
  • Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. He’s long been rumored to have an interest in purchasing a major sports property, and given Amazon’s commitment to Washington with the construction of a second corporate headquarters, he’s a natural to mention. 

The Lerners bought the Nationals from Major League Baseball after the team’s move from Montreal to Washington in 2006.