You want to buy a box of paper clips from the Lerners? Good luck with that.
You want to buy a baseball team from the Lerners? That would be sort of like buying the box of paper clips — only many times worse.
The Lerners have a well-earned reputation for driving a steep bargain when it comes to potential business partners. It’s a hard-nosed approach to negotiation that has served the family well, considering that Ted Lerner’s net worth in 2022, according to Forbes, was $4 billion.
But it’s an approach that may also serve to make the sale of the Washington Nationals a long, arduous and somewhat maddening affair for both bidders and fans who now are waiting to see who will write a check to superstar Juan Soto, among other things.
There doesn’t appear to be any timetable for the sale, and presumably no rush to sell the team, though I’m sure Major League Baseball would want the question of long-term ownership settled sooner rather than later.
“This is an exploratory process, so there is no set timetable or expectation of a specific outcome,” Mark Lerner, the managing principal owner, said in a statement in April. “The organization is as committed as ever to their employees, players, fans, sponsors and partners and to putting a competitive product on the field.”
Make no mistake — this team is on the market and reportedly there is no shortage of interested buyers.
But let’s see how short that list gets after talks start with the Lerners. It can be a challenging process.
How challenging? Last year, the Lerners were ready to sign a naming rights deal for the stadium that has been called Nationals Park since it opened in 2008, according to sources. The deal was ready to be finalized with an unnamed New York financial fund for $18 million annually for an undetermined number of years, sources said.
But the company walked away from the negotiations out of frustration with the Lerners when the family upped the price to $20 million a year, sources said.
That was a lofty demand for a ballpark deal that industry observers believe should more likely be in the $12 million annual range.
Failing to nail down an $18 million annual infusion for a team that is struggling financially — hit hard by COVID restrictions on Major League Baseball games over the past two seasons, losing an estimated $170 million, sources said — might be a sign that it’s time to rethink your negotiation style.
A Nationals spokesperson responded, “We are not going to disclose the details of our negotiations with partners or potential partners.”
In 2008, Citigroup made a $20 million annual naming rights deal with the New York Mets for a 20-year-term for Citi Field — the highest-priced such agreement in baseball, and a certainly a more lucrative exposure market for a naming rights agreement than Washington.
The Atlanta Braves made their naming rights deal for SunTrust Park in 2016, reportedly for $10 million a year for 25 years, the second-largest such sponsorship. It became Truist Park following a SunTrust merger with BB&T.
Both those naming rights agreements were signed for the opening of the new ballparks, which typically has more value for the sponsor. The San Francisco Giants sold the naming rights for what had been AT&T Park since 2006, to Oracle for $10 million a year for 20 years in 2019.
Nationals Park is hardly an iconic name, and a transition to a corporate sponsor might not be too difficult for fans to live with — especially if it helps keep the homegrown superstars rather than watching them leave town.
There have been numerous flirtations to sell the naming rights, including one with the company Terra, whose name is on the park’s luxury club behind home plate — once known as the President’s Club.
Now it’s called the Terra Club, named for the cryptocurrency company that has since crashed and burned and appears virtually worthless. The Lerners, though, got their $38 million for that sponsorship, which included signage in the ballpark and social media. No one particularly notices the name on the club. If it had been on the stadium, that would have been a little more embarrassing.
It seemed inevitable that the Lerners would sell the naming rights for this stadium.
Not yet, and maybe not ever. It may be up to the new owners to make that deal — if they survive the negotiations to purchase the team.
You can hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
• Thom Loverro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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