The tributes and remembrances following Ted Lerner’s death Sunday were joined by curiosity about what, if anything, his passing meant to the future of the Washington Nationals, the Major League Baseball team his family has owned since 2006. As the team opened its spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla., answers remained elusive, and even many close to the situation did not expect clarity soon.
Ten months ago, the Lerners announced their intentions to explore a sale of the Nationals. That process has been anything but swift, and no deal appears imminent. Multiple people familiar with the process and the family’s thinking say any predictions about what the family’s next steps — whether moving forward with a complete sale, taking on a new minority partner or retrenching and reinvesting themselves — are premature.
With a new season dawning in Ted’s absence, the open questions looming over the Nationals feel even more acute. The team’s manager and president of baseball operations are in the final year of deals the organization did not extend. And the baseball operations are limited by a tiny budget indicative of owners who are reluctant to make further investment in a franchise they might be selling soon and who probably can’t count on significant revenue in a season with low competitive prospects.
Svrluga: Ted Lerner was the Nats’ North Star. Their path without him is uncertain.
Mark Lerner has been the managing principal owner and “control person” for the Nationals since the 2018 all-star break, when Ted Lerner handed those titles to his only son. Mark has been attending quarterly owners meetings on behalf of the franchise for years now and has had his name on public statements for nearly half a decade.
But behind the scenes, Ted’s opinion continued to serve as the animating force — including, according to multiple people familiar with the family’s thinking, the decision to explore a sale. As of Tuesday, it was unclear even to some within the organization whether Ted’s widow, Annette, and her children will continue to push for a sale in accordance with his wishes.
The Lerners already had plenty of reason to wonder if the time is right for a sale. In the 10 months since they announced they would explore that possibility, multiple interested parties signed the required nondisclosure agreements and perused the franchise’s finances, according to people familiar with the process. But by the end of the Nationals’ dismal 2022 season, during which they traded superstar Juan Soto for a haul of young players in an indication of their intent to rebuild from the ground, few serious suitors emerged.
By last fall, Ted Leonsis, the owner of Washington’s NBA, NHL and WNBA franchises, appeared to be the clear front-runner. The Lerners are partners in Leonsis’s Monumental Sports. They are familiar with one another and with Leonsis’s track record of stewardship in the Washington sports world.
Ted Lerner, real estate magnate and Nationals owner, dies at 97
But no deal has come together, in part because the Nationals are unable to guarantee a future owner local television revenue. Unlike other MLB teams, they do not own the rights to their broadcasts, and they have spent years fighting the Baltimore Orioles in court to determine how much they should have been paid for past seasons — and what they deserve in the future. The Orioles own Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, which broadcasts Nationals games and has been stripped down to bare bones in recent years. Uncertainty over the television broadcast rights has been, as one MLB official put it, “a massive roadblock” to a potential sale.
A New York State Court is scheduled to hear an appeal in the MASN dispute March 14, according to court filings. People familiar with the sale process hope that a decision in that case could thaw the chill between the teams enough to facilitate an agreement about what the Nationals could expect in television rights fees going forward.
Other potential revenue sources are also uncertain, because the Nationals do not have a stadium naming rights deal, nor have they permitted jersey advertising patches on jerseys, as teams such as the San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks have.
Whether the Lerner family reconsiders those options is among the questions in the wake of the death of its patriarch, and as with the others, the answers may be undetermined for some time.