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Washington Nationals sale: Evaluating potential cost, candidates and long-term outlook

Matt Johnson
Washington Nationals sale
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals reached the top of Major League Baseball in 2019, winning the first World Series title in franchise history. Just three years later, the club is staring down the possibility of becoming the latest American professional sports team to be sold.

All of this comes at an interesting time for MLB. Despite a prolonged lockout over the collective bargaining agreement, the business of baseball is operating pretty smoothly. MLB ensured labor peace with its players for the next five years and there are new sources of revenue coming in from the league.

However, the Nationals are at a pivotal point for the organization. After winning the World Series, the team collapsed in the next two seasons with a 91-131 record (.409) and there are no expectations of competing for the 2022 MLB playoffs. Operating with a $130 million payroll, 19th in MLB, it seems changes at the top are very possible.

Related: MLB standings 2022

Here’s everything you need to know about a potential Washington Nationals sale, what the franchise might cost and potential candidates to replace the Lerner family.

Who owns the Washington Nationals?

MLB: NLCS-St. Louis Cardinals at Washington Nationals
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals are owned by the Lernert family, with Ted passing down majority control of the team to his son Mark in June 2018. Currently, Mark Lerner serves as the principal of Lerner Enterprises and is the principal owner of the Nationals.

Ted Lerner bought the Nationals in 2006 for $450 million. Previously, they were the Montreal Expos (1969-2004) before Major League Baseball stepped in and relocated the team. Since being operated by the Lerner family, the Nationals have won four NL East division titles (2012, ’14, ’16 and ’17) and won the 2019 World Series.

Are the Nationals for sale?

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Barry Svrluga of The Washington Post reported in April that the Lerners hired New York investment bank Allen & Company to explore new potential investors. While the research was classified as “exploratory”, Lerner Enterprises is interested in “changes in the ownership structure” for the Nationals.

“As revenue streams around professional sports continue to evolve and the strength of the Washington Nationals brand continues to grow, the team believes it is prudent to assess all of the options out there.”

Washington Nationals spokesperson Jennifer Giglio on Lerner family exploring a sale, via The Washington Post

When Ted Lerner passed control of the team to his son in 2018, Mark Lerner told The Post that he would never sell the Nationals. Four years later, with Mark still holding majority control, it is now on the table.

“We will never sell the Nationals. That’s what we’ve worked to get all those years. We think we do a pretty good job of it. There’s no intention of this family—certainly while I’m alive and my sisters and brothers-in-law are alive—nobody’s going to sell this team.”

Washington Nationals president Mark Lerner in 2018

Since he made those comments, three MLB teams have been sold. Bruce Sherman purchased the Miami Marlins in 2018, John Sherman agreed to buy the Kansas City Royals in 2019 and Steve Cohen became the richest MLB owner after buying the New York Mets in 2020.

Estimating a Washington Nationals sale price

MLB: Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves
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While MLB lost revenue during the COVID-19 pandemic with team owners claiming financial losses of ‘biblical’ proportions, a broader overview makes owning a team far more worthwhile.

Even the Nationals, far from one of the most popular MLB teams, are a valuable franchise. It’s estimated that Lerner Enterprises generates $322 million in revenue with $90 million generated through gate receipts. In total, the Nationals are the 12th most valuable team in MLB.

  • Washington Nationals team value (Forbes 2022): $2 billion

There’s also a recent precedent to consider for a potential sale. The Marlins were sold for $1.2 billion, despite the franchise having significant debt on its books. A few years later, Sherman bought the Royals for $1 billion. Entering the 2022 season, the Royals ranked 28th ($1.11 billion evaluation) and the Marlins were 30th ($990 million) in Forbes’s estimated MLB team values.

A closer comparison could be made to the Mets, with Cohen purchasing the team for $2.4 billion. While it comes as no surprise that the Mets are estimated to have a higher value than the Nationals, there is additional context to consider. Cohen bought the club before MLB signed its new TV contracts.

Even when MLB TV ratings aren’t as high as they used to be, networks and streaming services are still lining up for deals. Apple signed a deal in 2022 worth $85 million per year for 24 games this season. Turner Sports also signed a deal worth $470 million per year through 2028, ESPN is paying $550 million each season for its limited schedule and NBC is paying $30 million year to stream 18 live MLB games in 2022 and then in 2023 and Fox is paying $729 million each year for its MLB broadcast schedule.

In total, national TV deals will provide each team with at least $60.1 million per season. Local TV deals are also a source of revenue, but an ongoing dispute with MASN adds some uncertainty.

When you factor in reduced MLB payrolls for a majority of teams, increasing television revenue and a steady stream of money from gameday sales, there’s an opportunity for profit. Factoring in Forbes’ estimate and the current landscape, a $1.8 to $2.2 billion price tag seems reasonable.

Candidates to buy the Washington Nationals

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals
Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Any purchase of the team will require someone with deep pockets. While it’s always possible a Nationals’ icon could be a part of a group bidding for the team, he wouldn’t receive majority control. Instead, if even interested, he’d have to take the Derek Jeter approach by partnering up with a billionaire.

Here are four potential names to keep an eye on if a Washington Nationals sale happens.

Ted Leonsis

Founder and majority owner of Monumental Sports, Leonsis is a huge force in Washington’s sports scene. Monumental Sports & Entertainment already owns the Washington Capitals, Washington Wizards and Washington Mystics. Leonsis knows there is money to be made through partnerships with sportsbooks and if he finds the right investment partner to join him in buying the Nationals, they can create even more revenue in the years to come.

Robert Allbritton

The founder of Politico, which sold for more than $1 billion in 2021, the Washingtonian wrote in April that Allbritton is interested in buying the Nationals if they become available. Given his roots in Washington D.C., he could be another appealing option to help take advantage of a great market.

Josh Harris

Harris is currently among the bidders pursuing the Denver Broncos, an effort that will take up a majority of his interest right now and even more capital if he wins. However, buying an MLB team could be appealing if he doesn’t land the Broncos. The billionaire already owns the New Jersey Devils (NHL) and serves as co-owner of the Philadelphia 76ers. He also is very comfortable adding star athletes to his ownership groups.

David Rubenstein

The 72-year-old billionaire might be among the most discussed candidates to buy the Washington Nationals if they are put up for bid. Much like Leonsis, he has roots in the area and would likely see an opportunity for long-term profit. Worth noting, per Forbes, Rubenstein and Leonsis could make a joint offer for the Nationals.

  • David Rubenstein net worth: $1.6 billion