Originally Published: March 2, 2006 4 a.m.
If you think Major League Baseball knows what it's doing with the Washington Nationals franchise, think again.
MLB acquired the former Montreal Expos franchise in a convoluted deal that spells "antitrust" in any sport that doesn't have an antitrust exemption. Then, MLB spent three years trying to find a permanent home for the team, finally deciding on Washington after the District caved in to every unreasonable demand, even after all other suitors passed.
For over a year, MLB has alternately cajoled and threatened the District, trying to get the politicians to live up to the agreement that was signed regarding the construction of a new stadium for the team. So far, MLB has struck out.
And now, MLB has a new, and far more embarrassing, battle on its hands. Seems the name "Nationals" was not available to MLB when the franchise was renamed.
A Cincinnati company, Bygone Sports, which states that it specializes in historic sports apparel although the only apparel it sells is that of the Nationals, holds a trademark on the name "Washington Nationals." MLB thought it had reached an agreement with Bygone for the name on Nov. 12, 2004, 10 days prior to designating the vagabond club the "Nationals."
Unfortunately, MLB made the announcement before reducing the agreement with Bygone to writing. According to MLB, Bygone reneged on the deal. Bygone's attorney, Roger Kaplan, says his client's position is that "all of the terms and conditions of the agreement had not been fully discussed," therefore there never was an agreement.
MLB brought suit against Bygone last June in U.S. District Court in Manhattan. Trial is currently set for April 3, ironically, the day that the Nationals begin their second season with a game against the Mets in New York.
Baseball contends that Bygone originally asked for $130,000 to assign the rights to the name "Nationals." The current asking price is $1.5 million. Not chump change, to be sure, but Bygone has some leverage.
If MLB loses the suit, it has two options. It can keep the Nationals name, but it will be unable to sell merchandise bearing the name and logo of the team, a major financial sacrifice. According to trade experts (such marketing information is private, according to MLB), Nationals caps ranked sixth in sales last year behind such clubs as the Yankees and the Red Sox.
MLB's other option is to change the Nationals name. Either option is expensive, much more expensive than paying Bygone's asking price. MLB would be better advised to pay Bygone $1.5 million rather than taking its chances in court.
After all, any resulting damage to MLB's reputation at this point is negligible. It's just another embarrassment in a continuing debacle.
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