When potential ownership groups travel to New York to inspect the financial records of the Washington Nationals, they will be confronted with reams of documents and mountains of figures.
But it's the figure they won't see - can't see because it doesn't exist yet - that may be the most important of all.
How much revenue the Nationals will get from their local television deal remains a huge question mark. And negotiations between Major League Baseball and Peter Angelos over how the Orioles will be financially protected from competition in the market for the first time in 34 years are dragging toward their fourth month.
A key component of the talks has been the creation of a regional sports network that would televise both teams' games. Deciding how to split the revenue from the broadcasts, how the ownership stake in the network would be divided and where each team's games could be shown has proven to be far more difficult than anyone envisioned.
Bob DuPuy, MLB's president and the point man in the negotiations with Angelos, said last week at the owners meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., that the process of selling the Nationals would begin within a week to 10 days. He added that he hoped a new owner could be in place by Opening Day, but sources have said a more realistic goal is the All-Star break in July.
The Nationals, formerly the Montreal Expos, were bought by baseball's 29 other owners for $120 million nearly three years ago. With a new city and financing for a publicly funded stadium in place, MLB hopes to be able to sell the team for at least $300 million.
John Moag of Baltimore-based Moag & Co., who advised the new owner of the Milwaukee Brewers on the team's recently-completed sale, said yesterday he would advise a group thinking about bidding for the Nationals to "sit tight and wait until the blank got filled in.
"You cannot make a bid on this franchise without knowing the broadcast number," Moag said.
John McHale Jr., the MLB vice president who is overseeing the sale of the Nationals, said he doesn't think the lack of an agreement would be "a major impediment.
"There are ways of going about addressing the question even short of a completed arrangement with the Baltimore club," he said. "Although this obviously is an important issue, when we get down to being serious I'm sure there are creative minds who will figure out how to deal with it."
About eight groups had put down $100,000 deposits for the right to examine the Nationals' financial records, McHale said. The application deadline is Jan. 31.
As Opening Day gets closer, and in the absence of a deal with the Orioles, MLB has started the process of negotiating a short-term television contract for the Nationals, according to industry sources.
Moag said that such a stop-gap deal could work.
"Then you are trying to predict the future," he said. "To an extent, that will work, as long as you know what the terms are and what your media jurisdiction is and what your rights are. You need to know what your broadcast imprint is so that you can make some sort of reasonable analysis of what the broadcasting potential is in the future."
The Orioles' most recent face-to-face meeting with MLB came last week at the owners meetings. In a sign that baseball was feeling an increasing urgency to get a deal done, commissioner Bud Selig sat in on that meeting.
The sides had tentatively scheduled another meeting for this week at the commissioner's office in Milwaukee, but none was held.
Angelos said yesterday that another meeting had not been scheduled.