BizBall: First of all congratulations on landing the winning bid along with the Lerners for the Nationals. How does it feel to be back in the saddle since stepping down as president of the Braves, Thrashers, and Hawks in November of 2003?
Kasten: I’ve had a blast the past couple of years doing what I was doing, looking for a perfect deal and a perfect situation. So let me say that all of that time was well spent because I really have found that when I left my job in Atlanta, I said “take your time and find something bigger and better than I had ever done before” and I can tell you that after all this time, I actually have found it. I was ready to build the stadium from scratch, build a team from scratch, and in the most important city in the world is just—for what I do—it’s the top of the mountain.
BizBall: Ted Lerner contacted you just after you stepped down as president of the Braves, Thrashers, and Hawks. He had just missed the purchase of the Redskins at the time, and mentioned that he wanted own a sports franchise. Did you stay in touch during the stretch between then and the bidding for the Nationals?
Kasten: I had a great talk with him. Sometime later—each time I was in DC, I would stop by and see him. I spent some time with him, and he was delightful. Maybe 9 months or a year later, when the Nationals thing happened, I got another call from him, and chatted and spent some more time with him. His son was terrific; he’s a wonderful gentleman. We all decided to put in our own bids. We didn’t know how it would end up, but it was just serendipity that we wound up coming together at the end the way we did.
BizBall: Who contacted who about merging the two groups -- yours and the Lerners?
Kasten: In the last month of the process it was really clear to me that my group, although terrific, wasn’t going to prevail in this case because the principal financial backers weren’t from Washington and there were some very good alternatives in Washington. So I understood that once I learned that, I almost was encouraged by baseball to consider staying available for the possibility of joining another group, if that’s what I wanted to do, then they would certainly like to see that. So I thought about that and it was I who reached back out to Ted’s group—we had mutual friends in the group (in each other’s group) and through some of those friends we got back together and had some more chats and very, very quickly decided it would be a good fit with each other.
BizBall: On the formation of the group... How much influence do you feel the Red Sox ownership structure that was negotiated by Commissioner Selig played in how the selection of the Nationals ownership occurred?
Kasten: Oh, I think there’s a mythology built up around that—about how Bud manipulates
things and really moving pieces around. I think that Bud encourages, and helps that criteria, and things come together organically in the way that makes the most sense. That’s probably a closer decision of what happened in Boston, than any other perception.
I think a similar process was used here. The criteria kept getting clarified as the process went on. As the different mileposts, different targets, different goals from baseball came in sharper focus, pieces started moving around, and as I said, organically, in a way that would kind of help better meet these targets they picked. That’s what happened here.
The Lerners thought, when I became available, that I might be a strength, that could enhance their group. I thought, that if I joined any one of the groups—if I had a chance to join the Lerner group, that would put me in a better position because of what I might be able to contribute. So, again, it was more the organic movement of things as the process unfolded. It certainly wasn’t any direct intervention or manipulation. That never happened, even though there certainly is a little mythology around that.
BizBall: Out of the laundry list of issues that new ownership will want to address, what is the first order of business?
Kasten: My list of items that have to be done as my “first order of business” is now twelve pages long. We have a lot of things to do and we’re working on all of them simultaneously. I can’t say that any (single) one stands out, but obviously there are many, many big things. We have to invest a lot of money in rebuilding the franchise, we have to really look at our customer experience in our current stadium, we have to delve into the plans for our new stadium, we have to begin the initiative to helps us reach out to all of our community, we have the MASN issue to confront to where we can get our games on all television areas in the region. Is this enough of a top line to be concerned right away? I think it is.
BizBall: How important is it for the Lerner group to place their stamp on this franchise after being collectively owned by MLB since 2002?
Kasten: With the Lerners it will be a pleasure, and it will be easy with so much experience. All they do are the very highest quality buildings and venues. They have generations of background doing that. They certainly enhance our ability to put at least that high a quality stamp on the franchise. The Lerners look at how this will reflect on them in the community. Like everything else they’ve done, they intend to make this a huge, long-term success.
BizBall: The process involving the selection of the new ownership took an extremely long time due to MLB's instance on the District finalizing the stadium funding component. It basically placed the Nationals front office in a state of limbo, with some exceptions. While the process to finalize the ownership transfer won't be done till June, what areas can you and the new ownership group now to prepare for the transition?
Kasten: Well, everyone knows everyone—transition won’t be an issue. Tony Tavares has been so professional from the start with the difficult, difficult assignment he was given. I don’t know an exact timetable for everything, but sometime after the owners' meeting in a few weeks, assuming we get approval, we will start the process of getting to work our way into the front office and hopefully we’ll be fully implemented by the time we’re handed the keys, whenever.
BizBall: Have you met with Frank Robinson and Jim Bowden yet?
Kasten: I met with both of them, as well as with Tony in the past couple of days. Mind you, all three of them are long-time friends of mine. I spent time with each of them and I look forward to that.
BizBall: You’re slated to meet with HOK and Joe Spear next week on the design of the new facility for the Nationals. How will you tackle keeping the construction on time and on budget?
Kasten: Well, you know that is a job for the City and the architects and the construction company. Those are the signatories of the contract, which has been fully negotiated, and I’m not going to interfere in the deal or any of the progress of the construction. We do want to get in as quickly as we can to lend our experience, and lend our thoughts and suggestions. If there are ways we can enhance things we'll certainly want to offer our input. I don’t know what we’re going to be able to accomplish, as a practical matter. But I certainly want to take the load and if we can help—we do have some strong opinions, and we have some experience, that we can help to do it.
BizBall: On the stadium design… One aspect of the overall design that many have been critical of is the placement of the two parking structures just outside of centerfield. While the Lerner group has not pledged any monies toward moving the structures underground, can you envision working to achieve some fund mechanism to achieve the movement of the structures underground?
Kasten: You know, there’s just no point in asking me specifics on that right now. I haven’t looked at the plans, all I’ve seen are newspaper drawings. I hope to get into that next week, and maybe in a few weeks I’ll have a much better feel to answer a question like that. It’s just too early for me to give you a good answer.
BizBall: What steps, if any, can you make to improve the fan experience at RFK while the new stadium is being built?
Kasten: I think we can do some things. Obviously, there are physical limitations due to the age of the facility. But, there are things we can do, and we already have a team that is already working on that. And, we hope to have a bunch of things to unveil and talk about, again when we're given the keys to take over. There's a lot of things to do and we're going to work very hard to put them in place.
BizBall: It has been widely said that a key factor in the selection of the Lerner group was your addition to the group and your background with the Braves and the construction of Turner Field. What did you learn during that process with the Braves that you can apply to this construction project?
Kasten: Have you ever been to Turner Field? BizBall
: Not as of yet.
Kasten: To me, the central feature of Turner Field is not the architecture, which is grand and spectacular. It's not the sight lines which are magnificent. It's the fan amenities. The way we've activated spacings in the area. The way we've animated that with things that appeal to fans—not just hardcore fans—those that sit in their seats for 9 innings. No, it's for all the people.
Most fans who like to get up and stretch their legs think they need to come away and say... Look, we need to have other things in the building to entertain them; to keep them there to appeal to them. And that's what we did in Turner Field with our entry plaza where they have games, and concerts, and videos and all kinds of opportunity to keep people interested and excited. Tooner Field for kids. The Chop House for adults to eat in. The Bars that we have hanging out over the field. Sky Field, which is a playland for kids that is in a baseball theme that is on the roof. A lot of thought was put into that. But, you know, it keeps your fans coming to your games because we have provided things for seniors, and kids and women and non-hardcore fans, all of which you need. Two million fans we need to have. You know, we cannot make it work with just hardcore fans. We need non-hardcore fans, so we need to provide other things besides just the game. BizBall
: Marketing the Nationals has been an area that has been lacking since the relocation of the franchise from Montreal. Attendance has slipped this season due to a number of factors, marketing being one. What steps will the new ownership take to try and address this situation?
Kasten: Well, you know it's a big job. We're going to look at who's there and bring in a whatever we need. We're going to spend a lot of time and attention on that. Again, we'll have plans to unveil, but we're not ready to talk about that today.
BizBall: As for the on-the-field product... What will the philosophy be on developing the team, be it through free agency or farm system development? Kasten
: It's not a secret formula. It's something that has been proven many, many times in different contexts. You have to build from the ground up in baseball, it's very much a development sport, unlike basketball. In baseball you really need to focus on scouting, player development and minor leagues. All those things require time and money, and we're absolutely determined and dedicated to do it that way. Those that would provide not just money, but the time. And time is even more important than money, in many cases. These owners want to build long term success ; they understand that it will take a little while longer to build it that way, but when we finally turn the corner, the success we have will be much longer lasting.
BizBall: Given the number of areas that need to be addressed with the franchise, do you see a need to increase the front office staff?
Kasten: Well, I suspect so. But again, I'm trying to keep an open mind. I haven't reached any conclusions on anything. And, we'll see where things fall when I get in here and learn everyone and see where the needs are.
BizBall: How critical is it for there to be a resolution between MASN and Comcast to get the 1.3 million subscribers that are currently unable to see the Nationals televised through Comcast?
Kasten: It's absolutely critical. I mean, all our fans have to see all of our games. Period. That's the only acceptable solution. I know that is also the best solution for the Orioles and for Comcast, as well. And, we're going to dig right in it. I think it makes a lot of sense for the three parties to figure out how to do it because we also know that the external parties are very interested in this, and they want that solution and ultimately that's the solution that there will be. So, we'd be a lot smarter if we got this sorted out before the external parties, like Congress, like the City Council get involved because nothing gets easier or better if we have to have them force the solution on us.
BizBall: On MASN… What are your feelings regarding the structure of the arrangement between Angelos and the Nationals? Is the MASN arrangement viewed as a plus as it is, or is there room for refinement in the arrangement?
Kasten: There is no point talking about ancient history. With eyes wide open, we know what we’ve purchased and the deal is in place and we’re going to proceed along those lines. The most important thing now is getting our team to be as good as it can be and getting our games on as many homes as possible.
BizBall: Finally, what would you say to the fans of the Washington Nationals about what they should expect from the new ownership group?
Kasten: I think they’re going to see an ownership that is passionate and willing to develop a product given the time that’s required. I think they’re renowned for the quality, cleanliness, and maintenance of their facilities. I think by the time we get up and running in the new facility, I think we look forward to becoming one of the great success stories in baseball—both nationally and internationally. Let’s remember, as the game grows globally as it has been doing, particularly with the recent advent of the WBC, we are a city with not only a news bureau from every city in the country, but a news bureau from every country in the world that plays baseball. So when we have success here, I think it’s something that people will be able to follow globally. We’re aware of our potential and our expertise in making that happen, and we expect that to be delivered (on the potential).
The following interview was originally published on the SABR Business of Baseball website, and can be read here: SABR Business of Baseball Interviews Page
Interview conducted by Maury Brown on 5/5/06
Published on 5/7/06
Transcribed by Steven Charnick, Galen Antle and Maury Brown
Edited by Maury Brown
Graphics and layout by Maury Brown