The Baltimore Orioles had a glorious 2023 season. But are the Orioles really ours?

Despite hundreds of millions of public dollars already spent on the team (not including lots of fan dollars) and $600 million offered by the state of Maryland to get a new lease, Orioles President John Angelos has not yet signed a new lease. According to news media reports, he’s demanding the elimination of rent payments and the right to commercially develop parking lots around the stadium with a 99-year ground rent. An amount in the vicinity of $1 billion would be required just to keep the team here. Plus, the Ravens may get a match of any amount higher than the $600 million the Orioles receive. And Angelos plans to raise prices “dramatically,” according to a New York Times report.

This doesn’t include the underinvestment in stadium infrastructure and systems predicted by former Maryland Stadium Authority Chairman Thomas Kelso.

How expensive is $600 million? A Sept. 12 Baltimore Sun article compared the total of $1.2 billion offered to the Ravens and Orioles to the cost for various unfunded initiatives. That $1 billion could fund a rapid bus line between Bayview and Ellicott City. Spending $657 million could make Baltimore’s pedestrian infrastructure compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. For $100 million, we could afford Gov. Wes Moore’s “baby bonds” idea to provide $3,200 for every child born on Medicaid. A mere $27 million could build 77 miles of new bike lanes around Baltimore.

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What are supposed to be negotiations appear to be one-sided. Do we have an alternative to giving Angelos whatever he can imagine? We absolutely do. At best, giving in to his demands now will only prevent the Orioles from leaving Baltimore until another generation of owners demands perhaps multiple billions of dollars.

Here are our options: Baltimore City, per Article II(b) of our charter, has the power to acquire a sports franchise, such as the Orioles, by purchase or condemnation, and to operate the team and/or sell or otherwise dispose of the team, in whole or in part, subject to such restrictions and reservations as may be necessary or appropriate. Angelos and his partners would receive reasonable compensation for the franchise.

How would we pay the compensation? Statista 2023 valued the Orioles at $1.713 billion. Let’s move that up to $1.8 billion based on their recent success (note that the Angelos family bought the team for $173 million in 1993). The $600 million the state has offered for a lease lasting a few decades could be used to buy a third of permanent control of the team. The remaining $1.2 billion might be the asking price to resell the team, subject to a no-move clause and maybe other restrictions.

Assuming Statista’s valuation did not factor in Baltimore’s right to acquire the team, every dollar John Angelos is demanding to keep the Orioles in Baltimore reduces the value of the franchise when potential ownership by the city is factored in. So, if he’s demanding $1 billion to stay here, the $1.8 billion value is reduced to $800 million, 75% of which we could pay with the proffered $600 million.

The hope is that Baltimore’s exercise of its condemnation power would rein in the power of billionaire sports owners to demand money from their team’s state and city, reducing the reasonable value of not only the Orioles but all other privately owned but publicly subsided teams. This could bring some satisfaction to Maryland fans of the Commanders who are uncertain that Dan Snyder deserved his profits from selling the team.

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Or the city could work with the state of Maryland to develop a form of public or fan ownership. The Green Bay Packers of the National Football League are a prominent example of a model of sports ownership that works well for the fans, the small market team and the taxpayers. Major League Baseball’s billionaire owners would certainly oppose such an arrangement as they know it would interrupt their plans to profit off the backs of taxpayers. But eminent domain is an established government procedure, and Maryland has granted this power to Baltimore. Using it would be good for our fans, our city, and our state.

Public acquisition of the Orioles would not prevent commercial development of the Camden Yards parking lots. Indeed, by eliminating middleman fees to Angelos, such development should be more feasible. It’s questionable whether the state has legal authority to grant exclusive use of that land to the Orioles for nonsports development without offering a chance for other developers to make a bid for it .

Also, it is unlikely paying such fees to Angelos would provide balance for small market teams against large market teams. Why wouldn’t the large market owners also demand (and get) such fees? As to the possible ground rent, would it be renewable, as many ground rents are? If some state administration forgot during the next 99 years to collect the rent payment, or chose not to bother due to the minimal value of the rent payment in, say, 2093 dollars, would the public lose all rights to these centrally located pieces of Baltimore? Do we want to rely on the good instincts of John Angelos’ successors 70 years from now?

We understand that some may think our call for Baltimore City to exercise its charter authority to acquire the Orioles is a longshot effort. But we are hopeful that Moore and the other members of the Board of Public Works and the General Assembly will recognize the wisdom of what we and others are saying and not approve this very dubious lease with the Orioles. We also hope that Baltimore City’s elected officials will take possession of this publicly subsidized asset rather than submit to one wealthy man.

Bill Marker is an attorney and a longtime community and political activist from Baltimore’s Barre Circle/Pigtown and Ridgely’s Delight neighborhoods. He has led past efforts to not build stadiums at public expense.

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Andy Ellis, a business Intelligence lead for a technology and research company, is a community activist and political organizer who lives in Northeast Baltimore. He has served as co-chair of both the Maryland and Baltimore City Green parties.

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