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Be a sport, save our franchise

at 12/10/2009 19:45

Mark H. Teeter

Many Americans are upset and deeply disappointed that an elite US basketball franchise, the New Jersey Nets, is about to be sold to Russia's richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov. And I see their point.

If there is any justice in the world, Prokhorov's $200 million-plus offer for the Nets will be rejected next month by the National Basketball Association, and the oligarch will be forced to spend his money on another US sports team instead.

For example, he could rescue my baseball team, the Baltimore Orioles, whose long-suffering supporters want, need and in fact deserve an owner like Prokhorov much more than a bunch of north Jersey lowlifes who wouldn't know an oligarch from a patriarch and probably think a sports complex is something a psychiatrist treats. Aargh, it just burns me!

Sorry, I was a bit on edge just now, but we Orioles fans have suffered terribly for lo these many years. After decades as Major League Baseball's model franchise - winning more games than any other team between 1955 and 1993, and creating a classic organisational paradigm for sports management - the Orioles fell into the hands of a baseball-ignorant, ambulance-chasing lawyer named Peter Angelos, whose lucrative suit-settlement career brought neither wisdom nor sporting experience to go with the capital that afforded him his very own "toy baseball team" to play with.

And play he did. Unfortunately, many of the athletes Angelos capriciously hired for the same purpose did not, and this month the once-envied franchise completed its 12th consecutive losing season. Baltimore fans are decidedly not happy campers - and news of an angel like Prokhorov landing in New Jersey has not cheered us up. We were hoping he'd land on Angelos, and like a house.

True, our envy is not boundless. The Prokhorov-Nets deal is far more complex and problematic than its most obvious predecessor, Roman Abramovich's purchase of English football club Chelsea.

For one thing, Prokhorov isn't actually buying the Nets. By acquiescing in the plans and commitments of the previous owners, he will effectively be renting the team, paying for 80 per cent of a franchise that is destined not to revive the fortunes of a sports-happy municipality, but is scheduled to skip town in two years for new digs in a new city, where it will start from scratch. No one knows whether the Brooklyn borough of New York will support an NBA team other than the storied New York Knicks (who aren't leaving Manhattan).

Meanwhile, Prokhorov's Nets will be running up major losses as the Lame Duck Team Across the River, and opponents of the Nets' planned move to Brooklyn will have time to coalesce and refine their strategy.

Some critics are already angry about a proposed Brooklyn sports complex (part-financed by Prokhorov)to be the Nets' post-Jersey home. The protesters include homeowners who claim their property is being seized illegally under "eminent domain" laws. Since this is the US, grievance litigation is already underway.

Beyond the court battle, some Brooklyn critics of the development plans have described the import-an-oligarch strategy for saving the financially troubled project as "an embarrassment," citing Prokhorov's 2007 arrest in a French Alpine resort in the investigation into an alleged prostitution ring. (As Russians know, Prokhorov was released after a few days, and no charges were brought.)

Trust me, no such backlash awaits Prokhorov if he decides to buy the Orioles. Baltimore‘s ground is already in place and a thing of beauty.

And our team's fans do not care even un tout petit peu about the curious priorities of the French police.

After all, Prokhorov described the young women he was holidaying with as "students and models" - and we, for our part, believe him.

We also believe that if Angelos had hired the same students and models, half would have succumbed to debilitating vacation injuries while the other half would have vacationed statistically worse than they ever had before during their entire studying and modeling careers.

The Prokhorov-Nets deal almost certainly will go through, of course, and it will likely be a Good Thing on several levels. Prokhorov's cash flow, keen interest in Russian basketball and business savvy will render him a considerable improvement over the Nets' current proprietors.

More important, the first Russian ownership of a major American sports franchise will bring two still mutually-wary cultures a small but noticeable step closer together. And with luck, maybe the next small step will be the Baltimore Oligarchs.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.

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