New book tells story about how Washington Nationals could have ended up in different hands

The average Washingtonian probably doesn’t know the name Jeff Smulyan. But CEO and entrepreneur Smulyan pretty much owns the Washington Nationals, and in his new book, he shares his experience as a team owner and media innovator.

Back in the early 2000s, his team of investors was seen as a solid bet for buying a baseball team (formerly the Montreal Expos) and bringing it to the region. Although he lives in Indianapolis, he committed to leaving the team in Washington, D.C., traveling back and forth to manage it.



Smulyan has run a baseball team from far away before — he owned the Seattle Mariners in the ’90s.

I first met Smulyan, who founded Emmis Communications in 1986, the same year the company was recognized as the largest private media conglomerate in the United States. I’m a student at Indiana University and want to include him in a paper I’m writing for a communications class.

I called his office and asked for an hour of his time. A few days later, I checked the answering machine for messages and one was from Smulyan. He said something like, “Glad to be interviewed. Come to my office in Indianapolis and I’ll try to give you an hour.”

I got time.

He went on to have a 40+ year career successfully buying, selling, owning and operating radio stations, television stations, sports franchises and more. I went on to finish college and landed on WTOP – one of the best radio stations in America, I can say, and consistently the highest paid radio station in the country.

So I would say we are both fine.

The title of Smulyan’s new book, “Never Ride a Roller Coaster Upside Down,” tells the story of his long and ongoing career. Headlines like this beg the question: what are the highest moments and lowest valleys?

In a lengthy interview with WTOP, Smulyan said one of the low points came in 2009 when the radio industry collapsed. “Our cash flow is down about 65% in two years.”

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Smulyan said he has watched many friends in the industry go bankrupt.

“we do not have [go bankrupt]. We survived, and this book tells how we did it, and how we lived to fight again. “

Smulyan’s nadir was in Seattle, where he was majority owner of the Mariners from 1989 to 1992. The team never made the playoffs during his tenure as owner, and he sold the team midway through the 1992 season, which saw the Mariners win just 64 games.

Smulyan said the local media slammed his performance as an owner and that the team wasn’t making money because the Mariners weren’t as attractive as the city’s NFL and NBA teams.

“To own the Mariners back then, you needed to be a billionaire. We weren’t,” he said. “I was Seattle’s public enemy number one when we sold the team.”

In retrospect, he said, he is proud that his ownership at the time is now being praised for revitalizing the team and how it is doing now. The Mariners win 90 games and make the playoffs in 2022, ending the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball.

On the other end of the spectrum, one of his high points was the invention of something new in broadcasting—the all-sports broadcast format.

Smulyan said he came up with the idea for the all-sports broadcast while daydreaming in a media class while at USC. He said Emmis Communications had always been a partnership, so years later, when the company bought the first AM radio station in New York City, he pitched to his managers the idea of ​​making everything sports.

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“It was rejected.”

But he said he kind of changed his mind.

He said managers came back and said, “We still think it’s a stupid idea, but we’ve done really well elsewhere, and we owe you one, so we’ll do it.”

That was the birth of all-sports broadcasting, which Smulyan says didn’t do well at first, but after a turnaround, “I went from an idiot to a genius.”

There’s even an annual sportscasting award called the Jeff Smulyan Award. Smulyan has always had a keen interest in sports and is part of an investment group that is racing to buy the Montreal Expos and relocate them to Washington, D.C., where they become the Nationals.

In the book, he says the biggest battle was getting over the fact that he was from out of town. He was even called “carpetbagger”.

He tells the story of being on the George Michael Sports Machine, which originated at NBC’s Washington studios but was televised nationally:

“The interview went well, and I turned on the news that night to see how it turned out. After the interview, George turned to longtime Channel 4 presenter Jim Vance, and I was shocked to hear Vance announce, ‘That guy is a liar, We don’t need him to own our baseball team! Michael smiled sheepishly and Vance turned to other news. Now, of course I’ve been criticized in the papers, and I’ve had some tough interviews, but seeing the host attack you on the eleven o’clock news It’s a painful thing.”

That’s despite a number of DC insiders bidding for the team as part of his team of investors, including Alfred Liggins, CEO of Radio One, the largest black-owned media company in the U.S.; Dick Wiley, founder of a leading D.C. law firm and former FCC chairman; former Washington Commanders player Art Monk; and Eric Holder, who later became attorney general during the Obama administration , the Smulyan group lost to the Lerner family, which still owns the team.

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Smulyan quipped that many expected him to contrast the team with Washington Commanders owner Dan Snyder. In the book, Smulyan recalls such a story:

“As a baseball friend told me: ‘We think you’re going to be the perfect opposite of Dan Snyder. [the owner of the then Washington Redskins], which is exactly what we need. Now, as you read this book, you may conclude that statement is true. Snyder was smart and rich; I was dumb and poor; we were polar opposites indeed. Still, from the day Snyder bought the team (now known as the Washington Commanders), his tenure has been fraught with controversy. His erratic personality has been a lightning rod for criticism across the region. One newspaper headline summed up the situation: “You Think Your Team Owner Is Bad. Dan Snyder Worse.” The fans who came to the game were chanting “sell the team” as a sign. Obviously, people thought our style would be a stark contrast to Snyder, and I certainly agree.”

This wasn’t Smulyan’s only brush with Major League Baseball and the Expo. In the late 1980s, he said, he was approached about the possibility of moving the expo to Indianapolis.

“We’ve thought about it and decided that the Indianapolis market is not going to work,” Smulyan said, adding that the Indianapolis market is not large enough to support three professional sports teams. “We’re lucky to have the Colts and Pacers here … the market isn’t big enough.”

Smulyan ends his chapter on the Nationals by saying, “Do I believe we’re going to be more innovative and have a bigger impact on the lives of kids in DC? You bet I do.

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