MLB in Norfolk? Bob Johnson is trying….

Updated: November 19, 2007
Bob Johnson
Bob Johnson

NORFOLK, VA—Robert Johnson, the billionaire founder of Black Entertainment Television and owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, said he is interested in helping Norfolk land a Major League Baseball franchise.

Johnson also has had discussions with Norfolk officials about building a luxury hotel in the city’s revitalized downtown area.

Johnson could not be reached for comment Friday but told the Virginian-Pilot, “I told the mayor (Paul Fraim) that I’m willing to help in any way I can to help bring baseball to Norfolk.”

Johnson said that could even go as far as becoming part of an ownership group.

Will Somerindyke and Jason Osborne, the Virginia Beach businessmen spearheading the local effort to land the Montreal Expos, are expected to meet with Johnson later this month to discuss what, if any, role he is willing to play.

“I think it’s wonderful,” Norfolk councilman Anthony Burfoot said of Johnson’s involvement with the city and its baseball venture. “I truly believe that it gives the city of Norfolk instant credibility as it relates to becoming a top-tier city.”

As part of the Bobcats’ venture, Johnson also started a regional cable television network that will broadcast throughout North and South Carolina.

Somerindyke and Osborne have maintained that landing a Major League Baseball franchise is part of a larger business venture that will include a regional broadcast network for Virginia and perhaps surrounding areas. Johnson’s network could dovetail with Somerindyke’s and Osborne’s efforts.

Burfoot said that Johnson began to explore the possibility of building a hotel in downtown Norfolk nearly a year ago and recently has become intrigued by the city’s efforts to land a baseball team.

“He’s a minority billionaire,” Burfoot said. “That shows people in other municipalities around the country that Norfolk is open for business and we welcome diversity to our city.

“It also speaks volumes about the opportunity when you get someone like Bob who says, ‘I’m interested in baseball as well.’ To me, that says a lot. Here’s a guy that does his homework thoroughly.

If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be a billionaire. He’s not in the business of losing money. He definitely sees a market here.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Times reported that Washington, D.C.

intends to submit a plan to Major League Baseball officials for a new stadium financed completely with public money to attract the Expos.

The team would play at RFK Stadium for two or three years while a $340 million stadium is built nearby, although two other downtown sites for a new stadium are still a possibility.

Stadium sites and finance plans have been a sticking point for D.C. and Northern Virginia, long considered the most likely places for the Expos to relocate.

Norfolk and Washington, D.C. are two of several possible relocation sites for the Expos, along with Northern Virginia; Portland, Ore.; Las Vegas; Monterrey, Mexico; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Also, the promoter who brought 22 games to San Juan last year and again this season made a proposal to the commissioner’s office for a trial relocation to the Caribbean island.

Depending on the success of that trial, Antonio Munoz’s group would try to buy the Expos.

Munoz said his company, MB Sports, had offered to host all 81 games this season and that the San Juan municipal government has committed to renovate Hiram Bithorn Stadium or build a new ballpark to meet major league standards if his offer is accepted.

Baseball officials have said they hope to announce the Expos’ new home for the 2005 season by mid-summer, although they have ignored their own deadlines repeatedly.

Burfoot said that regardless of the baseball decision, he believes Johnson’s hotel deal will come to fruition.

“I’m really excited about either one,” Burfoot said.

“The hotel, I’m excited about that – number one, because it’s Bob Johnson coming here. And two, I’m really excited if we can land baseball, because if we do that, then I think we begin to look like the city that we ought to be.”