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Washington isn't going to get major league baseball. But it's still a great time to be a sports fan.

12:00 AM, May 1, 2002 • By FRED BARNES
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THE LATEST conspiracy theory inside the Beltway involves a Democrat who supposedly is sacrificing his own profit-making enterprise to deprive people in Washington of something they desperately want. That something is a major league baseball team, which Washington hasn't had for more than three decades.

The bad guy in this conspiracy is Peter Angelos, the wealthy tort lawyer and prominent Democrat who owns the Baltimore Orioles. He's accused of making his team worse so attendance will fall, and then he'll be able to argue against planting a team in nearby Washington on economic grounds. The argument would be that the Baltimore-Washington area can barely support one team, much less two. And if Washington fans were taken away from his team, attendance would drop even more and make his team economically non-viable.

This theory is nonsense, but you can see why folks in Washington believe it. Angelos has made the Orioles worse. Their last star, Cal Ripken, retired last year after all the other first-class players were traded or lost to free agency. And attendance is down. Two weeks ago, I went to my first Orioles game ever when Orioles Park at Camden Yards wasn't sold out--and I've been to dozens of games. There were 10,000 empty seats.

Would Angelos do this on purpose, lose money to ward off the unlikely event of big league baseball's putting a team in Washington? Not on your life. This isn't the way baseball owners operate. They always want a successful team, particularly because that makes them a popular figure in town. With a losing team--especially when the owner has let good but expensive players like Mike Mussina and Roberto Alomar leave--the owner is a pariah.

Now here's the hard truth about Washington baseball. The city is not likely to get a team, expansion or otherwise. Baseball owners are eager to "contract"--that is, shrink--at this point by killing two money-losing teams. Why add a new team which may or may not make it financially and would surely draw fans from another team, worsening its balance sheet? Even if the Orioles were a good team, they'd lose fans to Washington. Angelos is right about that. Look, I'm for a team in D.C., but its chances of happening, without pressure from President Bush and members of Congress, are slim. The reasons, sad to say, are inescapable.

MY CANDIDATE for the most indulged person in America is the sports fan. I'm one, so I'm not complaining, particularly after watching on television all nine innings of Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe's no-hitter last Saturday. No, it wasn't a nationally televised game. But if you pay for the baseball package on DirecTV, as I do, you could get it or eight or nine other big league games that weren't broadcast nationally on regular television or cable.

That the Red Sox game with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays was available is exactly my point. Practically every sports event anywhere in the world is now available. Every National Basketball Association playoff game is on broadcast or cable channels. An amazing number of NCAA basketball tournament games were shown on CBS this year. All were available on satellite TV, I believe. Of course, there's the Golf Channel on cable, plus four ESPN channels, a channel connected with Sports Illustrated, and the ever-growing number of Fox Sports Net channels. For years, Atlanta Braves fans have been springing up around the country because Braves games have been on cable's TBS Superstation. And I'm barely scraping the surface.

Any older sports fan--let's say, 50 and above--is aware of the difference between what's available now and what was in their youth. When I was growing up in the Washington area, there was one college basketball and one pro game on TV per week. There was no televised baseball, except for games of the home team, and there weren't many of these. Each weekend, you could watch one college football game and the away game of the local pro team. That was about it.

The problem now for the attentive sports fan is coping with the vast opportunities. It's quite easy for sports fans to become completely self-indulgent, watching games on TV to the exclusion of the rest of life. No reading. No moviegoing. No fraternization with family. No puttering around the yard. No shopping trips. No meals at the dinner table. I'm not saying televised sports are a threat to American life as we once knew it. But it's mighty darn tempting and hard to resist.

IF YOU'RE NOT a fan of big time college sports, skip this item because it's about making college sports even bigger, at least in the East. I'm well aware of all the problems with Division I college athletics: the low graduation rate for athletes, the recruitment of athletes who have no business being in college at all, the gut courses, the insistence on winning at all costs, the crazed coaches, the betting. Still, tens of millions of Americans love college sports, and I'm one of them.

The latest trend is toward bigger conferences that are split into two divisions and have a championship game. You see this in the Big Twelve (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, to name three schools) and in the Southeastern Conference (Florida, Tennessee, LSU). These 12-team conferences were created by adding new schools to an already existing conference. They are fantastically successful, financially, as well as thrilling for fans.

My proposal is to do the same thing in the East and Southeast, using the Atlantic Coast Conference (Duke, North Carolina, Florida State) as the base. Right now, the ACC has nine teams, an unwieldy number. By adding three more, it would have enough for two six-college divisions, north and south. Who should join? My candidates are Miami, Virginia Tech, and Syracuse. Each is now in the Big East conference. It's a weird conference in which some members don't compete in football. Surely a super-conference would be more attractive to Big East members.

The north division would consist of Syracuse, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Maryland, and two North Carolina schools (take your pick). The south would have the other two North Carolina colleges, plus Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, and Miami. Among other things, the new conference would excel in lacrosse, with perennial power Syracuse joining the four good ACC teams. In basketball, it would be number one in the nation, in football, number three or higher.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.