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A Winner Is Long Overdue

January 13, 2002

Last season the Anaheim Angels finished 41 games out of first place. The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim are sitting in last place in the National Hockey League's Pacific Division--and in league attendance. And that's just the sports teams in the magic kingdom of the Walt Disney Co.

Things aren't so rosy with the company's other ventures. In 2001 the box office and gate for its movies and theme parks were down, and its network TV ratings fell off too.

But things may be looking up for Disney's sports teams in this new year. And that could have a direct effect on the morale of its long-suffering Angel and Duck fans, and on the county's sports scene, which now can only look to a former county team, the St. Louis Rams, for the thrills of a winning season and postseason play.

Just as changing managers can boost hope for a bad team, there is optimism now that Tony Tavares has resigned as president of the Anaheim Sports Division. Tavares ran the Angels and Ducks virtually as the final authority until last year, when a reorganization made Paul Pressler, chairman of Disney's parks and resort division, his boss.

Guilty or not, Tavares bore the blame for the lackluster play of the teams and their failure to win. As he noted in resigning, "Losing money and losing on the field makes a job like this unbearable." He also understood how some fans might rejoice in his departure, but said that while "it's a good day for them, it's a great day for me."

Tavares and Pressler, however, both realized and publicly acknowledged that the answer to losing games, money and fans is to build a competitive and winning team. Pressler says Disney is now focused on that. We can only hope Disney is serious and is not sprinkling more magic marketing dust. After years of disappointment, and watching the Rams go on to glory elsewhere, Orange County is overdue for the kind of civic boost that comes from a winning professional franchise.

Aside from the fact that the Angels and Ducks have plenty of room for improvement, the feeling, and most probably the reality, that has haunted county sports fans is that Disney hasn't really cared about winning as much as fielding an entertainment product that would bring people through the turnstiles, herd them to the souvenir stands and prove to be a popular attraction for some prospective buyer or sports group interested in taking one or both teams off its hands.

The Angels have made some moves in recent weeks, picking up two starting pitchers by trading Mo Vaughn to the New York Mets for Kevin Appier and signing free agent Aaron Sele for $24 million. Pressler also has authorized the Angels to go after another hitter, all of which should help make them more competitive this season. They have even changed their team logo and will sport new uniforms.

But it's understandable if some fans still greet all this with more reservations than enthusiasm.

There haven't been any buyers willing to pay the price Disney is seeking for teams that season after season not only keep losing games but also drop out of contention too early to even generate the excitement of a close finish. According to a report from the baseball commissioner's office, the Angels say they have operating losses of $100 million from 1995 to 2000.

Will Disney, considering the declines in 2001 in its motion-picture, television and theme-park holdings and a 28% drop in its stock price in the last 12 months, really commit to spending what it will take to make both Orange County teams legitimate contenders?

That's a question that concerns not only sports fans but also the community in general. Orange County is a major metropolitan area of nearly 3 million residents, the fourth-largest county in the nation, and is bigger than 20 states. It also draws fans from the inland communities. The community deserves not only major-league status but major-league performance with all the economic and civic benefits that brings.

Orange County has been wishing upon a Disney star for all of that and more. The county sports dream is not only for contenders in the teams it has, but also for major league basketball and football franchises.

Sports are important to a community. Teams that are competitive and well-run can be economic assets not only to their owners but also to many other businesses.

But more than money and tax dollars, they also generate community pride, unity and identity. Just look back a few months at the last World Series and how New Yorkers and residents of Arizona embraced their teams, and the community spirit their play produced. Orange County should be so lucky.

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