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Magic Johnson intends to bid for Dodgers

The former Lakers star, who would be the face of a high-powered ownership group, says he wants to make the baseball team great again.

December 02, 2011|By Bill Shaikin and Bill Plaschke
  • Lakers great Magic Johnson announced Friday that he's part of group that intends to bid for the Dodgers.
Lakers great Magic Johnson announced Friday that he's part of group… (Damian Dovarganes / Associated…)

Magic Johnson wants to buy the Dodgers, putting one of Los Angeles' most beloved sports figures in pursuit of the city's cherished baseball team.

Johnson announced his bid Friday, saying he wants to restore the Dodgers' pride and prominence.

"I want to make them great again," Johnson said.

Johnson would be the face of a high-powered ownership group that includes Stan Kasten, the former president of two Major League Baseball teams, the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals, and Mark Walter, the chief executive of Guggenheim Partners, a financial services firm that controls more than $125 billion in assets. The firm is headquartered in Chicago and New York, with an office in Santa Monica.

Johnson's entry lends a dramatic air to the Dodgers sweepstakes, which is expected to officially begin next week when information is sent to potential bidders. The Dodgers are expected to sell for more than $1 billion, which would be a record price for a baseball team.

Having his money lined up gives Johnson a head start on several potential bidders, including former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Southland baseball executive Dennis Gilbert, Los Angeles developers Rick Caruso and Alan Casden and former Buffalo Sabres owner Tom Golisano are among other potential buyers who have been publicly identified.

Exactly how many interested parties there are is not known, but former Dodgers stars Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser are trying to form a bid group, as is Fred Claire, a former Dodgers general manager.

Johnson said he met with six prospective ownership groups, dismissing those he felt would focus on the Dodgers' pending multibillion-dollar television deal or on developing the land surrounding Dodger Stadium.

"I wasn't interested in anybody who wasn't going to make baseball the priority," Johnson said.

Kasten declined to comment. Walter declined through a spokesman to disclose his net worth — he is not listed as a billionaire by Forbes magazine — or identify the other partners in the investment group.

In a statement, Walter said the group would have "the financial wherewithal to provide long-term stability for the Dodgers organization."

Said Walter: "We plan to help this storied franchise reclaim its place among baseball's champions."

Kasten once offered Johnson the head coaching job with the Atlanta Hawks, for whom Kasten worked as general manager and president. Kasten has since emerged as one of baseball's power brokers and has been rumored as a candidate for commissioner upon the eventual retirement of Bud Selig.

The Dodgers filed for bankruptcy protection in June. Last month, owner Frank McCourt reached an agreement with MLB to sell the team by April 30, 2012.

Selig generally controls the sale of a team; he steered Kasten toward the Lerner family before approving the family's 2006 purchase of the Nationals. However, Kasten's status as a baseball insider might not be as relevant in the Dodgers' sale, in which McCourt — not Selig — will select the winning bidder.

"Kasten would normally have a huge advantage," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College in Massachusetts. "That's diminished, because this process is different."

Johnson said he called McCourt on Thursday to alert him of the pending announcement. He spoke with one of McCourt's lieutenants and passed along his appreciation for the Dodgers' four playoff berths in eight seasons under McCourt, and for the team's revitalized community involvement.

The Dodgers declined to comment Friday.

Although McCourt will be seeking the highest possible sale price, he said last month that dedication to the community would be among the criteria for selecting the new owner.

"It's somebody who is a huge baseball fan, who loves this community and is willing to commit to this community and put everything they have into it," McCourt said, "and bring a world championship to L.A."

Johnson brought five championships to Los Angeles, marrying sports and entertainment as leader of the "Showtime" Lakers. The three-time NBA most valuable player was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2002, by which time he had launched a business empire that has included movie theaters, banks, restaurants and film production.

Johnson, 52, also has invested in — and sparked public awareness of — the fight against HIV, the disease that prompted him to retire from the NBA in 1991.

His current business partners include Ron Burkle, the Beverly Hills supermarket magnate and co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Burkle has expressed interest in buying the Dodgers and could bid against Johnson.

Johnson indicated he would try to build the Dodgers in the mold of his star-driven Lakers teams. Johnson said he would recruit prominent players, joking that he would have been knocking at the door of St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols "at 12:01 a.m. on the first day of free agency."

Kasten, who would serve as the Dodgers' president and chief executive if the Johnson group wins the bidding, has emphasized building from within.

In a fact sheet, the bid group described one of Kasten's strengths: "Both the Braves and the Nationals were built on a strong emphasis on scouting and player development, core tenets that he will bring to Los Angeles."

In 2010, Johnson sold his 4.5% ownership share of the Lakers. He is an investor in the Dayton Dragons, a minor league baseball team that has sold out 844 consecutive games, an ongoing record for a professional sports team in the United States.

Los Angeles Times readers recently ranked Johnson as the second-most-popular figure in Los Angeles sports history, behind Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax and ahead of Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully.

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillShaikin

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/BillPlaschke

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