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Rutten: The Dodgers, the McCourts and the errors of their ways

With a new owner, the Dodgers franchise may just prove strong enough to overcome Frank McCourt and his incompetent management.

June 29, 2011|Tim Rutten

If litigation were a competitive sport, Frank McCourt would have a trophy case filled with silver.

Actually, it appears to be all he's really good at, since the evidence indicates he's a major-league cock-up as a businessman, husband and owner of a professional baseball team. His latest maneuver — a desperate flight into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection — essentially makes one of Los Angeles' civic treasures, the Dodgers, a hostage. It's always a sad spectacle when mediocrity and cunning are mobilized by an instinct for self-preservation so all-consuming that it would countenance the ruin of everyone involved.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig put the matter plainly enough in a statement responding to McCourt's latest move, pointing out that the real issue is "the financial situation of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which was caused by Mr. McCourt's excessive debt and his diversion of club assets for his own personal needs."

The commissioner's office, Selig said, has told McCourt that "any potential solution to his problems that contemplates mortgaging the future of the Dodgers franchise to the long-term detriment of the club, its loyal fans and the game of baseball would not be acceptable.... The action taken today by Mr. McCourt does nothing but inflict further harm to this historic franchise."

We'd all have more confidence in Selig's ability to bring this sordid fiasco to some sort of workable conclusion, of course, if he hadn't been the commissioner who inexplicably allowed National League franchises in baseball's three major markets — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — to slip into financial crisis on his watch. Moreover, he has yet to offer a satisfactory explanation for why he allowed McCourt, an undercapitalized parking lot owner with no sports management experience, to acquire one of baseball's most storied and historically significant clubs almost entirely with borrowed money.

As the Boston Globe's Dan Shaughnessy wrote Monday: "Folks in Boston knew McCourt would be a disaster for Major League Baseball. He was a smooth-talking, nicely dressed, well-mannered guy with parking lots and delusions of grandeur. He fancied himself as a serious bidder for the Red Sox in 2001 when the Yawkey Trust put the team up for sale, but nobody in Boston took McCourt seriously because he didn't have enough of his own money."

The subsequent deal that handed McCourt and his now-estranged wife, Jamie, the Dodgers was, Shaughnessy wrote, "a house of cards from the jump. And for the next six years the McCourts made the Dodgers their personal ATM."

As The Times has reported, the McCourts not only siphoned off at least $100 million for their own purposes but also borrowed so heavily that they've exceeded Major League Baseball's debt limits and simply run out of cash as their woeful management sent attendance into a downward spiral. Worse, they've split the franchise into a network of subsidiaries — the stadium, the parking lots, ticket sales, etc. — and most of these are encumbered by debts or advances as well.

In fact, Frank and Jamie McCourt are a rather familiar sort of contemporary couple. They're like people who took advantage of financing they shouldn't have been extended to buy a house they couldn't afford. They'd make great poster children for the subprime lending debacle.

Contemptibly venal and hopelessly improvident as they may be, the McCourts have accomplished something singular in Los Angeles — a genuine and principled revolt on the part of the Dodgers' loyal fans. Neither they nor the city's civic leaders have turned on the team, to which they remain devoted despite an abysmal record. They have, however, utterly rejected the McCourts' management in what amounts to an informal but highly effective boycott.

"The economic fallout from this sort of fan dissatisfaction is only going to grow," David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute, told me this week. "Fans have decided not to spend their hard-earned recreational dollars on the Dodgers so long as the McCourts are in charge. Most franchises that atrophy as badly as the Dodgers have — with losing records and horrendous customer service — never recover. The brands just aren't strong enough."

But the Dodgers, Carter said, "are unique." If the club gets new ownership, he said, "it will rebound more quickly than anyone can believe because the fans have checked out on the McCourts and not baseball or this team."

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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