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MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL

New Dodgers owner can follow one of two paths

At one time Frank McCourt was seen as rescuing team from Fox News Corp. Plenty of ownership changes have been positive, enough to give Dodgers fans hope after bleak recent past.

November 21, 2011|By Helene Elliott
  • Frank, right, and Jamie McCourt share a few laughs with former Dodgers manager Tom Lasorda while being introduced as the new owners of the Dodgers in 2004. At the time, many believed the ownership change would push the team in a positive direction.
Frank, right, and Jamie McCourt share a few laughs with former Dodgers manager… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

For sale: a baseball team with a storied history but less-than-stellar recent past. Its name resonates across generations but needs some TLC. Has great location and potential to generate billions in TV rights fees. Inquire with Blackstone Advisory Partners.

If all goes according to the terms of a settlement between Major League Baseball and owner Frank McCourt, the Dodgers will be sold in the next several months, with Blackstone brokering the deal for McCourt. Fans, including some who stayed away from Chavez Ravine to protest McCourt, are eager to know who the next owner will be and what direction the Dodgers will take.

Will this person or corporation have the passion and resources to restore the Dodgers' good name? Or will the new owner seek fame or real-estate riches and make only cosmetic fixes to the image McCourt tarnished?

"Because he did such a poor job the last few years kind of running that franchise into the ground, just by virtue of what fans had to deal with the last two years makes whoever is coming in look like a white knight," said Patrick Rishe, associate professor of economics at the Walker School of Business at Webster University in St. Louis and a part-time Los Angeles resident.

Not long ago, McCourt appeared to be the savior who would rescue the Dodgers from the cold clutches of Fox's News Corp. But things changed quickly when he and his wife, Jamie, split, and the Dodgers' situation ended up worse than before.

New ownership can bring positive changes, but — as with Fox's sale to McCourt — things can sometimes go sour.

The ultimate positive transformation was performed on the New York Yankees, who languished under CBS' ownership before a group led by George Steinbrenner bought them in 1973. Steinbrenner, who exploited free agency and recognized the value of TV rights, turned the Yankees into a headline-grabbing winner and international brand. His group paid about $8.8 million; the Yankees were valued at $1.7 billion by Forbes this year.

Dire circumstances led Mario Lemieux to rescue the Pittsburgh Penguins by taking an ownership stake in 1999 instead of money he was owed by the bankrupt team. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 2009 under Lemieux, who engineered their move to a new arena with better revenue streams.

Among small-market teams, the best example of a new owner's beneficial impact is Peter Holt's purchase of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs for $75 million in 1993. The Spurs are now worth more than $400 million and have won four titles under his ownership.

Robert Kraft's 1994 purchase of the New England Patriots is considered the model rejuvenation of the last 20 years. The Patriots were 14-50 the four seasons before he bought them for $175 million and have since won five conference championships and three Super Bowl titles. He privately financed a new stadium and developed the surrounding area, raising the franchise's valuation to $1.4 billion in Forbes' estimates.

"In football, what the Krafts have done in New England is nothing short of phenomenal," said Robert Boland, a professor of sports business at New York University's Tisch Center. "It's probably the single biggest turnaround in that sport."

In other cases, though, new ownership sent teams in the wrong direction.

Trucking magnate Jerry Moyes bought the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005 but soon wanted out. However, the NHL blocked his attempts to sell them to an owner who would move them and he filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The NHL bought the Coyotes and still operates them.

The Phoenix Suns have struggled since penny-pinching Robert Sarver bought them in 2004 for $404 million, and Michael Jordan hasn't duplicated his on-court magic as an owner of the Charlotte Bobcats. Stephen Ross bought a half-interest in the Miami Dolphins in 2008 and most of the rest in 2009, but the team is 16-25 the last two-plus seasons. Dan Snyder's ownership of the Washington Redskins has been a mess, with seven coaching changes in 12 seasons.

"All the money in the world and he has proven willing to spend it but hasn't spent it wisely," Scott Rosner, associate director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania said of Snyder.

"He's very involved in the day-to-day operations of the team, which is his right as the owner. It's just not necessarily the most intelligent thing to do."

Looking at the last 10 to 15 years, ownership changes involving the Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics and Boston Red Sox have produced triumphant turnarounds. Even the most anxious Dodgers fan can take hope from those sales.

"Ownership of a pro sports team is a very diversified business. Your customers are your fans, but your product is winning and winning as relatively cheaply as you can, so you have to maintain the right balance of players and stars and evaluate your talent accordingly," Boland said.

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