Dodger Stadium near downtown is part of the $2-billion sale of the Los Angeles… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Once the pixie dust fades from the Dodgers’ new ownership agreement, this hard question will loom: How to restore luster to a historic sports franchise that has acquired a derelict image?
And don’t forget this corollary: Will the $2-billion price tag on the deal make that task easier or harder?
For several years after the McCourts acquired the team in 2004, the franchise’s financial books and on-the-field record glowed. The team’s revenue nearly doubled to $286 million from $156 million from 2003 to 2009, and the Dodgers reached the playoffs four times in the first six years of the McCourt regime, as my colleague Bill Shaikin observed.
More recently, especially after Frank and Jamie McCourt announced their plans for divorce in 2009, the team's fortunes sagged. The premises acquired a reputation for profanity and violence, culminating in the attack on Brian Stow, a San Francisco Giants fan, in the Dodger Stadium parking lot last year.
The team’s finances were in turmoil, not least because of the McCourts’ habit of living off future revenues — they took out two loans against future ticket sales, including one for $140 million in 2007. The aging of the stadium, and customer service issues, such as long lines at the sparse concession stands, plague the team and surely contributed to last year’s plunge to a 49% attendance rate.
The new owners, a consortium that includes former Lakers star Earvin “Magic” Johnson, have their work cut out for them. The full terms of the deal aren’t known yet and may not even be clear after the buyers hold a news conference later today. Johnson appears to have a small financial stake in the team but brings value as a symbol of the franchise’s ties to the community and to the happier past of Los Angeles pro sports.
But all the nagging deficiencies of the old ownership will have to be corrected: Overpriced parking in the stadium lots, doubtful security and an unsettling fan experience, not to mention a disappointing performance on the field.
When you’re dealing with crowds, a little effort applied to customer relations can go a long way — and indifferent customer relations can hurt (as the Angels discovered recently).
But the Dodgers’ rich price tag might work against those efforts. In paying a record price for a pro sports franchise, the new owners may face unique pressures to make their investment pay — and not in the usual way, which is to collect a huge profit on the sale of the team down the road. ( Frank McCourt, who paid $430 million for the team in 2004, looks to reap a windfall on this sale.)
The price may ramp up the pressure on them to reach a lucrative pay-TV deal akin to the Yankees’ creation of their own YES cable channel, which meant that Yankee fans had to pay a surcharge to get the team’s games at home.
The same fate may await Dodgers fans, who could be paying more than they do today to get Dodgers games on Fox’s Prime Ticket channel. Expect more advertising at Dodger Stadium and more efforts for real-estate development of the site.
And for all that the McCourts angered fans by jacking up prices and parking fees, the best bet is that fans haven’t seen the end of that trend.
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