Commentary

Dodgers situation a comedy, drama

There's a cavalcade of billionaires lining up to buy the franchise. Why?

Updated: January 19, 2012, 10:26 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- Rob Reiner is a serious movie producer and a funny guy. So when he stepped to the podium to present an award at the ninth-annual Pro Baseball Scouts Foundation dinner late last week, everything that came out of his mouth had several layers of meaning.

The ballroom at this swanky Beverly Hills hotel was packed with baseball luminaries. No fewer than a half a dozen Hall of Famers were in attendance for what's become something of a winter meeting in Los Angeles since former sports agent Dennis Gilbert began hosting the fundraiser nine years ago.

Reiner took one look at the crowd and laughed.

"Show of hands," Reiner said, clearly going a bit off script. "Who in this room isn't trying to buy the Dodgers?"

The audience erupted in nervous laughter, relieved someone had let the air out of the balloon hovering above the room. I counted no fewer than four prospective ownership groups in attendance -- Peter O'Malley, Gilbert, Joe Torre, and members of the group headed by Magic Johnson and Stan Kasten -- and none of them could say a word because they've signed non-disclosure agreements with the Blackstone Group, the New York-based investment firm handling the sale of the team.

[+] EnlargeReiner
AP Photo/Matt SaylesHollywood producer Rob Reiner held court in what was seemingly a room full of potential Dodgers bidders at a recent fundraiser.

About the only man in the room who could provide a bit of an answer to Reiner's question was baseball commissioner Bud Selig, who was in attendance to shake Gilbert's hand and present an award to longtime executive Al Rosen.

"It's a manifestation of how popular the sport is," Selig said, when asked why the Los Angeles Dodgers have attracted so many potential bidders since Frank McCourt announced he would sell the team.

"We have five or six terrific groups, or maybe even more and I'm very confident that out of that will come an excellent owner. You look at the quality of the people in each group and they're very very good."

That, of course, is the happy, easy answer to Reiner's question.

The one Selig hopes is true but doesn't have the absolute power to make sure of this time around because he had to cede that to McCourt as part of the agreement to sell the team.

The answer that assumes each of these prospective owners -- who were nowhere to be found in 2004 when Selig regretfully accepted McCourt's highly leveraged bid for the team -- has the noblest of intentions with the Dodgers.

And ultimately, the answer that ignores the idea that all the undeveloped land around Dodger Stadium might even be more valuable than the franchise itself, and that the future television rights to the team will likely sell for even more than the team does this spring.

"It's pretty clear given the recent contracts being given out to the Rangers and the Angels that the value of media rights is skyrocketing and the Dodgers should be able to do quite well when they renegotiate," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College.

Those new media rights deals helped facilitate the Texas Rangers' spending spree in 2010 and the Los Angeles Angels' acquisitions of Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson this winter.

The Dodgers' media rights expire after the 2013 season, and the bidding war between Fox and Time Warner -- which already outbid Fox for the Los Angeles Lakers' television rights starting next season -- is expected to be fierce. So fierce actually, that both companies are exploring whether they are better off simply buying the team, or a portion of the team, now instead of bidding for the television rights later.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that News Corp., the company that owns Fox -- and yes, the same company that cut bait and sold the team to McCourt in 2004 -- has signed a non-disclosure agreement with Blackstone and is interested in acquiring a 15-20 percent stake in the team.

Neil Olshey It's an iconic team. There's only a few franchises like that. And it's always better to buy a team like that when they're down.

-- Mark Cuban, owner of the
Dallas Mavericks on the Dodgers

That thought immediately sends shudders down the spine of every Dodgers fan who remembers the soulless Fox ownership era from 1997 to 2004. It also doesn't sit well with baseball's other owners, who remember how quickly Fox wanted to rid itself of the Dodgers once they no longer served the companies' business model.

Fortunately the impending TV rights sale is only one part of the story. As Zimbalist points out, there is some truth to Selig's answer that the game is in much better shape now than in 2004. The PED problem, for the most part, has been addressed in a meaningful way. Baseball made sure it will have labor peace for the rest of the decade. The past postseason was one of the most thrilling in recent memory.

"This time around, baseball is really shining, because it breezed through its collective bargaining agreement, where the NBA and NFL stumbled," Zimbalist said.

"The other thing that possibly is going on is that there aren't a lot of terrific places to put your money these days. Back in '04, the market was still pretty good. … But now, if you have a lot of money you have to scratch your head and say, 'Where can I put it?'

"If you can get it at a reasonable price, and McCourt can clean up the encumbrances that he has, the Dodgers could be a pretty good place to put your money."

Ah, there's the rub. The reminder that all this exuberance surrounding the sale of the team, all these well-meaning people who've offered to lend their names and credibility to help return the team to worthy owners, all of it may end up driving the final sale price of the team well past reasonable.

It's why Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has kept such a low profile in this affair, despite his popularity among Dodgers fans. In talking with Cuban on Monday, before the Lakers-Mavericks game at Staples Center, he declined to answer specifics about the process, but spoke generally about his interest in the team and gave an interesting answer when I asked why so many people seem so interested in the team.

"It's an iconic team," Cuban said. "There's only a few franchises like that. And it's always better to buy a team like that when they're down."

In their current state, the Dodgers would be considered down from a business perspective. Outside of signing center fielder Matt Kemp to an eight-year, $160 million extension -- which some say actually enhances the value of the franchise -- McCourt has cut the team's payroll and long-term obligations.

Dodger Stadium is overdue for a facelift, which would ultimately bring in more revenue, and the surrounding land in Chavez Ravine is still undeveloped.

Also, for all his missteps as owner, McCourt initially did a good job of getting the Dodgers' financial house in order after Fox ran the team at a substantial loss. In his first years as owner, McCourt streamlined the team's business operations and cut the inefficiencies and waste he inherited from the team's previous owner.

"I think McCourt put forth a new model that wasn't focused on enriching his television networks, because he didn't own them," Zimbalist explained.

So, in the end, Reiner's question was probably more serious than funny. The best comedies are usually born out of pain and suffering.

The problem is that the Dodgers and their fans have suffered long enough. Their next owner needs to be simple and uncomplicated. Unfunny, maybe. But of noble intention.

As Kemp put it: "It doesn't really matter to me who owns the team as long as they have the same interests as me, and that's winning."

Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLA.com.