Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2011

“For Sale” Sign Goes Up; Dodger Fans Rejoice

So the fresh unbridled hope that normally accompanies the start of Spring Training comes months early to Chavez Ravine. For the millions of fans who bleed Dodger blue, from the Hollywood hills to the team’s ancestral home in Brooklyn to North Shore Road in Hampton, New Hampshire, a long nightmare appears to be in its final days. Tuesday night embattled team owner Frank McCourt finally bowed to the inevitable and agreed to sell the team.

The parking lot magnate from Massachusetts originally wanted to buy the Boston Red Sox when the Yawkey Family Trust put that team up for sale at the beginning of the last decade. As part of his bid McCourt even announced plans to build a new stadium on land that he owned along the Boston waterfront. But McCourt could not compete with the deep pockets and even deeper connections within MLB of the John Henry-led Fenway Sports Group, which won the bidding for the Sox; so McCourt turned his attention to the Los Angeles Angels. Failing once again, he even looked at the NFL’s Tampa Bay Bucaneers before finally succeeding in his quest to become a team owner by paying $430 million to purchase the Dodgers from Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp in 2004. But in what surely should have been a warning sign to Commissioner Bud Selig and the 29 other owners who had to approve the sale, McCourt’s purchase of one of the game’s blue chip teams was totally leveraged. During his seven years of ownership McCourt saddled the Dodgers with even more debt.

Fans might not have minded if McCourt had been using the loan proceeds to invest in the team. But instead he raised the prices of tickets and concessions, made no improvements to venerable Dodger Stadium or its less than pristine surroundings, and even cut back on security at the ballpark. The latter action was tragically highlighted at the team’s 2011 home opener last March when Bryan Stow, a 42-year old fan of the visiting San Francisco Giants, was attacked and viciously beaten in one of the parking lots following the game.

By the time of the beating Dodger fans had learned far more than they ever wanted to know about the extent to which McCourt and his now soon-to-be ex-wife Jamie had treated the franchise as their personal piggy bank. The revelations were the product of the couple’s lengthy and spectacularly ugly divorce proceedings which began in October 2009. Frank McCourt contended that a post-nuptial property agreement granted him ownership of the team, while Jamie argued that California’s community property laws gave her a 50% stake in the Dodgers. In assorted court filings and eventual trial testimony it was revealed that the couple had drawn huge sums of money from the team, both directly as salary for Jamie and one son, and indirectly to pay for real estate and a lavish life style.

Shortly after the 2011 season began the Los Angeles Times reported that McCourt had obtained a personal loan to cover the team’s payroll for the first two months. That led MLB Commissioner Selig to essentially seize control of the team by appointing a personal representative to oversee the Dodgers finances. By late June McCourt took the Dodgers into bankruptcy court. Just last week an MLB filing in the bankruptcy proceeding alleged that over his seven years of ownership McCourt had siphoned nearly $190 million from the team for personal benefit. That included paying $73 million to another McCourt entity for parking fees on land that the team owned, using more than $61 million to pay off personal debt, and drawing $55 million in personal distributions from the team.

The Dodgers have one of the most loyal fan bases in all of sport. They were the first team to go over 3 million in attendance for a single season, in 1978; and they did so six more times before any other franchise did it once. But by this year many of the faithful were understandably fed up. Attendance fell by more than 18%, leading the team to slash season ticket prices for 2012, in some cases by as much as 60%. Still, what a lot of fans chose not to watch this year was a team that was at least respectable under first-year manager Don Mattingly, finishing just over .500. And now at last there is some real hope for the future.

For the team’s fans the source of that hope was neither the bat of Matt Kemp nor the left arm of Clayton Kershaw but rather the pen of the judge in the divorce proceeding. Last December he invalidated the post-nuptial agreement, raising the very real possibility that Jamie McCourt would eventually be ruled a 50% owner. While it took many months, that decision eventually led to last month’s announcement of a settlement in the divorce case. Jamie McCourt relinquished her ownership claim in exchange for receiving $130 million by next spring. However, cash-poor Frank McCourt had no means of paying his ex-wife the agreed upon settlement short of running the table in the contentious bankruptcy court proceedings, with a very determined Bud Selig opposing him every step of the way.

Thus the sale of the Dodgers became a virtual certainty, with the only remaining question being how long it would take McCourt to acknowledge the inevitable. Now that he has, the process of a bankruptcy court auction can get under way. That process will take some time, and there is no way of knowing who the next owner of this storied franchise will be. But at the moment Dodger fans are of one mind that absolutely anyone will be an improvement. As the old joke goes, Frank McCourt wanted to own a team in the worst way, and he did. Soon, thankfully, it will be time to say good riddance.

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Responses

  1. Crazy! I am so glad he didn’t actually buy the Sox…


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