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Monday, October 31, 2005

No Tectonic Slip, But A Slide Nonetheless

Once more up at some ungodly hour, and what do I see but this Times story about the Dodgers' fan base slowly turning red, complete with this quote from Jon:
The Angels outsold the Dodgers in season tickets and exceeded them in television ratings this year, evidence enough to persuade Fox Sports Net to offer the Angels a cable contract on par with the Dodgers'.

"I'm not so sure the Dodgers are L.A.'s team any more. The team doesn't seem to have a particular direction," said former Angel President Richard Brown, citing this winter's renovations at Dodger Stadium. "The team doesn't seem to be fan-oriented — $20 million for taking seats out and putting seats in rather than putting it into the team?"


"If, with every hurdle that comes, McCourt is going to fire somebody, that increases the chances he'll turn the team into the Royals, a team that is constantly starting over and repairing mistakes," said Jon Weisman, proprietor of the independent website http://www.dodgerthoughts.com.

The Kansas City Royals, another once-proud franchise, lost 106 games last season. They have not appeared in the playoffs since winning the World Series in 1985.

Now, it should probably be noted that these kinds of stories have been coming out ever since Frank McCourt won the lottery and got the team from a News Corp. all too happy to deliver the team unto an owner too financially weak to negotiate broadcast terms as an equal. Certainly, there would seem to be a goodly number of questions over how many years the McCourts can field bad teams before they go upside down on their debt service. As Shaikin accurately notes, the Dodgers' history makes the threat of a collapse into something like the Royals somewhat remote.

At the same time, history gives us an example of a two-team market where one team had success while the other did not, with the second team finally giving up and moving away. That market was Boston, and the team, ironically enough, was the Braves, a team Frank McCourt's grandfather had a stake in. A powerhouse in the second half of the 19th century, the Braves won two titles in the 20th, but mostly were a second-division team in a market large enough to only grant long-term survival to one club. Outdrawn every year but seven in the 52 years of their coexistance, the Braves finally left in 1952.

Certainly, no one's suggesting this fate will happen in the near future to the Dodgers; that's many years of losing ahead, if ever. But for the moment, all McCourt has to sell is hope:

"We're trying to create greatness here," McCourt said. "We look forward to the stability we're going to bring. You can't build anything without a strong foundation. And until you get the strong foundation in place, you're not going to have the stability this franchise needs and deserves."
His grandfather's club didn't exactly set the town on fire; from the moment the AL rival Red Sox walked in, the Braves were outdrawn consistently, in many years by better than 2:1. They weren't that stable, either, churning through 24 managers in the period 1901-1952. (It should be noted, though, that the far more successful Yankees went through 18 managers in that same time; in those days, managers were expendable, even on winning teams.) It's not a good precedent.
McCourt fired the senior marketing executive he inherited, hired a replacement, then fired him in April. He has yet to fill the vacancy, with the winter drive to sell tickets and sponsorships upon him and no manager or general manager in place [emphasis mine].

"Usually, a franchise that didn't make the playoffs is selling hope right now," said David Carter of the Sports Business Group in Redondo Beach. "What the Dodgers are selling is, 'Trust us, we'll be in a position to sell hope soon.' That makes the off-season that much more difficult."

Nobody, I think, doubts the sincerity of the McCourts in their desire to field a winning team, only their ability to do so. With Tommy Lasorda whispering sweet nothings into his ear about Dodger tradition, the way is being paved, not for a rebirth, but for ongoing mediocrity. Fox could sustain the ensuing losses; it's far from clear whether McCourt can.

Perhaps a better analogy than the Red Sox-Braves in Boston would be the A's-Phillies in Philadelphia. From the time Connie Mack and his White Elephants came to Philly, the city was "A's town" all the way, with the Phils a mere afterthought. The Athletics won 5 World Series titles in Philly to the Phillies' zero (they finally won in 1980). Even in lean years, the local press featured stories about the A's woes rather than the Phils' successes.

Then, about the same time that two of Connie Mack's sons drowned the team in debt to buy out the other son, the Phillies were sold to deep-pockets owners (the Carpenter family). Not long after, the unthinkable happened---the A's were gone and the Phillies were the only team in town.

Whatever, I don't see the Dodgers leaving---ever. In the 1950s, there were large metropolitan areas with no MLB team---Los Angeles one of them. What's left now? Portland? Las Vegas? Charlotte? Even if the Dodgers are relegated to number two status in the LA area, they would still stand to make FAR more in media revenues than in some backwater.

Dodger fans can only hope that McCourt's financial woes evidence themselves sooner rather than later.
Thanks for that update, Uncle Al. I always find that with baseball, there's so much you just don't know. And I basically agree about the situation with the Dodgers -- there's no compelling reason to leave.

One final thing: others have brought up the tax law as a reason McCourt might have to sell after five years. It seems reasonable to me.
The problem with this argument is that the LA/OC market is big enough for two teams in each sport. Two baseball teams, two hockey teams, to basketball teams and once, long long ago, two football teams. Heck, we even have two big time college progams.

That said, the McCourts are showing themselves to be the anti-O'Malleys. Successful franchises have something in common, good ownership.

It's funny too, because I remember going to Freeway Series games where the fans would drown out the PA system saying "Dodgers" over "Angels" during Take Me Out to the Ballgame. I'm guessing those days are gone too.
I never go to those games, though I maybe should. It would be interesting to see how it would work at Dodger Stadium.

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