Takeover: Commissioner Selig to Run L.A. Dodgers
National Football League owners have locked out their players in a labor dispute that may result in no NFL season this year or possibly just a partial season.
The National Basketball Association, midway through the second week of its annual, overly long playoffs, faces a similar labor problem that may result in an owner lockout. This puts part or all of the 2011-12 NBA season in jeopardy.
Meanwhile, those NBA playoffs got started with horrible officiating that resulted in one coach being fined by Commissioner David Stern for complaining that his team was hosed by the referees. The coach was right.
Finally, there is Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who decided last Wednesday to take control of the financially troubled and poorly controlled Los Angeles Dodgers. This was the third time in less than a year that Selig has personally intervened in the ownership and business operations of an MLB team, using his near dictatorial powers as commissioner of baseball to do so.
But before the dust settles on Selig’s Dodger problems, he may be faced with a much more difficult situation 3,000 miles away with the New York Mets.
The commissioner jumped in to force the sale last year of the Texas Rangers when he claimed Thomas O. Hicks was violating MLB rules governing team debt and borrowing. There were two groups trying to buy the bankrupt Rangers from Hicks’ organization. Selig made sure that the group headed by Nolan Ryan, the former Mets, Angels, Astros and Rangers Hall of Fame pitcher, got to purchase the team.
As for the Mets troubles, Selig has his hands full there because of the team owners’ past relationship with Bernie Madoff, the convicted Ponzi scheme mastermind who is now serving a 150-year sentence in federal prison.
Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz and their company that owns the Mets, Sterling Equities, are being sued for hundreds of millions of dollars in a class action suit that claims Wilpon and Katz were aware of Madoff’s criminal actions. It is well known that Madoff loaned money to Wilpon and Katz for purposes of operating the Mets on one or more occasions.
Wilpon, a close friend of Commissioner Selig, and Katz have been trying to sell part of the Mets (less than 50 percent) in order to raise cash. So far, there are no buyers for the debt-ridden Mets.
Selig released a statement in which he said he had informed Frank McCourt, the Dodgers’ owner, that he, the commissioner, would take control of the club under powers given to him that allow him to do whatever is necessary “for the best interests of baseball.” This is a very broad and long-standing right of control given to the MLB commissioner in 1921 when that position was established and Kenisaw Mountain Landis became the first commissioner of baseball. Selig is the ninth.
Commissioner Selig has indicated he may force the sale of the Dodgers, a team long troubled by front office squabbling and mismanagement. These problems have been highlighted by the long, ugly court proceedings in the divorce action between Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie.
This legal struggle has impacted ownership of the team as Jamie McCourt claims 50 percent ownership of the team while Frank McCourt tries to find ways to borrow more money after running up the Dodgers’ debt to more than $400 million.
McCourt, a native of Massachusetts and member of a once prominent New England real estate family, tried years ago to purchase the Boston Red Sox. He was thwarted in that effort in 2002 when the Red Sox were sold to John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino.
Then McCourt attempted to buy the Anaheim Angels of MLB and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL before purchasing the Los Angeles Dodgers for $430 million from the Fox Entertainment Group, a Rupert Murdoch company. McCourt borrowed quite extensively in order to close the deal in January of 2004. Unlike many other major sports team purchases, Frank McCourt was sole buyer of the Dodgers. But, of course, Mrs. Jamie McCourt, as Frank’s spouse at the time of the purchase, is claiming in their divorce battle that she deserves half of the Dodgers.
Ironically, the Dodgers have not done too badly on the field under McCourt’s messy leadership as they reached postseason playoffs four times in his first seven seasons as owner. The Dodgers never reached the playoffs when owned by Fox from March of 1998 to January of 2004.
The Dodgers are, however, in serious trouble for reasons other than a chaotic divorce and too much debt. A San Francisco Giants fan was recently attacked viciously in the parking lot outside Dodger Stadium. His two assailants got away but the victim remains in a coma.
This brutal attack emphasized increased fears of fans in recent years. Many of them claim Chavez Ravine, site of Dodger Stadium, is no longer a safe place, and they criticize McCourt and the Dodgers for the lack of security.
In order to force the sale of the Dodgers, Commissioner Selig would have to get 23 of the 30 club owners to approve.
But Selig has the right to suspend, fine or otherwise punish owners and players. He can even prevent a club from borrowing money, a step he took a few months ago when he blocked McCourt’s Dodgers from borrowing considerable cash from Rupert Murdoch. McCourt has since sought to borrow by getting personal loans not attached to the team.
Although the MLB season is only 24 days old, attendance is down considerably for 19 MLB teams while it is up for only 11 clubs at their home parks. Cold weather, poor performance and the economy are the first reasons that come to mind for the dropoff.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are suffering the biggest loss of attendance in MLB as they averaged 7,343 fewer fans per game during their first dozen home games compared with their first 12 home games last year.
Seattle is suffering the second worst loss in attendance at just about 6,000 fewer fans per game. The Mets’ attendance is down almost 5,000 per game so far this season due to the fact the Mets are simply a bad team with little promise for the future.
Some folks believe the attack on the man in the Dodger Stadium parking lot and safety concerns there have a lot to do with falling attendance for Dodger home games.
Selig, the man who looked the other way for years as the “steroid period” engulfed MLB, is hardly the No. 1 choice among many observers to take control of anything, let alone running one or two of the 30 MLB teams.
After all, Manny Ramirez, one of baseball’s greatest right-handed sluggers, retired a few days ago rather than serve a 100-day suspension after failing a performance-enhancing drug test for the third time. And Selig has said the “steroid period” is behind us.
With all of these problems involving finances, ownerships, officiating, security and use of PED, it is understandable that pro sports seem as discombobulated as the rest of the world appears to be.
But please, do have a Happy Easter, folks.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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