Frank McCourt had a triple play in mind when he bought the Dodgers last January: field a winner, restore the storied brand, and stop the flow of red ink within three years.

The team, which won the divisional title for the first time since 1995, will take a significant step toward its financial goal next season when 1,600 new Dugout Club and field-level luxury seats open at the stadium.

They are the centerpiece of a $15 million upgrade that got under way this month and could increase the team's gate by more than $10 million next year.

"We're investing a sizable amount of capital to make it a better experience for our fans," McCourt told the Business Journal last week. "I hope we're sending a strong signal that we're playing in Dodger Stadium for the long term."

Other renovations include deeper dugouts aligned with the seats closest to the field. This will make for a smooth line around the field, resembling Dodger Stadium's original design. Dimensions from home plate to the outfield walls will not change.

The off-season work would appear to dispel periodic rumors that McCourt, the Boston real estate developer who paid $430 million in a highly leveraged purchase of the team and ballpark, has an interest in moving the team to a new stadium and then using the Elysian Fields site as a development opportunity. Both McCourt and team officials have consistently denied such speculation.

"I have not heard of any talk about the Dodgers moving to any other location," said David Simon, president of the Los Angeles Sports Council. "The amount that they are pumping into renovations does not suggest that they are thinking about any kind of move anytime soon."

McCourt said the off-season timeline did not allow for other possible projects, including replacing the stadium's 56,000 existing seats. For now, the seating work consists of adding 301 Dugout Club seats to the 599 that were installed behind home plate prior to the 2000 season and adding 1,300 field level seats from the outer edges of the dugouts toward the foul poles. McCourt said the Dugout Club seats sold out last season and there is a waiting list for new seats.

What the upgrades will mean in terms of ticket prices remained unclear as of last week. Gary Miereanu, a team spokesman, would say only that "we're in final discussions" about 2005 ticket prices and that an announcement would come in early December.

Still, there are indications of higher prices, especially for the premium seats.
Dugout Club seats cost $250 each last season, and Howard Sunkin, who is overseeing the renovations as senior vice president of public affairs, would not commit to holding the line. "It's going to be in the range of what they were last year," he said. "It's a premium seat and it's going to be a premium price."

More room to eat

The team's conditional use permit with the city allows for no more than 56,000 seats, so the renovations also involve removing 1,600 centerfield and upper reserve seats. The net loss of the centerfield seats will be a moot issue, since 400 have been covered with a so-called "batter's eye" black tarp giving hitters a better view of pitches.

Even if prices for Dugout Club and field-level seat prices remained at 2004 levels of $250 and $45 respectively, the club could generate an additional $10.8 million from the additional seats alone. That doesn't include merchandise, concession or parking revenues (although parking and food come as part of the Dugout Club ticket price.)

The higher revenues generated by the additional seats would reduce some of the team's annual losses, which Sunkin would only categorize as "a lot of money." The team lost a reported $40 million per year under the ownership of News Corp. from 1997 through 2003.

Last season's losses came despite the Dodgers' drawing nearly 3.5 million fans, the highest total since 1983.

Meanwhile, McCourt vowed to keep his team's 2005 player payroll at last season's $100 million level in an effort to remain a playoff contender. "We continue to turn the corner," he said, of reducing fiscal losses. "(But) I am very committed to spending what it takes to put a winner on the field."

"This thing was well taken care of," said Dodgers Senior Vice President Tommy Lasorda, who just completed his 55th season with the organization, including a 20-year Hall of Fame managerial career. "It looks like it can compare to any new ballpark coming out today. It will outlast you and I."

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