When Dodger Stadium hosts it first game of the season, owner Frank McCourt wants fans to smell the hot dogs and peanuts rather than the wet paint.
That odor, still noticeable last week as workers scrambled to ready the 44-year-old stadium for its home opener on April 3, is a whiff that not everything has gone right.
The Dodgers spent $20 million last year installing1,600 luxury field-level seats, only to find that the sight lines to the field were obstructed because the slope wasn't steep enough. Part of the off-season has been spent eliminating the problem by ripping out the seats and replacing them with luxury field boxes.
But the odor is not altogether a bad thing.
It's also a reflection of McCourt's willingness to rectify his mistakes both on and off the field and his commitment to the team, its historic stadium and its fans.
McCourt is two years and $40 million into what he promises will be a complete, five- to six-year makeover of Dodger Stadium as he simultaneously tries to put together a winning team after last year's disappointing fourth-place finish.
"When there's a mistake made what's far more important is fixing it." said McCourt, during a recent tour of the stadium. "Things don't always work out the way that you intended."
And so it's been in McCourt's up and down tenure as owner of the Dodgers, which he purchased from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. for $430 million two years ago.
The Boston real estate developer is learning that owning a baseball team is a different kind of business, one that depends heavily on the goodwill of the fans and the community.
He stumbled early amid questions of his financial wherewithal to buy the team (ultimately News Corp. loaned him more than $200 million to purchase the Dodgers). He dismissed longtime Dodger executives drawing fan ire.
But then-new General Manager Paul DePodesta and the revamped front office guided the team to the Division title before losing in the first round. The success was shortlived, leading to the dismissal of DePodesta and manager Jim Tracy.
Now, with newly-hired Manager Grady Little and General Manager Ned Colletti and a historic stadium that is looking more polished McCourt is once again trying to reach an oft-stated attendance goal of 4 million fans.
Drawing 4 million fans is seen by many as a long shot.
"You have to combine ballpark experience with community, media and public relations. Until those are hitting on all cylinders, the opportunity to get to 4 million is compromised," said David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute.
Major league renovations
Key to selling 4 million tickets aside from fielding a winning team in McCourt's book is stadium renovations. The aim is to make the atmosphere more appealing and to generate more revenue.
"Our ultimate goal is to restore the entire stadium," McCourt said.
The Dodgers worked this past off-season to complete the second phase of its multi-year renovation project. Two of the most noticeable changes were the stadium's color scheme and field-level seats.
For the first time in more than 30 years, Dodger Stadium ripped out nearly all the seats more than 50,000 made of hard plastic. They were replaced with new ones in the original, 1962 pastel colors. Cup holders were added.
McCourt said an employee was searching through an old storage area and came across pieces of the original seats, labeled by section and color. The team used them to duplicate the colors for the seats.
The hues range from light yellow to orange on lower levels, to turquoise and sky blue on the upper decks. Wooden club level seats were refurbished and the entire concrete bowl was repaired and sealed.
More problematic was the $20 million spent in the renovation's first phase last year to install the 1,600 field-level seats with the low angle. The result: Fans paid $50-$125 per game to see heads of the fans in front of them.
Before construction began on the replacements, a mock-up was built and installed on the baseline.
This time around, McCourt opted to eliminate 500 seats and four rows from the baseline sections. The result is seven rows of field boxes that can fit either four or eight season ticket holders. The boxes are similar to those at the Hollywood Bowl, complete with tables for dining and concierge services.
The seating was tested to make sure that sight lines were correct, tables were wide enough and legroom was abundant.
"What we've ended up with may turn out to be the greatest seats in any ballpark in America," McCourt said.
Boxes sell as groups of four season tickets for $240, $400 and $600 per game. Eighty percent of the box seats have already been sold including all of the $600 boxes. The team expects the revenue generated from the boxes to equal revenue generated from the baseline seats last season. Five hundred reserved-level seats were opened so stadium capacity will remain at 56,000.
Other changes include the addition of an outdoor park on the loge level, an attempt to create a family atmosphere for fans who want to picnic before a game. The area has been heavily landscaped with plants and trees native to Chavez Ravine including five mature olive trees. A store and a sports bar were added near the picnic area.
Though the stadium has returned to its original colors, one major change is the advertisements plastered throughout the stadium, including the outfield walls. "In order to remain competitive, you have to have it," McCourt said.
Naming rights to the stadium, however, are not for sale. "Fans have a strong attachment to the venue and the name. Dodger Stadium is going to stay Dodger Stadium," McCourt said.
In an effort to stay competitive on the field, McCourt made major personnel moves this off-season as he tries to build a championship caliber team.
The Dodgers look to make the playoffs following a disappointing 71-91 finish last year in a season marred by injuries to nearly every regular, including closer Eric Gagne and the loss of third baseman Adrian Beltre to free agency.
"Fortunately, the Dodgers play in the weak National League West. They would trail the Yankees by 25 games if they played in the same division," said "J.T. the Brick," national host for Los Angeles-based Fox Sports Radio.
Aside from bringing in Colletti and Little, the team revamped the line-up by adding two-time former batting champion Nomar Garciaparra at first base and All-Star Rafael Furcal at shortstop, among other players.
In the process, the team's payroll has increased from $83 million at the start of the 2005 season to approximately $105 million this year another sign of McCourt's commitment to field a winning team and sell 4 million tickets.
Even with the disappointing performance on the field, the Dodgers drew 3.6 million fans in 2005, the second-highest total in team history and second most in the Major Leagues behind the New York Yankees.
For the 2006 season, the team has already sold more than 2.5 million tickets, up 11 percent from a year ago. It currently has 25,000 season ticket holders, up 2,000 from last year, and expects that number to rise as the season progresses. The fastest-growing segment is partial-season ticket plans, for which sales are up 40 percent over last year.
To help build interest among fans, this season also marks the launch of the Think Blue Rewards program. It is an incentive program where fans can accrue points, similar to airline miles, which can be redeemed for prizes such as batting practice on the field or lunch with a team executive. Membership in the program ranges from $20-$100 annually.
The prospect of higher attendance has helped the team generate new sponsors. Sponsorship revenue has increased by 10 percent going into the season.
The team added such sponsors as Universal Studios, Ameritrade Inc., Time Warner Inc. and 21st Century Insurance. It also added smaller, local companies including City of Industry-based Morehouse Mustard as its official mustard, Trader Joe's, Smashbox Cosmetics, EZ Lube and Citadel Outlets as sponsors.
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