On the surface, the once-staid Los Angeles Dodgers “family” seems in disarray. Marquee players suddenly disappear, new ones get hired, different executives are cut in or out of each deal, frantic ad-hoc press conferences are held.
How could an organization owned by Rupert Murdoch’s vaunted News Corp. be bungling so badly and visibly?
Answer: it’s not. Put another way, Murdoch’s new Dodger family is crazy like a fox.
Carolyn Aguayo, a publicity and promotions specialist at KTLA-TV Channel 5, which broadcasts Dodgers games, said she expects a ratings boost during a series of 13 prime-time Friday-night games set for broadcast over the next several months.
“With all that’s happening, I think that generates renewed interest,” she said. “You can’t deny that people have an interest in what’s going on behind the scenes with the trades, with the rumors, and all that.”
Attendance at Dodger Stadium also is up from last year, with an average of 38,505 each home game this season, vs. 36,966 for the first 25 games a year ago.
Unlike Florida Marlins owner Wayne Huizenga, who has slashed his team’s payroll this season, Murdoch and his Fox Sports Group have actually boosted the Dodgers payroll by about $7 million since they bought the team in March. The Dodgers’ 1998 team payroll of just under $60 million is the sixth-highest among the 30 teams in Major League Baseball.
Especially shrewd, baseball industry experts said, was the deal in which Fox traded all-star catcher Mike Piazza and third baseman Todd Zeile for Marlins players Gary Sheffield, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Jim Eisenreich and Manuel Barrios.
“There was no guarantee that the Dodgers were going to sign Piazza at the end of the year anyway, so I think it was a great business move,” said David Carter, a sports management consultant in Los Angeles. “They took a short-term hit on publicity and goodwill and that kind of thing because Piazza was such a fan favorite but if in the long term these (players) can get things done, it will more than make up for it.”
Even in the short term, the recent tumult seems more a plus than a minus.
“I don’t think the town has buzzed more (about the team), other than a run at the pennant, than over what’s happened in the last few weeks,” said Barry Stockhamer, vice president of marketing for the Dodgers. “There are good opportunities, and we need to seize those opportunities.”
Stockhamer said the team is quickly producing T-shirts and other merchandise featuring the names, numbers and images of the recent arrivals. “Our goal is to familiarize our fans with the new players,” he said.
Dodgers President and Chief Executive Bob Graziano stressed that any problems the team is now experiencing are likely to be short-lived.
“I think there’s been a lot more written about the team, a lot more talked about the team, over the last several weeks than there has been in a long time,” he said. “Bottom line, though, all of the changes are made to get the job done. All the publicity in the world will not substitute for winning on the field.”
And on the field, the Dodgers have been unimpressive. As of late last week, the team’s regular-season record was 28 wins and 30 losses, identical to this time last year.
That flat performance, added to Fox’s propensity to wheel and deal, has fueled speculation that the team might soon dump long-time Executive Vice President Fred Claire and Manager Bill Russell, both holdovers from before the Fox purchase.
“They’re not true,” Graziano said of the rumors. “Yet because we have had a change in ownership, there has been more credence put in those rumors than had we not had a change in ownership.”
Claire, who under the O’Malley regime was known for his commitment to developing young talent through the Dodgers farm system, has lately embraced Fox’s hard-edged business attitude. Perform or hit the road, the philosophy seems to be.
Asked if Piazza might have been offered more money when Peter O’Malley was the Dodgers’ owner, Claire snapped, “You know anyone in the business world who does something regardless of what the financial implications are? Let’s be realistic. Sports is a business. There are great financial ramifications.”
One issue that remained unresolved as of late last week was the fate of Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo, who was “designated for assignment” on June 1.
“He came to us and requested a trade,” Graziano said. “He thought a change in scenery would be in the best interest for him and the organization.”
Although Nomo’s agent said last week that the ownership change and Piazza’s trade played a part in Nomo’s desire to be traded, Graziano attributed the desire more to the pitcher’s poor record this season 2 wins and 7 losses with a 5.05 earned run average.
“I’m not sure if Hideo’s record was reversed (that) he would be requesting a change in scenery,” Graziano said.
Carter said that of all the Fox moves, those involving Nomo may have been the most flawed. Designating him “for assignment” will likely result in his fetching less in a trade than he otherwise would have. “The Dodgers certainly let some of that leverage slip away,” Carter said. “But it’s a smaller-risk, smaller-return kind of thing. If they can get someone for him, great. But compared with the Piazza trade, when people think about the big-roster trades of the year, they’re only going to talk about one of them.”
Art Rockwell, an analyst with Santa Monica-based Drake Capital Securities Inc., said big-player trades are becoming more frequent because winning is more important than ever. That’s because most of a team’s profits are now derived from television rights, rather than stadium attendance. Winning teams almost always enjoy stronger TV ratings, but stadium attendance can remain steady even during seasons when the team is performing poorly.
“I think the Dodgers had that homegrown attitude, which was really productive for them for many decades,” Rockwell said. “But given the financial problems of demands by players $100 million contracts and so on it’s just a tougher business these days and things have to be done differently.”
So has Fox’s $311 million investment in the Dodgers been a smart one? Too early to say, most industry experts agreed.
“Since they are not in it for the short term, trying to value it this early on doesn’t make sense,” said Carter. “I don’t think they are concerned with the bottom line of the franchise quite yet. It will take years perhaps to figure out what the financial value of that team is, vs. the rest of their holdings.”