Bob Graziano, the new president and chief executive of the Dodgers, recently received a box full of sports books published by HarperCollins Publishers, courtesy of Rupert Murdoch.
It was no mere gift. HarperCollins is owned by Murdoch’s News Corp., whose Fox division bought the Dodgers a couple of months ago.
“We try to work with everyone within the Fox organization, whether it be people within Fox Sports or the HarperCollins book division,” Graziano said. “I’m not sure what kind of opportunities are out there in the future.”
So will Graziano be pitching Fox executives on ideas for Dodger-oriented books? The extent of such cross-pollination remains to be seen, but it does illustrate Fox’s attitude toward the Dodgers.
In the words of PaineWebber analyst Christopher Dixon: “The Dodgers are no more than content.”
It’s been two months since Fox formally acquired the Dodgers, and change is in the air. Graziano has held strategy sessions several times a week with News Corp. Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin and Fox Television Chairman Chase Carey. Fox and Dodgers executives are working with construction and architectural firms to plan the renovation of Dodger Stadium. And new cable schedules are being planned.
Graziano stressed that very few changes have been implemented, and Dodgers and Fox executives are still in the early planning stages on most ideas.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that the organization was sold March 19 less than eight weeks ago,” he said. “In terms of specific organizational changes, there have really been none yet.”
Added Carey: “You don’t necessarily know what all the opportunities are. Some of them are more traditional rights in the way of television. But what are the other extensions that you can develop and explore, whether that is in a new-media context, whether that is in a merchandising context, in a retail context, what have you.”
However those questions play out, it’s already clear that the Dodgers under Fox will be a vastly different organization than the one under former owner Peter O’Malley, whose family brought the franchise to L.A. from Brooklyn 40 years ago.
And though O’Malley has stayed on as chairman, he sees his role gradually diminishing over the coming months. “I told them I’d stay until the end of the year, and after that we will see what happens,” O’Malley said. “It’s only May, and I’m not going to start thinking about that until the fall.”
In the meantime, O’Malley said his role is to help Graziano make the transition to chief executive.
“We made a trip to Korea about two weeks ago, where I introduced him to the baseball people I have known over the years,” O’Malley said. “When you’re at the top, the landscape looks a lot different because you’re responsible for a lot of pieces to the puzzle. I, fortunately, have been there for a long time and therefore know how it looks from the top.”
Frank Deford, a senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and commentator for National Public Radio, said what Fox is doing with the Dodgers particularly in terms of synergy between a team and a cable station is similar to what media mogul Ted Turner instituted long ago with the Atlanta Braves.
“I think Fox is just a little more of a controversial entity,” Deford said. “But you strip away all the emotions, and nothing is changed and nothing is new.”
A big priority is sprucing up Dodger Stadium and in the process introducing such money-making upgrades as luxury seats, upscale restaurants, high-end retail stores and other amenities that already exist at many newer baseball parks.
Other ideas are more novel, including the addition of baseball-themed computer gaming areas in parts of the stadium. That, Graziano said, would keep younger game attendees from getting antsy during the average-length game of nearly three hours, but it would not interfere with older fans’ enjoyment of the ballgame.
Those amenities are not likely to appear until next season or even the season after that. “There are things that take some time to plan and implement,” Graziano said. “There aren’t going to be any physical changes in the ballpark this year.”
Graziano meets several times a week with Gary Ehrlich, senior vice president of Fox Studios operations, and Roger Fishman, senior vice president of marketing for News Corp. The three, along with officials from Catellus Development Corp. and Turner Construction Co., are discussing ideas for the stadium renovation.
“We’ve put together a team of technical professionals to really help us determine what can be done,” Graziano said.
The more immediate priority for Fox is televising Dodger games on Fox Sports West 2, one of the company’s two local cable sports channels. Fox will show 40 games this year and twice that many in 1999 and Fox will not have to pay for the rights to those games.
Much of the immediate planning has centered on marketing, both here and abroad.
The team is followed closely in Japan and South Korea, the native countries of Dodger pitchers Hideo Nomo and Chan Ho Park. Within the last few weeks, the Dodgers have opened an office in Tokyo to monitor the team’s appeal in Asia, as well as to build relationships with potential business partners there.
“It is important for us to have a presence in Asia and other parts of the world,” Graziano said. “It’s the first office we have (outside L.A.) that isn’t affiliated with a baseball camp.”
Murdoch, while not involved in day-to-day Dodgers operations, has taken an interest. In addition to attending the Dodgers’ opening day, he sat in field-level seats for the Dodgers’ April 25 game against the Cubs. The game was a sell-out with a crowd of 53,755, and the Dodgers beat the Cubs 3-2.
“Rupert just went to watch with some season ticket holders,” said Dodger spokesman Derrick Hall. “In Rupert’s case, he hasn’t really had a chance to go to games in the past.”