By MICHAEL STREMFEL
It was a telling moment at last week’s Dodger Stadium press conference. Peter O’Malley had just announced he would relinquish operational control of his beloved team to longtime lieutenant Bob Graziano, and reporters wanted to know exactly what that meant.
“Under this organizational structure, when it comes time to make the decision about a major player signing, like a Mike Piazza, who makes the decision?”
In short, who’s really in charge?
The reporter directed his question to the Fox executives in attendance, Chase Carey and Peter Chernin, whose boss, Rupert Murdoch, is buying the team for about $320 million. Chernin, seated directly to Graziano’s left, pointed to Graziano.
It drew a laugh, and was followed by Chernin insisting that Graziano is indeed in charge.
“Let me make this very clear: Bob is the president and we expect him to actively run this team,” said Chernin, who is president and chief operating officer of News Corp. and chairman and chief executive of the Fox Group.
But how that relationship eventually plays out remains one of the many unanswered questions revolving around the new Dodgers owner.
Graziano stresses his hometown roots, dedication to continuing the Dodgers tradition, and even his commitment to having minorities well represented in the front office. While conceding that the team will be extending its global reach, he was vague on specifics and said any change would come slowly.
“I was born in this city about a month before the Dodgers played their first game here,” Graziano said. “And so I clearly understand what this organziation means to the city, the fans, to the community, the neighbors ”
Such parochialism seems more in tune with Peter O’Malley and less with Murdoch’s globe-trotting perspective. Indeed, Fox is expected to expand the Dodger “brand” throughout the world. Baseball is no longer a hometown sport, and Fox’s stated intention is to more fully utilize the Dodgers’ “undervalued assets.”
In fact, the common ground that Murdoch zeroed in on during his initial meeting with O’Malley at Murdoch’s Beverly Hills estate was their vision of expanding into foreign lands and Fox’s ability to make that happen.
To some extent, the Dodgers organization has been ahead of the curve. It was among the first Major League teams to sign foreign players, host foreign teams and play exhibition games abroad.
But O’Malley said he realized that Murdoch, more than anyone else, had the wherewithal to make the Dodgers a true international team. Those same qualities have caused some concern among several owners of the 29 other Major League teams.
The biggest concern is that Murdoch will have access to the other owners’ financial statements, which, the thinking goes, he could use to his advantage in future negotiations for television rights. Some owners are also concerned that Murdoch might time TV contract renewals to coincide with player contract renewals. Having access to other clubs’ finances, he might set TV contracts so high that a club might not be able to meet players’ salary demands, some fear.
True, Fox is not the first media conglomerate to own a Major League team. Walt Disney Co. owns the Anaheim Angels and ESPN, Time Warner Inc. owns the Atlanta Braves, and Tribune Co. owns the Chicago Cubs.
But Murdoch’s media reach into Major League baseball is far greater than those of Disney and Time Warner.
Murdoch pays some $100 million a year for local cable TV rights for 22 baseball clubs. And through an alliance with Liberty Media and Cablevision Systems, he has ownership stakes in 20 regional sports networks, including Fox Sports West in L.A., which has TV rights to the Dodgers, Angels, Lakers, Clippers, Kings and Mighty Ducks games.
If the Major League owners, at a March 19 meeting in Florida, give final approval to Fox’s acquisition of the Dodgers, the O’Malley family’s four-decades-long ownership of the Dodgers will end.
That may be a big deal for Los Angeles and for the sports world; after all, the reported $320 million price tag is the highest price ever paid for a sports team. But in the world of News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch, it’s penny-ante.
In just the few months that Fox has been chasing the Dodgers deal, Murdoch has acquired Pat Robertson’s International Family Entertainment for $1.9 billion, Heritage Media in a $790 million stock swap with assumption of about $620 million in debt, and a 40 percent stake in Rainbow Media Sports Holdings for $850 million.