In 1988, when the Dodgers last ascended to the World Series, Los Angeles was a city basking in baseball glory. En route to their second championship in seven years, the Dodgers’ exploits had fans riveted to their TV sets, their cheers wafting out of their homes on balmy summer evenings.
With any luck, those cheers will emanate once again from dwellings across the city Tuesday when the Dodgers play Game 1 of this year’s World Series at home against the Houston Astros on what is expected to be a record-breaking hot evening. Much else, though, will be different. Los Angeles is an even more sprawling city, and its relationship to the team has been stretched thinner too, weakened by changes in the team and the business of baseball. Yet the changes have also benefited fans in some ways, as the team’s current fortunes on the playing field show.
The Dodgers went on a roller-coaster ride after the longtime owners, the O’Malley family, sold the team in 1998 to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. The broadcaster’s passionless, in-it-for-the-TV-rights stewardship resulted in six years without a playoff appearance. Then came Boston parking-lot magnates Frank and Jamie McCourt, who bought the Dodgers with money borrowed from News Corp., then spent extravagantly on everything but the team.
For years, much much of the news about the Dodgers had less to do with anything on the field than all the drama off the field: The McCourts’ bitter divorce battle and the details of their opulent lifestyle … the tragic and violent beating of a Giants fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot one opening day … Major League Baseball’s attempt to oust Frank McCourt after he put the team into bankruptcy … the record-setting price that Guggenheim Partners paid for the Dodgers in 2012, followed by a similarly inflated price that Time Warner Cable (subsequently purchased by Charter Communications) paid for the rights to set up a premium cable Dodgers network.
Thankfully, everyone has moved on. Rupert Murdoch married Jerry Hall. Jamie McCourt is in line to be the next U.S. ambassador to France. The Dodgers have stable ownership and a well-crafted roster of strong players, none of them easy outs. After taking over the team, Guggenheim has deftly assembled the front-office and on-field talent that produced a string of playoff appearances, culminating in this year's return to the World Series. Although much of the team’s success comes from young talent it developed, the owners have shown a willingness to open their checkbooks wide when necessary: The Dodgers spend more on their 25-man roster ($184 million) than any other major-league team.
Sadly, about two-thirds of the households in Los Angeles haven’t been able to watch the fruits of this largesse during the regular season because they don’t have the premium Dodger cable channel. Back in 1988, the Dodgers’ games were aired by local broadcasters KTTV. But starting in 2014, those games have been carried only by Time Warner Cable and, more recently, Charter. Other cable and satellite TV services have resolutely refused to pay the huge fees that Time Warner demanded for the channel, causing an impasse that endures to this day.
Granted, the 25-year, $8.3-billion deal Guggenheim struck with Time Warner provided an enormous amount of money to invest in the team. But it also meant that most L.A. households could see only a handful of the 162 games the team played, effectively inviting Angelenos to spend their summers following some other sports or teams. That’s just nuts.
Gargantuan fees for the rights to broadcast games have become the lifeblood of major league sports and the athletes who play them. But there’s a limit to how much people are willing to pay for cable, as the feud between Charter and the other TV services illustrates. And as a consequence, Dodger TV viewership has plummeted since the cable deal. The 2017 average is a little more than half what it was in 2013.
The World Series, thankfully, takes the old-school approach — it will be broadcast on the local Fox channel for anyone who has a TV to watch. Even your rabbit ears will do. (One in six Angeleno households still rely on them.) Perhaps this series, available to everyone with a TV set, will lead people to care about this deserving Dodgers team as fervently as they did in 1988.