Bud Selig backs down, or Frank McCourt backs down, or we could have another courtroom showdown.
That, ladies and gentlemen and fans of all ages, is your Dodgers season preview.
Not on the field, where the Dodgers celebrated the new season by taking three of four games from the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants over the weekend.
Off the field, however, as McCourt’s struggle to maintain sole ownership of the Dodgers enters its 18th month, his legal antagonist might soon become the commissioner of baseball rather than his ex-wife.
The protracted divorce proceedings could be over soon, with an asterisk. As lawyers for Frank and Jamie McCourt work to craft a settlement, the Dodgers have revived negotiations with Fox on a television rights deal that could get each of the McCourts to shake hands and move on with their lives.
The asterisk is this: The television deal would be subject to Selig’s approval.
The settlement negotiations are delicate, the parties are not talking publicly, and talks could fall apart at any time, so it is impossible to say what all the terms might be. However, when Fox agreed to lend Frank McCourt about $200 million, with the Dodgers’ future television rights used as collateral at a discount rate, Selig rejected the proposal.
Under this new deal, McCourt would abandon — or at least defer for many years — his dream of a Dodgers cable channel, in exchange for a fair-market payment from Fox.
Better than fair, perhaps — in the neighborhood of $3 billion over 20 years, which would more than triple the Dodgers’ annual television revenue. Fox is agnostic about McCourt, but the Dodgers became a must-keep team the second the Lakers fled to Time Warner.
McCourt would ask Selig for his blessing, arguing that the deal would provide plenty of money to settle the divorce, manage the Dodgers’ debt and improve the team and the stadium.
And then we would find out just how badly Selig wants McCourt out.
The New York Mets are Team Madoff. The Tampa Bay Rays’ stadium quest is getting ugly. The Oakland Athletics have been virtually entombed inside their ballpark because Selig cannot persuade the Giants not to sue if the A’s move to San Jose.
Selig could pick his battles and say yes to McCourt. If Selig says no, the expectation in baseball circles is that McCourt would sue.
McCourt made one of his rare public appearances Saturday, as the Dodgers dedicated a youth baseball field at Martin Luther King Jr. Recreation Center in Los Angeles. After the ceremony, McCourt was asked whether he believed Selig would have any legitimate reason to reject a fair-market deal with Fox.
“I’m not going to comment on that at all,” McCourt said.
Would he be prepared to sue if Selig were to reject the deal?
“That’s a silly question,” McCourt said, without answering.
McCourt engaged in “numerous protracted litigation matters . . . spanning more than nine years” to secure the Boston property he later used as collateral in buying the Dodgers, according to papers filed by Jamie McCourt in the divorce case.
Selig has made no substantive comment on the McCourts in the year and a half since they filed for divorce, frustrating Dodgers fans but preventing his words from being used against him in a possible lawsuit.
When Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers, he signed an agreement not to sue the commissioner, an agreement required of every incoming owner.
Michael McCann, a professor of sports law at the University of Vermont Law School, said the danger for baseball might be less that McCourt would succeed in a lawsuit than that confidential financial data from all clubs might be revealed along the way.
Selig has indicated he might reject a deal in which money that could be funneled into the team would instead pay off a divorce settlement. To win at trial, McCourt would have to show the commissioner acted arbitrarily and capriciously.
“I think he would be unlikely to prevail,” McCann said. “But, just by bringing a claim, that would start a litigation process that could be threatening to baseball.”
Think about that for a moment. Frank McCourt could settle his divorce — and, as the professor said, start a litigation process.
It’s up to McCourt, and to Selig.