Three years ago, I spoke at Fremont High School in South-Central Los Angeles and asked a room of 50 teenagers how many of them had ever been inside Dodger Stadium. One intrepid student raised his hand. To understand why Major League Baseball had to seize the storied franchise this week, look no further than this moment. But it’s a moment that could be replicated in cities across the country.
The league takeover of the Los Angeles Dodgers is more than just a comment on owner Frank McCourt’s financial problems or the McCourt divorce drama. It’s more than a black eye for the onetime franchise of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Fernando Valenzuela. It’s more than a comment on a club that from 1973 to 1986 led the major leagues in attendance every year except one. It is a commentary on the rotten economic state of Major League Baseball.
As has been widely reported, attendance is significantly down, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. For years, owning a baseball team was like having a license to print money. Public subsidies, luxury boxes and cable deals filled the coffers of owners. Ownership subsidized the lavish conspicuous consumption of Frank and Jamie McCourt. It also created enterprises that are overleveraged sinkholes dependent on tax dollars while pricing out working-class fans.
The evidence isn’t pretty, and it goes well beyond Frank McCourt’s needing a personal loan from Fox Broadcasting to make the team’s payroll. Last year, the World Series-bound Texas Rangers were bought at a bankruptcy bidders’ auction in the middle of the season. This season, the New York Mets — playing in the game’s largest market — started the year as a husk of a franchise. The team allegedly had been used by owners Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz as a cash register to invest with disgraced financier Bernard Madoff. Now they’re being sued for every cent they have by the trustee for Madoff’s victims and are looking to unload a piece of the franchise.
These are the most dramatic examples of an industrywide squeeze as the old revenue streams, in these tight economic times, are running dry.
Two years ago, Michigan’s then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm described automakers as “a healthcare provider that happened to make cars.” For a generation now, baseball has been a highly leveraged real estate urban development plan in which men happen to play a game. Now, young fans are disconnected from the game, and a franchise such as the Dodgers, with all its history and dazzling brilliance, is in receivership. The L.A. Chamber of Commerce has worried that in a worst-case scenario, the team would leave Los Angeles. Although this might provoke cheers in Brooklyn, it would be a tragedy for the game.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and the league have no answers about the future of the Dodgers or even baseball in Los Angeles. They don’t seem as if they have any long-term answers at all. This unprecedented, jarring response to simply seize the team can only be read as a panic move. Like someone who just throws out everything in the attic rather than sort through the debris, it reads like a reactive response to everything: the McCourt divorce, the inability of a league owner to meet his payroll, questions about security after the tragic near-fatal beating of a rival team’s fan on opening day and the need to bring in showboating security specialist and former LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.
It’s long been said — whether about steroids, realignment, the All-Star game — that Selig’s nickname is “Mr. Reaction.” This will do nothing to allay that criticism of his tenure.
The answer to the Dodgers’ problems is a somewhat simple one, although enacting it flies in the face of the bylaws of Major League Baseball. The answer isn’t found in the glittering Hollywood Hills but in the sparsely populated tundra of Green Bay, Wis. The NFL’s Green Bay Packers offer an alluring alternative that couples winning with community connection. The Packers have no embarrassing owners like the McCourts. In fact, they have more than 112,000 owners.
The team is owned by the fans, the only publicly owned, not-for-profit major professional team in the United States. This has created a relationship between team and community unlike any in the NFL. Not only has home field been sold out for two decades, but during snowstorms, the team puts out calls for volunteers to help shovel and is never disappointed by the response.
Could this work in Los Angeles with the Dodgers? Would the fans pony up to make sure that the franchise doesn’t leave the City of Angels? Would fan ownership also translate into a deeper connection between the city and the team?
Those are tantalizing questions. But without profound public and political pressure, it’s doubtful that Angelenos will get the chance to find out. Considering the generations of civic love bestowed on this team, the people of Los Angeles certainly have a greater claim on the team than Major League Baseball. But then this is also a team founded on the original sin of the Chavez Ravine land grab. Maybe the chickens have just come home to roost.
Dave Zirin is the coauthor of the forthcoming “The John Carlos Story.”