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Peter O’Malley joins list of potential bidders for Dodgers

When the bidding opens for the storied Dodgers franchise, the list of potential buyers could include Los Angeles billionaires and a controversial sports team owner from Dallas, prominent corporate suitors and foreign investors wanting to get a piece of America’s national pastime.

Add to this diverse group a sentimental favorite, with former owner Peter O’Malley saying he wants to return as the team’s chief executive and will work on forming an ownership group.

“I want to reconnect the team and the community,” he said Wednesday.

The O’Malley family owned the Dodgers for nearly half a century. Peter’s father, Walter, moved them from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. And many Dodgers fans connect O’Malley’s sale of the team to Fox in 1998 with the start of the franchise’s decline.

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The Dodgers still possess plenty of allure.

“It is one of the best brands in all of sports,” said Ron Burkle, a Southern California supermarket magnate. “And, like many people, I’d be very proud to be a part of its future.”

The winning bidder is expected to pay owner Frank McCourt in excess of $1 billion for the team, its stadium and the surrounding parking lots.

That kind of money could attract wealthy foreign bidders or force prospective owners to join forces, sports marketing experts said.

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“Owners can come out of the blue,” said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp LTD, a Chicago-based consulting firm. “You might not have heard of them.”

That’s what happened in the spring of 2003 when Arte Moreno, an Arizona billboard magnate, swooped in to buy the Angels within days of his name first appearing in media reports.

All summer and into the fall, McCourt — who purchased the Dodgers for $421 million in 2004 — sought to maintain control of his team by taking it into bankruptcy.

But speculation about new ownership took on a sense of urgency late Tuesday night when he and Major League Baseball announced in a joint statement they had reached an agreement to auction the team.

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Despite a disappointing 2011 season, the Dodgers still rank among MLB’s crown jewels — a jewel that requires some polishing.

The team’s two biggest stars, center fielder Matt Kemp and pitcher Clayton Kershaw, must be re-signed. Dodger Stadium, which turns 50 years old next season, also requires some spending for a makeover.

“Baseball needs the Dodgers to be owned by a very well-capitalized person or group,” Ganis said. “That means an owner who invests hundreds of millions of dollars.”

By agreeing to sell the team, McCourt extracted two significant concessions from MLB. The league agreed to let McCourt’s chosen investment bank conduct the auction, subject to Bankruptcy Court approval, and to preapprove any bidders, according to a person familiar with the settlement but not authorized to discuss its details.

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The league did not guarantee McCourt a minimum sale price, the person said. Nor did the league surrender any of its approval rights. However, the process enables McCourt to get as much money as possible, as fast as possible.

In a typical sale, the league conducts a preliminary examination of prospective bidders before allowing them to review a team’s confidential financial data. Once a sale agreement is reached, the league then conducts a more exhaustive investigation of the proposed buyer, followed by a vote of the owners.

In this case, the approval process would be completed in advance for each party that qualifies to participate in the auction, so that the winning bidder can conclude the purchase promptly, according to the person familiar with the settlement.

O’Malley, 73, spoke out last fall, urging McCourt to sell. At the time, O’Malley said he had no interest in returning as owner or president of the team.

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He has changed his mind about that.

“The health of the organization has deteriorated in the last 12 months,” O’Malley said. “The standing of the organization in the community has deteriorated.

“I am confident I can restore it to respectability quicker, sooner and probably better than, or at least as well as, anyone else.”

Any discussion of potential bidders must also include Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team who has the necessary wealth and is known for his passionate — if sometimes colorful — style.

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Having failed in bids to purchase the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers, he offered to buy the Dodgers several months ago but balked at the hefty price tag. However, he did not rule out a future bid.

“At the right price,” he said, “I’d be interested.”

In terms of experience, Burkle would be equally qualified as co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team. Southern California developer Eli Broad and Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison would meet the wealth criterion.

Sports business analysts say that, among potential corporate suitors, AEG would be an interesting possibility. Having developed Staples Center and its surrounding commercial property, AEG has been engaged in the uncertain process of bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles.

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“If you think about their ability to renovate Dodger Stadium and turn it into L.A. Live north, that would be compelling,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.

AEG President Tim Leiweke said he “cannot comment on the Dodgers at this time.”

The situation gets a little trickier when it comes to media corporations that have been mentioned in connection with the sale.

Fox Sports and its parent company News Corp. owned the Dodgers from 1998 to 2004 and struggled, eventually selling to McCourt.

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The network holds the rights to the team’s broadcasts and thought it had an agreement to extend the deal, even giving McCourt a large personal loan shortly before he entered bankruptcy.

“We are not buying the Dodgers,” News Corp President and COO Chase Carey said during a conference call Wednesday.

Time Warner, which plans to create two regional sports channels with the Lakers, declined to comment.

But either one of the television entities could end up being involved in the Dodgers purchase as a minority owner, contributing enough money to secure rights, sports business experts said.

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Carter sees this as part of a likely scenario — the team being sold to more than one person or corporation.

“I think you’re going to see a bundled ownership group,” the USC professor said. “The deep pockets would partner with somebody who could be the face of the organization, somebody that has strong community roots.”

O’Malley would fit that bill. So would several baseball insiders.

Dennis Gilbert, who often attends games at Dodger Stadium, serves as a Chicago White Sox executive under owner Jerry Reinsdorf, a strong ally of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig.

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Mark Attanasio, the owner of the revitalized Milwaukee Brewers, has Los Angeles connections and served on Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s blue-ribbon committee to evaluate AEG’s downtown football stadium proposal.

Other potential front men include former Lakers star Magic Johnson and two former Dodgers — Steve Garvey and Orel Hershiser. Garvey, who has suffered through personal financial problems, said he was in New York on Wednesday to meet with members of a “small” prospective ownership group whom he refused to identify.

“We feel that we’re capitalized to be aggressive in bidding for the team,” he said.

Whoever prevails will have to come up with more than cash, Carter said. The winning bidder will have to convince MLB officials that he can heal some of the wounds suffered by the team this season.

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“Major League Baseball wants stability,” Carter said. “It wants somebody who understands Southern California and knows how to rebuild the Dodger brand.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

Times staff writers Walter Hamilton and Dylan Hernandez contributed to this report.


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