Former Dodgers owner Frank McCourt tries soccer with ‘French fixer-upper’
Olympique de Marseille might not have the biggest stars on its roster or have an owner with the deepest pockets, but the soul of French soccer is said to rest in this sunny Mediterranean port city.
“Marseille is in the skin of the people,” Laurent Colette, a member of the team’s executive committee, said, echoing a widely held perception. “Marseille is the club for France. It is the genuine French culture.”
Except it now speaks with a Boston accent.
For the last 2 1/2 years, the jewel of French soccer has belonged to Frank McCourt, who, a decade ago, turned the Dodgers into a private piggy bank before driving it into bankruptcy, according to Major League Baseball.
There are plenty of parallels between the Dodgers and Marseille. Both are iconic clubs with deep histories and passionate fan bases that had fallen on hard times before McCourt bought them at deeply discounted prices — the Dodgers for $430 million in 2004, the soccer club for about $50 million 12 years later.
The future plans are similar too. When McCourt bought the Dodgers, he intended to use land near the stadium for a dining and sports center featuring shops, restaurants and a museum. In Marseille, he wants to use the soccer team as the foundation for an elaborate project that would dominate the center of France’s second-largest city.
Four months ago, McCourt took over day-to-day management of the team’s publicly owned stadium, the Orange Velodrome, the largest club soccer venue in France. By the end of the year, he hopes to win the right to redevelop the 42-acre Parc Chanot, which abuts the stadium, into a sports and entertainment complex far larger than the one he wanted to build at Chavez Ravine.
McCourt denied requests to be interviewed for this article but allowed his executives to speak about his plans to develop the club and pursue other projects in the city.
“He’s developing a vision,” Colette said. “He always says to us, ‘Look at the long view.’”
Rising after the fall
McCourt, who was born and raised in Boston, envisioned himself owning the Red Sox. But when his bid for the team failed in 2002, his attention turned to the Dodgers, who he bought from NewsCorp two years later using a South Boston parking lot as collateral. McCourt acquired significant real estate assets in the deal, including the stadium parking lots, which he still partially owns.
McCourt hired Joe Torre as manager and brought slugger Manny Ramirez to the team in a trade, fueling consecutive trips to the National League Championship Series in 2008-09. However, the team regularly raised ticket and concession prices — all while McCourt and his wife, Jamie, “systematically stripped the [Dodgers] of assets and liquidity for his own personal uses,” according to Major League Baseball, buying luxury homes in Malibu and spending lavishly to furnish them.
In April 2011, MLB took over day-to-day operations of the team, and the Dodgers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June. That same year, Jamie McCourt accepted $130 million to relinquish her claim on the team as part of a divorce settlement in proceedings that cost the couple more than $20 million in legal bills, believed to be the most expensive divorce in California history. (Jamie is now the U.S. Ambassador to France, appointed by President Trump one year after Frank bought Olympique.)
But it took one move for Frank McCourt to rise from those financial ashes: In 2012, the Dodgers were sold to a group comprised of former Lakers star Magic Johnson, baseball executive Stan Kasten and Guggenheim Partners for a record $2 billion — more than four times what McCourt had paid.
McCourt had been out of baseball four years, and was flush with cash, when he was introduced to Jacques-Henri Eyraud, a Harvard-educated entrepreneur who had been frustrated in an earlier effort to put together enough investors to buy the club.
“American owners like Frank McCourt, they bring sports-marketing knowledge, business knowledge,” said Olivier Jaubert, director of marketing and investor relations for Ligue 1, which lags far behind Europe’s other top leagues in revenue and international attention. “We need to have investors who can make sure that their stadiums are full, that we generate new sponsorship revenues, we increase merchandising.”
Marseille offered an opportunity, and a challenge. The team, long the most popular in France, had captured a French-record 10 league titles and was the only Ligue 1 team to win the Champions League. But after the death of owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus in 2009, it withered under the direction of his widow, Margarita, falling to 13th in the standings in 2015-16 after being forced to sell off star players Dimitri Payet, Florian Thauvin and Giannelli Imbula to stay solvent.
“The club,” Eyraud said, “was in really, really bad shape.”
That made it something of a French fixer-upper, a low-cost, high-reward gamble for someone with money but little soccer expertise.
McCourt rejected Eyraud’s initial plan to join his investment group, but when the Frenchman came back days later suggesting McCourt buy the team himself and let Eyraud manage it, McCourt quickly agreed.
“The one thing that struck me when I met him was, at some time in our discussion, he said ‘Marseille is like Boston,’” Eyraud recalled. “Marseille is a very challenged city socially, economically, a tough city where success is not a given. You earn it.”
McCourt, who enjoyed early success with the Dodgers, had ambitions to bring Marseille quickly back to respectability, dubbing his plan the “Champions Project,” a label Marseille’s executives repeat as mantra. He hired a new coach, Rudi Garcia, and sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, less than 72 hours after taking control of the team.
Next he moved to restock the roster — something he didn’t have to do early on with the Dodgers — by spending a franchise-record $33 million to bring the popular Payet back from England.
“We had to rebuild the team,” Garcia said through a translator. “So it was a way to send a strong signal to the fans and to set the ambition.”
Over the next few months, Zubizarreta and Garcia added goalkeeper Steve Mandanda, center back Adil Rami and brought back Thauvin, a forward. All three were members of France’s victorious World Cup team last summer.
By the end of McCourt’s first full season as owner, the team had made it to the Europa League title game, becoming the first French club to reach a European final in 14 years. And they haven’t stopped adding. In January, they signed mercurial forward Mario Balotelli, soccer’s version of Manny Ramirez in that he’s immensely talented but unpredictable. (While playing for Manchester City, Balotelli set his own house on fire by shooting off fireworks in his bathroom; on another occasion, he drove his Mercedes into a women’s prison in Italy, saying he wanted to “have a look around.”)
The team also rebuilt its youth academy and relocated the training center used by its women’s squad and developmental teams, bringing McCourt’s total investment in the club to more than $225 million — cash club officials say came directly out of McCourt’s pocket.
“When he arrived it brought something very different,” Payet said. “You notice that with the promises he’s kept. The arrival of Frank McCourt has been a big change.”
American investors have been racing to buy into European soccer teams since 2005 when the late Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, took over Manchester United.
Six of the English Premier League’s 20 teams now have U.S. owners — among them Red Sox owner John Henry, who runs Liverpool, and the Rams’ Stan Kroenke, who owns Arsenal. Italian clubs Milan and Roma have U.S. bosses as well.
“How you account for trades and how it affects book value is completely different than anything in the U.S. You don’t have a draft. The methodology of dealing with agents is different.
“There’s a ton to learn.”
And it doesn’t always go well. In 2016, when former Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza bought A.C. Reggiana, a third-tier Italian club, he was regarded as a hero. Two years later, the club was bankrupt, its offices shuttered, and Piazza had lost millions.
“I had a number of conversations with Mike before he bought that team. And I thought he was insane,” Pallotta said. “It wasn’t a clean situation, and the next thing he knows he’s like, ‘Oh, wait a second. I’m burning money left and right and this is not what I expected.’”
McCourt has left the day-to-day operations of Marseille to Eyraud, Garcia, Zubizarreta and Colette, who combined have more than a century of experience in sports and business ventures across Europe.
“The advantage for Frank is he has a management team that knows a lot about soccer,” said Colette who, like Garcia, also worked for Pallotta in Italy. “Frank always listens.”
McCourt, who speaks no French and stays in a hotel during his roughly half-dozen annual visits to Marseille, has had to work harder on the cultural part.
“He manages to communicate that he’s got a loyal and very sincere approach to Marseille,” Colette said. “He wants to make sure all that he does is understood, and also in line with what Marseille expects.”
That’s no simple task. Marseille, France’s oldest city and once Europe’s busiest port, is fiercely independent and proud; residents, who speak with a regional accent, quicker and more rhythmic than what is spoken in the rest of the country, consider themselves Marseillais first and French second.
The metro population of nearly 1.9 million — about the size of greater Indianapolis — is a melting pot. Europe’s third-largest concentration of Jews reside in a city that, some estimates say, is approaching 40% Muslim. The soccer team is a uniting force.
“The Marseille people don’t care about nationality,” Eyraud said as he sat in a spacious second-floor office at the club’s recently refurbished headquarters about 20 miles from the city center. “The Marseille people care about whether an owner does what he said he would do. What also matters is the understanding that this is a specific culture; there is a tradition around this club.
“And I think he totally understood it, acknowledged it, and the project we are building is very respectful of the DNA of this club.”
McCourt may soon be adding that DNA to another project, one close to the club’s home along the historic Avenue du Prado, a busy six-lane boulevard dotted with traffic circles and fast-food restaurants. He is leading a group that has made an ambitious bid to redevelop a sprawling exhibition and trade center next to the Olympique’s stadium, which McCourt began managing in January.
McCourt’s vision would completely remake the area and give him control over two significant landmarks bookending an upscale shopping center, making him not just owner of the team’s most significant cultural institution but one of the city’s most significant real estate developers as well.
Payet, the Olympique captain, sees no reason why McCourt can’t do both.
“It’s a good thing Frank McCourt is also investing in the city,” he said through a translator. “That interest shows that he wants to be here long term. And I haven’t had any doubt of his commitment.”
Dreams of development
When McCourt announced his intention to rescue Marseille’s soccer team, he was standing next to Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin at a news conference at city hall. The team had become an embarrassment and Gaudin was glad to see that chapter end.
Now, with the 79-year-old politician entering his final year in office, McCourt may soon be hoping for a favor in return.
The lease on Parc Chanot comes up for renegotiation in December, and city leaders want to raze the existing buildings and replace them with, among other things, an arena for indoor sports and concerts without using a penny of taxpayer money. The consortium McCourt has put together has a grander vision, one that could cost as much as $250 million and would remake the park into a culture, arts and entertainment center similar to The Shed, which opened on the west side of Manhattan earlier this month.
Last April, McCourt also spent a reported $30 million to buy the Epi-Plage, a boutique hotel and restaurant popular with the jet set in Saint-Tropez, about 65 miles east of Marseille on the French Riviera.
He’s battling headwinds in the local media over the Parc Chanot project, with journalists expressing skepticism about his intentions and suggesting McCourt bought the team with the other projects in mind. Last June, after the Saint-Tropez purchase, the newspaper La Marseillaise, under the headline “The shadow of OM cast on Chanot,” ran a story that reminded readers: “McCourt is, above all, a billionaire who has made his fortune in property.”
Support for McCourt’s plan may climb or fall with the fortunes of his team. Mayor Gaudin is already in his corner, and French President Emmanuel Macron is a passionate soccer fan and lifelong Marseille supporter.
Marseille leads French clubs in attendance, averaging more than 49,000 per game, and the club has eight main supporters groups, including one named Dodger’s Marseille. But the fans are fickle and demanding. During a mid-winter slump in which Olympique won just once in eight games, one supporters group went on strike, refusing to cheer or chant and demanding McCourt fire Garcia.
But Marseille quickly rebounded and has lost just two of 11 since Feb. 2, leaving it in position to qualify for a return trip to the Europa League.
“This is Marseille, the most passionate club in France by far,” Eyraud said with a shrug. “We lose a couple of games in a row, fire erupts and people are not happy.”
Colette said he is not sure what exactly drives McCourt, who has flown in from the U.S. for four games this season. The team owner will make back most of what he paid for the club when Ligue 1’s new $1.36-billion domestic TV deal takes effect in July 2020. The Parc Chanot redevelopment could bring him millions more.
However, profit might not be his primary inspiration. The Dodgers made him plenty of money while winning plenty of games, but that experience ended with his reputation in shambles. Now, halfway around the world, McCourt has a second chance.
“Everyone learns from this kind of situation,” Colette said. “There are a lot of stories [of teams] that are successful and then finish badly. Football is a permanent challenge. And in the end you have to make sure you win.
“So when I listen to Frank — and I still listen — it’s clear in my mind that he has learned from past experiences.”
Special correspondent Kim Willsher contributed to this article.
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