On Wednesday evening, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig announced that the MLB would take over day-to-day operations at the Los Angeles Dodgers. The historic franchise has been in steady decline due to front-office fighting in the wake of the team’s owners’ bitter divorce.
Jamie and Frank McCourt’s high-profile divorce has led to operational mismanagement in addition to placing the team in a state of financial near-paralysis.
By Wednesday, the situation had reached such a dire condition that Selig finally stepped in, citing his “deep concerns regarding the finances and operations of the Dodgers and to protect the best interests of the club” and its fans.
Selig will appoint a trustee to oversee all aspects of the Dodgers’ business and day-to-day operations, and it is likely that he will eventually force a sale.
The unprecedented move — the MLB has never taken control of a team from its owner before — comes at a time in the modern sports era where a bailout may seem to indicate a greater “crisis” of sorts. In fact, this is only the fourth time that a league has done something like this; in 2002, the MLB facilitated a transition in ownership at the Montreal Expos, in 2009 the NHL took control of the Phoenix Coyotes, and then last year in 2010, the NBA took over the New Orleans Hornets. In each of these circumstances, financial situations at the clubs forced drastic action by the league offices.
Selig went on, saying, “The Dodgers have been one of the most prestigious franchises in all of sports, and we owe it to their legion of loyal fans to ensure that this club is being operated properly now and will be guided appropriately in the future.”
Am I alone in thinking this sounds a bit too close to the “too big to fail” language we heard as the government bailed out banks in the recent financial crisis — or at least, “too prestigious to fail”? With this precedent, can we expect the league to do the same with the New York Mets before much longer? Why hasn’t a similar move happened with floundering franchises like the Oakland Athletics? Why doesn’t the league own the Pirates?
Instinctively, this seems like a dangerous move, but what was the alternative option? Should the league have allowed the McCourt divorce to continue to disrupt the Dodgers’ organization, eventually apply for bankruptcy, and sell the team long after the 2011 season has been written off?
But what does this really mean? How long before we see a buyer? Will the league gut the team of its stars and send it to an expansion market? Realistically, a buyer will emerge before too long (depending on the severity of the financial situation), but as of now, the team is controlled by the league.
As many owners, players and pundits in other leagues have discussed models of league contraction and revenue sharing to address issues of competitiveness along with financial stability, this move by the MLB makes me feel a bit cynical. In a sports era that heavily favors large markets, teams located in cities like Los Angeles already have an unfair advantage over smaller franchises.
It’s hard to be a defender of sports franchise ownership these days — not that they should have fans of their own, despite what Jerry Jones may feel. In sports, where player talents and coaching brilliance should dominate the discourse, why has ownership become so relevant?
So today, Dodgers fans celebrate the end of the McCourts’ involvement with the organization, but an uncertain future cannot be good for the team’s short-term focus. Already, ESPN has thousands of comments speculating whether Mark Cuban will buy the team, or whether a club will move back to Montreal — or San Juan. One commenter felt that it “doesn’t matter who the owner is, the stadium will still be a slum and the fans will still be ghetto.” One asked, “What have we learned here today? Don’t get married.”
If this is any indication of the buzz swirling about this monumental decision, it shows how mixed up it all feels at the moment. A team has been saved, but I can’t help but feel as if an empowered MLB will continue this trend of overpresent league offices, overbearing ownership, and general distractions that have made this era of sports just a bit less fun for those of us on the couch.