On April 20, Major League Baseball took control of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team whose overleveraged owner is going through a humiliating public divorce and steering the franchise towards bankruptcy. The Dodgers’ financial situation had been so dire that last week Frank McCourt, who is fighting for ownership of the team with his estranged wife, Jamie, needed a $30 million loan from Fox, the team’s television partner, to make payroll. That’s right, the Dodgers, one of baseball’s signature franchises, the team that gave us Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey and Tommy Lasorda, need a corporate babysitter. (McCourt is reportedly preparing to sue MLB to regain control of the team).
As for the city’s NFL team . . .wait, Los Angeles doesn’t have a pro football team, and in fact, has not had one since the 1994 season, after which the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders both left town. How can the country’s most popular sport enjoy no presence in America’s second-biggest market? Public antipathy towards a new football team, combined with an inability for the city to build a more modern stadium, have kept the NFL grounded in LA. Granted, the college team that most Angelinos pull for, the USC Trojans, feels like a pro franchise, but that isn’t always a good thing. Last year the NCAA concluded that former star running back Reggie Bush had taken money from marketing agents while he played at USC in 2004 and 2005; in response Bush gave up his Heisman trophy. The Trojans are now on probation, and can’t play in a bowl game this upcoming season.
Sure, in basketball, the Los Angeles Lakers are the two-time defending champs. But even Kobe and Co. are shaky. LA lost Game 1 of its first round series, at home, against the New Orleans Hornets. Further, before the playoffs, Bryant embroiled himself in controversy by shouting an anti-gay epithet at a referee (the Lakers have since tied their series against New Orleans, 1-1, and Bryant apologized).
Meanwhile, the Clippers are perennial losers that have reached the playoffs just once in the past 14 years. The team’s owner, Donald Sterling, may be the most contemptible exec in all of sports, notorious for refusing to spend enough to build a winning franchise. He seems to enjoy being seen — and heard — at Clippers games; former Clipper Baron Davis accused Sterling of heckling him courtside during games. Sterling, a real estate developer, was once sued for discriminating against black and Latino tenants; he was ordered to pay $5 million in attorney’s fees for the plaintiffs. Not even the emergence of acrobatic dunker extraordinaire Blake Griffin, the odds-on favorite to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, can remove the stink surrounding the Clippers.
So how is that the country’s second-largest city can often seem like its top sporting disaster. “Sports in LA is like one big giant reality show,” says Steve Mason, a host on 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles, who has covered Southern California sports for 20 years. “There is something that ties some of these stories together. This is a show business town, and people wind up focusing on all the wrong things. You want to become one of those fancy people in town. You can’t help but be seduced.”
Bush, for example, was raised in a middle-class San Diego neighborhood. But once he got to LA, money and celebrity enveloped him. Will Ferrell and Snoop Dogg hung around those winning USC teams. Is it really surprising that Bush wanted a piece of the action? Divorce proceeding for the McCourts, who were Boston real estate developers when they bought the team in 2004, revealed that the couple owned seven properties, employed an astrologer as a six-figure consultant, and paid a hair stylist $150,000, as player payroll dropped. To Dodger fans, the McCourts cared more about glamour than producing a winning product, and as a result, attendance slipped. “Dodgers fans asked, ‘why should I buy season tickets if Frank McCourt is going to buy another house?” says Mason.
Los Angeles’ sports woes, particularly those of the Dodgers, do serve one civic benefit. Critics often accuse Angelinos of being too dispassionate; Dodger fans, for instance, have long been mocked for arriving to games late and leaving early. The McCourts, however, have united the city — albeit against them. “There’s a lot of anger around town,” says Mark Lackter, editor of LA Biz Observed, a local blog. “It’s very palpable. The city rarely comes together on anything.”
There’s plenty of reason to be ticked off. On March 31, for example, two Dodger fans brutally attacked a San Francisco Giants fan in the Dodger Stadium parking lot. The victim, Bryan Stow, is in a coma. Before the beating, Stow sent a text message saying that he felt “scared” in the stadium. “When I first started going to Dodger games in 1981, this whole family-friendly thing rang true,” says Lackter. “There’s more of a thuggish element now. When I go back to my car after games, the lighting has not been so great. It’s really kind of spooky. All of that is a function of the person running the club.”
Angelinos, however, shouldn’t completely abandon sports for the surf. Mason is confident that AEG, the sports investment outfit which built the downtown Staples Center that is home to the Lakers and Clippers, will also deliver a downtown football stadium, and eventually a team, to LA (The San Diego Chargers have long been rumored to be looking for a new home). And now that MLB has taken over the Dodgers, fans are hoping that new leadership could restore the storied franchise to fiscal stability — and past glory. “Fans are meeting this with cautious optimism,” says David Cater, president of the Sports Business Group, a consulting firm. “The Dodger brand is strong, and in the eyes of fans, can be returned to greatness.” Just expect some Hollywood drama along the way.