The New-Look Dodgers: 'We Owe Fans a Winner'
With unprecedented access, exclusive interviews and photos, the new ownership team tells THR about its plan to woo Hollywood with a glitzy makeover and business deals that could make that $2.15 billion purchase price actually pay off.
The new ownership group is nothing of not diverse. In Johnson, 52, the franchise has an L.A. sports icon and experienced businessman who observers say already has helped the Dodgers win back fans who grew disillusioned amid Frank and Jamie McCourt's well-publicized divorce and the vicious parking-lot beating of San Francisco Giants fan Bryan Stow on Opening Day in 2011. In Guber, 70, the organization has a sports mogul and slick Hollywood insider. And the executives of Guggenheim, a private-equity company with more than $160 billion under management, offer financial savvy and deep pockets. It has staked an undisclosed but substantial share of the purchase price.
"This is what the right ownership group should look like," says CAA Sports co-head Howard Nuchow. "I think they did this perfectly. You have serious investors who understand what it is to unlock value, and you have experienced operators."
Johnson has said his focus within the organization will be on sponsorships and marketing and that he will have the ability to sign off on personnel moves. Guber's role is multifaceted: He says he will do everything from introducing people in the Dodgers organization to Hollywood influencers to suggesting ways the fan experience can be tweaked. For instance, Guber shared an idea for deploying what he calls a "daylight spot" -- lighting equipment he says is used at sporting events in China -- to highlight certain players on the field. "No one uses it [here]. It tells you exactly what to look at," he says.
Such changes often aren't welcomed by baseball purists, so the new owners will need to walk a fine line.
"What can we do to make the experience better?" says Nuchow, who for a decade ran Guber's Mandalay Sports Entertainment, the entity that oversees the mogul's minor-league teams, before leaving for CAA in 2007. "That will be the question they answer. Where is the line on tradition and just fun?"
After years of McCourt neglect, the organization's commitment to the on-field product has been apparent. In June, the team signed All-Star right fielder Ethier to a five-year, $85 million contract extension, joining Kemp, who before the season inked an eight-year extension worth $160 million. The Dodgers were major players in the lead-up to the league's July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline, making moves for two-time All-Star Shane Victorino and former National League batting champ Hanley Ramirez. And on Aug. 3, the Dodgers claimed star Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee off waivers. Although the team did not work out a deal with Philadelphia for Lee, who is owed more than $90 million over the next three seasons, the move signaled further willingness to spend big. The Dodgers have been flirting with first place in the National League's Western Division all season.
"That's where it counts, down on the field," says Vin Scully, the team's announcer since 1950. "All the other statements were very nice -- you know, a new look. But they did something, and that has made a huge impression in the sports community in L.A. They've come to play, but they've come to win."
The moves are even more surprising given that only a year ago, the Dodgers were being dragged through the ugly McCourt divorce. Court documents revealed that the team was $433 million in debt by 2009, and last year the payroll sank to 12th out of 30 major-league teams. While the McCourts were tightening the Dodgers' purse strings, the organization paid the couple handsome salaries ($5 million for Frank, $2 million for Jamie) and forked over hundreds of thousands of dollars to two of their sons for what was reported to be a modicum of work. Meanwhile, the McCourts owned side-by-side Malibu residences they purchased for $46 million and another pair of mansions in Holmby Hills they acquired for $28 million. They employed a $10,000-a-month full-time hairdresser, and Jamie belonged to six country clubs. In all, court documents revealed that from 2004 to 2009, the couple took $108 million in personal distributions from the franchise.
McCourt eventually put the team into bankruptcy when it couldn't meet payroll. "Times were tough, and you've got Frank McCourt using the funds allegedly for not the right things, and that was a turnoff for us," says comedian George Lopez, a longtime Dodger fan. "He'd sit out there -- dude never wore socks. He'd go around pavilions shaking hands with people; nobody wanted to shake his hand. It was more about him than it was about the Dodgers."
The team drew 3.76 million fans in 2009, best in the majors, but dropped to third in 2010 with 3.56 million and by 2011 mustered only 2.94 million, a 22 percent drop in just two years. Plus, the Dodgers failed to reach the playoffs the past two seasons. Says Ethier, "Maybe some of that was a byproduct of the lack of commitment and the lack of direction that was being shown by the previous ownership and the lack of moves they could make."