Why a Dodgers Auction Could Rob Fox Sports of Millions of Dollars

 Pete Sucheski

Like a forgotten child, Fox Sports stands to be the big collateral loser in the bitter divorce between Frank and Jamie McCourt, which morphed into a battle between Frank and Major League Baseball over ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Fox's sweetheart deal for Dodger TV rights until 2027 -- agreed to in April as McCourt struggled for cash to make the team's payroll and fund a big payoff to Jamie -- could come crashing down July 20 if a Delaware bankruptcy judge forces the Dodgers to auction the rights to the highest bidder. This comes as regional sports networks (RSNs) like Fox's Prime Ticket have emerged as lifelines for companies trying to stem the exodus of audiences to online viewing. An auction could be a windfall for the Dodgers but a big blow to Fox Sports' lucrative dominance of the L.A. cable sports market.

Since 1993, Fox Sports has used control of the Dodgers' TV rights to make Fox Sports West the crown jewel of its 17 RSNs and help squeeze out any competitors. In fact, Fox bought the team that year to block Disney from using Dodger games as the centerpiece of a proposed ESPN West RSN, and it sold the team to McCourt in 2004 for a reported $430 million because he was willing to extend Fox's TV deal for a decade. With that move, Fox Sports controlled rights to all six major L.A.-area pro teams.

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Even after having loaned McCourt millions of dollars to buy the team, accepting an overvalued Boston parking lot in payment for one loan and rebating $50 million of the original purchase price, Fox came out ahead on the sale of the Dodgers because it retained the TV rights. But now its rivals are hovering -- Time Warner in particular, having lured the Lakers from Fox by offering them joint ownership of two channels in a deal starting in 2012 rumored to be worth as much as $3 billion over 20 years.

Contrast that with the roughly $33 million a year Fox now pays the Dodgers. Forbes estimates Prime Ticket had about $130 million in earnings in 2010 and that the Dodgers' presence increases the market value of Prime Ticket by hundreds of millions -- if not billions -- of dollars. A conservative estimate of Prime Ticket's value might be 15 to 20 times cash flow, or between $2 billion and $2.5 billion. (YES, the New York Yankees' cable network widely considered the most valuable RSN in baseball, is estimated to be worth about $3.4 billion.)

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But the Dodgers bankruptcy threatens Fox's golden goose. Since buying the team in 2004, McCourt has loaded the team with even more debt (more than $450 million by most estimates), and some say he used the team as his personal checking account. The Los Angeles Times puts McCourt's withdrawals for personal expenses at $108 million, at least. A recent Vanity Fair article detailed his spending: from the $79 million in homes to the flying time on NetJets to a hairdresser retainer of $10,000 a month. During the past year, McCourt has struggled to meet the Dodgers' operating expenses and cover his debt payments at the same time. And when his divorce battle with Jamie concludes, he might have to pay her as much as $400 million. Alarmed, MLB moved to take over the team.

But McCourt surprised everyone by negotiating the April deal with Fox, now in jeopardy, that replaced the final three years of the current contract (2010-13) with a 17-year extension valued at $3 billion (McCourt's estimate) or $1.7 billion (baseball's estimate) and gave McCourt a 35 percent ownership stake in Prime Ticket. For McCourt, the most important part of the new deal was an immediate cash advance of $385 million, of which $211 million would go for baseball operations and $174 million would go to the McCourt family -- broken down across various obligations and including $5 million each to Frank and Jamie for spending money.

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Some say the deal discounted the long-term value of the Dodgers' TV rights by as much as 20 percent because the Yankees receive in the neighborhood of $200 million a year from YES, and even the Texas Rangers -- with little of the cachet or fan appeal of the Dodgers -- get $80 million a year for their TV rights.

When MLB commissioner Bud Selig rejected the new deal, McCourt put the Dodgers in bankruptcy in the hope that the court would force Selig to approve. Although most people with knowledge of baseball's rules and bankruptcy law think this gambit will fail because of the commissioner's mandate to act "in the best interests of baseball," the future of the team's TV rights is up in the air. At the July 20 bankruptcy hearing, Judge Kevin Gross could require McCourt to hold a competitive auction for the rights. (A bigger contract won't ease McCourt's personal financial woes; neither Gross nor MLB is likely to sign off on any deal that diverts money to pay for his divorce.)

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Certainly, a competitive auction is bad for Fox Sports. At best, the company would be forced to pay higher rights fees to keep the Dodgers. At worst, it could lose the rights. If Fox loses the Dodgers, it would leave a gaping hole in Prime Ticket's summer lineup at the same time a formidable new challenger has been created, dramatically reducing the value of the company's most valuable RSN.

But what is potentially bad for Fox might ultimately be good for Dodger fans. The new owners -- and there probably will be new owners by next season -- will have hundreds of millions in new TV money to spend on improving the team. Let's just hope they don't have the McCourts' taste in real estate, private jets and hairdressers.           

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