TOPICS > Nation

Dodger Fans Hope Magic Johnson’s ‘Megawatt Smile’ Can Turn Around Team’s Fortune

March 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Earvin "Magic" Johnson is part of a group that reached a deal Tuesday night to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2.1 billion. Hari Sreenivasan and Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times discuss the record-setting deal for one of Major League Baseball's more-storied -- and most-troubled -- franchises.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, a record-setting deal for one of baseball’s most storied teams and, more recently, one of its most troubled.

Hari Sreenivasan has our story.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Earvin “Magic” Johnson ran the fast break like no other for the Los Angeles Lakers. Now 20 years after he left basketball, this icon of one L.A. team is looking to revive another across town, baseball’s Dodgers.

MAN: He’s the greatest — like I said, the greatest basketball player ever, and now we’ve got the greatest owner ever.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Johnson is part of a group that sealed a deal last night to buy the Dodgers for a record $2.1 billion, the most ever paid for a sports franchise.

MAN: He’s going to manage the team right and the Dodgers will be looking up.

HARI SREENIVASAN: That would be a welcome change — 54 years after the team left Brooklyn, the legendary Dodgers are at a low ebb, on and off the field.

The club declared bankruptcy last June, hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig installed an overseer to monitor owner Frank McCourt, alleging that he had mismanaged the franchise and used team money to fund his very public and very bitter divorce.

Meanwhile, the Dodgers haven’t won a World Series since 1988. And, last year, they fell short of the three million attendance mark for the first time in 20 years. The new owners will try to turn that around if their deal wins approval by a federal bankruptcy judge and baseball’s owners.

For a closer look at all this, I am joined by Bill Shaikin, who has been reporting on the story extensively for The Los Angeles Times. He joins us tonight from New York.

Thanks for being with us.

BILL SHAIKIN, The Los Angeles Times: Sure.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, first, I have got to ask, are the Dodgers or any team worth $2 billion?

BILL SHAIKIN: Well, they’re worth what somebody is willing to pay for them. And Frank McCourt, the outgoing owner, was able to get Major League Baseball to let him sell the team in an auction, rather than let baseball steer it to a preferred bidder. That might have ultimately doubled the final purchase price.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so what’s the logic behind it? How do they plan to make this kind of money back?

BILL SHAIKIN: Well, it’s a long-term investment, and I don’t think anybody goes into sports teams thinking it’s the year-over-year profit, so much as the appreciation and franchise value.

In this case, the Dodgers are also fortunate in terms of timing, because their television contract expires at the end of next year. There are two cable giants in Los Angeles who are going to fight tooth and nail to get the Dodger games. The Dodgers also have the leverage to start their own channel, much like the Yankees or the Red Sox.

And there are people who think that the television contract could be worth $4 billion, or twice the purchase price for the team.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, let’s talk a little bit about the Magic factor here, almost all the headlines today. He’s just one of the owners of the group. How much does Magic Johnson mean to this deal?

BILL SHAIKIN: He means that his winning lineage with the Lakers and his megawatt smile have all of a sudden, by themselves, lifted a cloud that’s really plagued Dodgers and their fans for the last three years.

He’s not going to be the day-to-day manager of the team. He’s not going to run everything in the business operations, but he’ll be there. He will be around, and he will be the face of the Dodgers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So one part of that is already coming true. It seems that — I was reading The Times today, and some fans are celebrating as if it was 1988, the last time they won the World Series.

BILL SHAIKIN: Yeah, it’s been way, way too long. For a legendary franchise with large market resources, the World Series shouldn’t be an accident, and we have a whole generation of people in Los Angeles who’ve grown up without ever seeing their team play in the World Series.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, does this do enough to unite that fan base? It seems that people there liked the Dodgers. They just didn’t like the last owner.

BILL SHAIKIN: Well, there are a combination of a lot of things that happened, but certainly the ownership struggle was part of it.

The Dodgers have two of the very best players in baseball in Matt Kemp, their center fielder, and Clayton Kershaw, the Cy Young Award winner last year as a pitcher. And really what this deal does is puts the focus back on the players and takes it off the divorce court and the bankruptcy court, which is what has preoccupied Dodgers and their fans for the last three years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And when we talk about the players, there are already other teams that are wondering, if you have this kind of money to buy the team, do you have a whole bunch of extra money to start picking up very expensive players from around the league?

BILL SHAIKIN: Well, when I spoke with Magic Johnson today, he spoke very glowingly and almost enviously that the cross-town Angels picked up Albert Pujols this winter. And who’s to say if the Dodgers try to make a similar move on Matt Cain or Cole Hamels next winter.

But, certainly, you know that they have the resources to apply now to a baseball team, as opposed to bankruptcy lawyers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is there any other baseball team or even — I guess even sports team that you can think of that could come close to this kind of valuation?

BILL SHAIKIN: No, this is definitely a world record price for a sports franchise. It beats anything in the English Premier League, which is generally the gold standard for sports leagues in the world.

But it’s, again, a combination of circumstances, a private auction, a television contract coming up, and many, many qualified bidders trying to get in on the action.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Bill Shaikin from The Los Angeles Times, thanks so much for your time.

BILL SHAIKIN: Thank you.