When Rupert Murdoch and Fox owned the Los Angeles Dodgers

Rupert Murdoch has owned many things during his 92 years on earth. Newspapers. Television networks. Publishing houses. Even fledging social media platforms. Yet few moves by the Australian mogul raised more eyebrows than his 1998 purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers, a flagship franchise of Major League Baseball (MLB).

The deal was largely perfunctory – a marriage of corporate convenience – and Murdoch was rarely seen or heard around Dodger Stadium. However, the interjection of Fox – Murdoch’s marquee monolith – into sports represented a watershed moment for team ownership and consumer habits alike. Baseball had scarcely seen a richer, more influential owner, and while ultimately restrained, Murdoch’s involvement redrew the landscape of sports – and sports media – for decades to come.

The Dodgers’ proud history of family ownership

For almost a century, of course, the Dodgers were under esteemed family ownership – firstly possessed by Charles Ebbets, then later by Walter O’Malley, respected baseball men of staid renown. In Brooklyn and Los Angeles, the Dodgers earned dual reputations for inopportune incompetence and trailblazing innovation. This was the team that lost seven World Series matchups before finally winning it all, but it was also the team of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson – pioneers who revolutionised sports and American culture. Through it all, the Dodgers were synonymous with traditional family values – even rejecting commercial opportunities to protect their clean-cut brand. The Dodgers were a model franchise, and a spate of championships between the 1950s and 1980s validated their stature.

Things began to change in the 1990s, though, as a rise in corporate team ownership complicated MLB. Peter O’Malley, the son of Walter, struggled to compete with wealthy benefactors like George Steinbrenner and Ted Turner of the Yankees and Braves, respectively. As such, by 1996, in his late-fifties, O’Malley sought an amicable end to the Dodgers’ family ownership. Emerging O’Malley generations showed little interest in running the team, leaving Peter to ponder an exit strategy. In January 1997, that strategy flourished as O’Malley put the Dodgers up for sale, citing ‘estate planning’ as rationale.

In fairness, even a little napkin mathematics revealed the benefits of a sale to O’Malley. According to the Los Angeles Times, if he died while still owning the Dodgers, his beneficiaries would pay a 55% estate tax on all team assets above a nominal $5 million threshold. A similar situation saw the NFL’s Miami Dolphins fall out of family ownership in 1990 when Joe Robbie left an unpayable estate tax bill upon his death. By contrast, if O’Malley sold the Dodgers, he would only incur a 28% capital gains tax hit on any windfall – projected to be in excess of $300 million. The disparity was clear, and Peter pulled the trigger.

“It’s probably smart to plan for the future,” he told the Associated Press when announcing the Dodgers’ availability. "That's probably the main reason. I’m not a tax expert, but it’s a pretty good idea not to have all your eggs in one basket. Professional sports is as high-risk as the oil business. You need a broader base than an individual family to carry you through the storms. Groups or corporations are probably the way of the future.”

Knowledgeable Dodgers fans and tuned-in columnists knew there was more to O’Malley’s pivot, however. Once a powerful voice on baseball’s rule-making committees, O’Malley’s influence waned as Bud Selig usurped Faye Vincent as MLB commissioner in 1992. O’Malley also harboured hopes of bringing an NFL team back to Los Angeles, only for political intransigence to kibosh his efforts. O’Malley was tired of the drama, quite frankly, and relinquishing the Dodgers became an appealing solution to his discontent.

Why did Rupert Murdoch and Fox buy the Dodgers?

From the outset, O’Malley had a particular corporation in mind for a potential Dodgers sale: Murdoch’s Fox Entertainment Group. The interest was mutual, and Fox lieutenants Chase Carey and Peter Chernin negotiated on Murdoch’s behalf. Murdoch may have been drawn to the Dodgers’ lucrative brand, but there was likely an ulterior motive to his baseball dalliance. Thanks to a deal signed in January 1997, the Dodgers broadcasted a portion of their games live on the Murdoch-owned Fox Sports West. However, when ESPN toyed with the idea of building a rival regional cable network, an existential threat emerged on Murdoch’s radar.

Disney, owners of ESPN, bought the Anaheim Angels and Anaheim Ducks in the mid-1990s, planning to show their games on ESPN West, a hypothetical channel. Dodgers games seemed a natural fit for such a network, and Fox knew it. Their deal with Dodgers was due to end in 2001, so Murdoch considered buying the Dodgers merely to safeguard that revenue stream. Moreover, by owning the team, Fox could sideline the team’s other existing broadcast partners – including KTLA – and eventually secure exclusive rights to all Dodgers games in future. A media arms race ensued.

O’Malley agreed a $311 million sale to Fox in September 1997. Many observers branded this a gross overpay – double the record fee for an MLB franchise – but Murdoch was a genius at projecting future value, and he foresaw the coming explosion of sports media rights. Existing MLB owners expressed concern at Murdoch’s potential involvement, citing his incongruous wealth and potential conflicts as Fox held the broadcasting rights to many other teams. However, a March 1998 vote passed with only two objections – from Turner in Atlanta and Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox. And, just like that, Rupert Murdoch bought an iconic baseball team steeped in history.

Dodgers under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch and Fox

He could not buy acceptance or appreciation, though, as evidenced by a lukewarm reception at Dodger Stadium on Opening Day 1998. Murdoch was synonymous with scandal in America – his politicisation of mainstream media and the splashing of pinup girls across lurid tabloids creating a notorious reputation. Furthermore, Murdoch had never visited Dodger Stadium prior to buying it, despite living in Los Angeles since 1986. Dodgers fans were duly sceptical of his stewardship, booing as he entered the owners’ box.

While Murdoch may have lacked baseball acumen, he knew enough to reshape the future of baseball broadcasting, at least. In July 1998, less than four months after Fox took charge at Chavez Ravine, plans for ESPN West were scrapped. The Dodgers’ subsumption under the Fox umbrella blocked any hopes ESPN had of broadcasting their games, upending the entire concept. Compounding that success, Fox also scooped up media rights to the Angels and Ducks, suddenly in need of broadcasting partners.

Despite securing their future on Fox Sports West, the Dodgers struggled to create a viable product worthy of impassioned viewership. Murdoch’s ownership inspired hallucinations of lavish free agent spending and garish stadium renovations, but in reality Fox’s premiership transformed the Dodgers into a vapid, utilitarian vessel devoid of direction. Murdoch lost interest as soon as ESPN West was torpedoed, and the unimaginative functionaries he employed lacked baseball acumen.

Mike Piazza trade a microcosm of Dodgers under Rupert Murdoch and Fox

For instance, within weeks of taking over, Fox executives traded Mike Piazza – the Dodgers’ talisman – to the Florida Marlins amid acrimonious contract talks. A future Hall of Famer, Piazza wanted to remain a Dodger but sought a seven-year, $105 million extension. When the Dodgers countered with a six-year, $79 million offer, Piazza blasted the organisation, creating a tense impasse. Fox inherited the controversy but demanded a quick resolution, answering one question by creating several more.

Bizarrely, one of the most significant deals in modern baseball history was conceived and finalised by Carey, a television executive, who dictated plays to team president Bob Graziano. Worse still, Carey and Graziano bypassed loyal servants like Fred Claire, Tommy Lasorda and Bill Russell, whose century of combined baseball experience meant little to the new regime. The Dodgers received five players in return for Piazza and Todd Zeile, most notably Gary Sheffield and Bobby Bonilla, but the trade – the largest exchange of salaries in baseball history to that point – illuminated schism in the Dodgers’ front office.

An august baseball mind, Claire served as Dodgers general manager for over a decade, wielding complete autonomy over big league transactions, and the encroachment of Fox infuriated him. Highly respected across the industry, Claire voiced his disapproval at the dumping of Piazza and Zeile. Fox responded by further marginalising Claire then eventually firing him unceremoniously – along with field manager Russell – in June 1998. Such was the cold, calculating approach of the dispassionate Fox bean counters.

Lasorda was shunted awkwardly into an interim GM role to conclude the 1998 season, which saw the Dodgers limp to a disappointing third-place finish. In the offseason, Kevin Malone was chosen as the new GM, while Davey Johnson took over in the dugout. “There is a new sheriff in town,” said Malone, known primarily for gutting the Montreal Expos. Fox backed his bravado by signing starting pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million free agent contract – the exact deal they refused to give Piazza. Such moves smacked of philosophical redundancy, and another third-place finish in 1999 left the Dodgers in humdrum.

Changes to the Dodgers with Rupert Murdoch and Fox as owners

To that end, with a lacklustre team losing between $35 million and $55 million per year, Fox executives introduced whacky schemes aimed at making the Dodgers more ‘entertaining’ – a synonym for the kind of superficial glitz and scandal that filled Fox channels between frenetic news broadcasts and far-fetched crime dramas. Longtime Dodger Stadium organist Nancy Bea Hefley was largely replaced by thumping recorded pop music. Advertising besmirched the pristine ballpark. Silver was added to the Dodgers’ branding palette. And when Fox honchos were deterred from making purple a primary team colour, they introduced blue alternative jerseys instead – a jarring contrast with team tradition. Murdoch even sold 10% of the team to Bob Daly, a former CBS and Warner Bros. executive who became Dodgers CEO despite lacking any sports experience. This was a baseball team, not a Hollywood production, and traditionalists cringed at the Dodgers’ demise. 

In fairness, the 2000 team showed considerable improvement, as Brown led the league in ERA and Sheffield tied the single-season franchise record with 43 home runs, but an 86-76 record saw the Dodgers once again miss the playoffs. Johnson was consequently fired, replaced by Jim Tracy, his own bench coach, who delivered an identical record in 2001 despite phenomenal seasons from Sheffield, Shawn Green and Paul Lo Duca. Replete with explosive individual talent, the Dodgers were finally watchable, but as a cohesive team, they barely managed to tread water in the competitive National League West. Malone resigned before he was pushed, adding to the graveyard of discarded officials.

Off the field in 2001, the Dodgers signed a new broadcasting rights deal with Fox Sports West – an internal formality, of course – that satisfied Murdoch’s primary objective when buying the team. With Dodgers games secured on Fox for the foreseeable future, Murdoch had no other purpose for the team, and thus began soliciting offers from potential buyers. However, when Fox Sports anchor Keith Olbermann ran stories about a possible Dodgers sale, Murdoch ordered him to be fired – a rare show of emotion pertaining to baseball.

Meanwhile, Dodgers fans were left to endure a diluted gameday experience – even down to the scrapping of beloved menu items like the Cool-a-Coo ice cream sandwich, a staple at Dodger Stadium since the 1970s. “What’s been lost is our sense of touch with the Dodgers,” columnist Bill Plaschke told Jesse Kratz for a Los Angeles magazine feature. “Fox has taken the corner grocery store and turned it into Wal-Mart, with huge aisles, fluorescent lights and players you’ve never seen before. You go to a game now, and it’s almost like you need a map.”

Indeed, the constant state of flux continued as Dan Evans replaced Malone to become the fifth GM employed by Fox in as many years. Green once again paced the 2002 Dodgers with 42 homers, and closer Éric Gagné dazzled with 52 saves and a 1.97 ERA in 77 appearances, but the team lacked winning instinct en route to another third-place finish. Mediocrity became the norm in Chavez Ravine – props and gimmicks be damned.

Why Rupert Murdoch and Fox sold the Dodgers to Frank McCourt

Tired of stagnating on the field and haemorrhaging money off it, Fox became increasingly ambivalent, viewing the Dodgers as a faceless pawn in their vast empire. A vacuum emerged where leadership was sorely needed, and conflicting priorities sank a rudderless franchise. “For such a high-profile player, Murdoch himself was oddly distant throughout the entire process,” wrote Glenn Stout in The Dodgers, his pictorial history of the team. “Unlike most baseball owners, who buy teams to become famous, Murdoch already was famous. As his interest in the Dodgers developed, he treated the deal like the inconsequential part of his portfolio it was, sending his underlings out to negotiate and make nice with MLB. He tended to get personally involved with projects only during a time of crisis, and only then when there was big money at stake. The Dodgers didn’t qualify. They really weren’t important enough.”

Finally, in January 2003, Fox put the Dodgers up for sale. Allen & Company, a boutique investment bank, handled the process for Murdoch, with Malcolm Glazer – owner of Manchester United and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – an early favourite. Ultimately, though, Boston real estate developer Frank McCourt had a $430 million offer accepted in October 2003, shortly after another fruitless Dodgers season. So desperate was Murdoch to cut his losses, Fox even loaned McCourt $196 million towards the sale price – a damning indictment of Rupert’s miniscule interest in the team.

McCourt was approved as the Dodgers’ new owner in February 2004, shortly before a season in which Los Angeles returned to the playoffs after an eight-year absence. In many respects, McCourt’s reign was even more chaotic and destructive than that of Fox, as the Dodgers were driven to bankruptcy by 2011. Still, Murdoch’s stilted premiership stood out for its complete insouciance, as beleaguered Dodgers fans endured decades in the baseball wilderness.

The Dodgers legacy of Rupert Murdoch and Fox

If Murdoch spoke publicly about the Dodgers more than a handful of times during his ownership tenure, few of his myriad media entities captured the quotes. Aside from major financial decisions – television rights renewals, say, or contract extensions for prominent players – Murdoch rarely intervened in the Dodgers’ operations. He ran the team by diktat, delegating prestigious powers to compliant intermediaries who lacked imagination.

Nevertheless, the mere notion of Fox owning the Dodgers – of an uber-wealthy conglomerate controlling a cherished public institution – caused inextinguishable intrigue. That intrigue lasts to this day, almost two decades after Murdoch divested his baseball interests. Some people – and some teams – are endlessly compelling, and that will always be true of Rupert Murdoch and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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Sources

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