The saga of the battling McCourts, Frank and Jamie, will be played out in court. Whether or not one of them is able to hold onto the Los Angeles Dodgers will be determined by a judge. Whatever the result, the future success of the team on the field could be imperiled. If either Frank or Jamie becomes the controlling owner, the other will be entitled to a king’s ransom in return. That may mean unloading promising young stars such as Andre Ethier or Matt Kemp in an effort to shave the team’s payroll. That’s what happened in San Diego when the owners of the San Diego Padres, John and Becky Moores, split up recently and John had to part with a significant settlement payout to his wife.
Ownership battles played out in public are just the newest reason professional sports franchises shouldn’t necessarily be in the hands of private parties. The more common outrage is that cities regularly compete with each other by shamelessly promising multi-million-dollar tax packages and sweetheart stadium concessions to lure teams away from their cities of birth. The incentives often approach the value of the franchises themselves.
The most famous of these stories involves the Cleveland Browns. The idea that the Browns would leave Cleveland seemed unthinkable. Year in and year out, the loyal Cleveland fans braved snowstorms to watch the mostly dismal Browns perform. In 1995, the city of Cleveland refused to agree to owner Art Modell’s demands for a new stadium. The city fathers of Baltimore quickly offered him more than $180 million in tax incentives, subsidies and other goodies. The next year, Modell moved his privately owned team to Baltimore. Baltimore, you should know, is the same city that suffered the indignity of seeing its beloved Colts leave town in the middle of the night for Indianapolis not too many years before that.
The same story, in effect, is what’s happening in Southern California in the City of Industry. City leaders and developers there plan to build a football stadium to entice an existing NFL team to move.
Over the long term, it’s not the stadiums that have economic value. It’s the team. Most cities that enter into bidding wars to lure franchises are not getting the best deal. It’s the owners who profit handsomely from these enticements.
Now that I’ve convinced you that private ownership of sports teams has its downside, you should know that public ownership of a sports franchise is illegal under the bylaws and franchise agreements in all of the major professional sports leagues. The restrictions are in effect because of the spectacular success of the Green Bay Packers, who are located in a small market and are hardly failing. The idea that the Packers would move elsewhere is unthinkable because a non-profit municipal corporation run by a board of directors owns the team. The same is true in Europe, where most of the soccer teams are publicly owned.
If public ownership were allowed, owners would be barred from moving teams from small markets where they were profitable – like Green Bay – into larger markets. The value of the franchises would be affected to the detriment of the owners, but it would be a good thing for everyone else.
Just think of the possibilities: The decision to sign or not sign a free agent or a new coach would be decided by a board of directors of a non-profit municipal corporation. An Internet poll could be conducted to gauge fan sentiment. Fans wanting to do so could put their own money into a pot to purchase stock in the club.
As part of the creation of the municipal corporation, local job development should be made an essential part of the mix. All team employees other than the athletes should be residents of the city in question. Local companies should be given outright preference for all contracted services as well.
If the McCourts are forced to put the Dodgers on the market in the aftermath of a divorce settlement, the City of Los Angeles should offer to buy the team and challenge league rules barring public ownership in a court of law as a violation of the basic freedom to enter into a contract. Other cities should join the battle in the event an NFL, NBA, NHL, or major league baseball franchise becomes available. On a parallel legislative front, Congress should threaten the owners with the repeal of the anti-trust exemption in exchange for removing the current ban on public ownership.
I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that any major league sports franchise be involuntarily turned over to public ownership via eminent domain or otherwise. What I am suggesting is that the home team we live and die for should be seen as part of the local commons, something that belongs to all of us ??” in much the same way we view parks, schools, sidewalks, city plazas, and libraries. We should recognize it as the quasi-public institution it is.