The headline was as exciting and engaging as the man himself. “Magic Johnson buys Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion dollars.” Whoa. You don’t know which part of that newsflash to start with first. Like one of his signature no look passes, it’s a headline that commands attention and sends your eyes in numerous directions.
There’s that price tag of $2 billion dollars, the highest amount by far ever paid for a pro sports franchise. There’s the fans’ relief that the Dodgers, buried under the dubious accounting practices of former owner Frank McCourt, aka “Frank McBankupt,” would finally be on secure financial ground. But most of all, there is Magic himself.
Just as he, along with Larry Bird, is credited with transforming the NBA from something destitute to a feel-good global brand, he would now try to do the same for the Dodgers. Magic would be the King of Los Angeles, rehabilitating a team whose reputation had been shredded in the eyes of the local populace and fell short last year of 3 million in home attendance for the first time in two decades.
This headline also held the promise of history. In buying the team of Jackie Robinson, Magic would be desegregating the ownership suites of Major League Baseball.
But like a Magic pass, this headline also held its share of misdirection. The real players behind the curtain are a financial services firm called Guggenheim Partners. The actual General Managing Partner of the team, the true owner, is Guggenheim CEO Mark Walter. “Mark Walter buys Dodgers” is a decidedly less flashy headline.
We don’t actually know how much of his own money Magic paid. This is because Major League Baseball and the Dodgers are classified as private companies and are under no obligation to disclose the details. This is in itself criminal given the billions of public dollars larded into MLB coffers for the construction of new ballparks. The books should be wide open for all to see. The Dodgers have also received a flood of public funds in the refurbishing of their own stadium and the fact that last year, the LAPD on the city’s dime took over stadium security a San Francisco Giants fan was almost beaten to death in an unlit and unsupervised parking lot.
Most likely, Magic is a figurehead on a buy that looks worse the further you look beyond that billion dollar smile.
Based on early reports, this is a highly leveraged deal and Guggenheim Partners are counting on securing a massive new cable television contract to pay back their costs. According to the LA Times, this will mean higher cable bills for all Angelenos whether you are a baseball fan or not. In other words, the cost of buying of the Dodgers will passed on to the already strapped city of Los Angeles. The real buyers, therefore, are not Magic and the Guggenheims but the people of Los Angeles, most of whom will never set foot inside the stadium.
It didn’t have to be this way. Over the last two years, there was a movement of fans trying to buy the team, making it publicly owned in the model of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Representative Janice Hahn was even elected to Congress on the promise that she would challenge the Byzantine anti-trust laws that prevent such a purchase. But instead of a situation where fans buy the Dodgers and profits are funneled back into the community—like Green Bay—we get Guggenheim Partners, a leveraged buy, and the public shouldering the cost. No matter how good Magic Johnson makes us feel, remember that his great talent was for misdirection. What we are witnessing in Los Angeles is not magic. It’s a grift.