Saturday, March 21, 1997
Murdoch won't ruin game

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Fear not, Reds fans. If Rupert Murdoch wants to win at any price, he can surely afford it. But the new owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers did not amass billions by throwing his money around recklessly. The smart money says he won't start now.

''Could the Dodgers put a $500 million payroll on the field?'' Bill Reik said Friday afternoon. ''Yes. Will they do that? No. These are smart people. And I don't think they're dangerous.''

Reik is a minority owner of the Reds, and a relative wizard on Wall Street. His instincts tell him media companies are buying into baseball for profits, not for profligacy. He does not believe the sky is falling anytime soon.

When the baseball owners approved Murdoch's purchase of the National League's model franchise Thursday, their chief concern was how his competition might inflate their costs. Yet their 27-2 vote revealed none of the usual paranoia associated with a new set of deep pockets at the poker table.

San Diego Padres owner John Moores, who had earlier referred to the prospect of a Murdoch franchise in L.A. as ''a monster to the north,'' ultimately approved the purchase. So did San Francisco's Peter Magowan, who typically protects his turf with the tenacity of a pit bull. Even Ted Turner, who has compared Murdoch to ''the late fuhrer,'' was comparatively conciliatory.

Either the owners have recognized the futility of trying to keep a lid on player payroll, or they have concluded that corporate ownership is more benign than they once believed.

Yes, Murdoch and his Fox empire could surely spend their rivals into submission. No, it's not a big concern. At least not now, in the wake of the Florida Marlins' Pyrrhic world championship.

''If you want to wildly spend, you'll find out it's not a good idea,'' Reik said. ''Look at what happened to Wayne Huizenga.'' The first reflex here says the Dodgers might be different. In the right market, with the right television package, an owner might justify an enormous payroll as inexpensive programming.

This was Turner's strategy when he was simultaneously building the Braves and his ''superstation,'' WTBS, and no one should expect Fox to flinch in competitive bidding. These are the same people who once knocked CBS out of the football business. Peter Chernin, one of the Fox executives who will oversee the Dodgers, is the guy who signed off on the $200 million price tag for Titanic.

This is the kind of corporate clout that has traditionally sent small-market types scurrying for the storm cellars. Since free agency first became available to big-league ballplayers, the owners with the fewest millions have kept up a constant caterwauling about the game's competitive imbalance and their own impending financial ruin.

Some of this was the predictable poor-mouthing of wealthy men trying to bargain as if they were broke, and some the honest frustration of those who hoped to keep baseball a family business. The Dodgers are the 13th major-league team to change hands during the past decade, and the last of the family enterprises.

Teams that once existed largely to gratify rich men's egos have grown too expensive and their business too complex to be effectively grasped by most mom-and-pop operations. (Marge Schott has been out of her depth since the day she bought the Reds, but that's another story.)

The value of most modern sports franchises relates largely to their power as television programming. Murdoch speaks of using sports as a ''battering ram'' in his pay-television operations, and already holds local contracts with 22 of the 30 major-league baseball teams.

When news of Cablevision's interest in obtaining the New York Yankees was first reported Thursday, the company's stock soared $8 per share. George Steinbrenner says he isn't selling, but the flagship franchise he bought for $8 million might be worth as much as $700 million now.

Once upon a time, owners fretted that corporate ownership would drive them to bankruptcy. Now, they welcome it the way they would a new neighbor, one whose purchase price has raised the value of everyone's property.

Ultimately, whatever Murdoch spends on the Dodgers payroll is not likely to cost other owners as much as the amount by which he enhances their holdings. Probably, the $311 million he paid has prompted every owner to wonder what their franchise might fetch on the open market.

Pragmatically, it might take years for Murdoch to buy a team worth worrying about.

''Murdoch could spend $2 billion on his payroll, and the Braves are still going to shut him down,'' Reik said. ''Where's he going to get the pitching?''