What Happens When A League Becomes The Team Owner?

Nolan Ryan, Owner of the Texas Rangers

By now, you’ve probably already seen the news that Major League Baseball has taken control of day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers away from current team owner Frank McCourt. If not, you can read more about it over at ESPN.com and on Darren Rovell’s SportsBiz blog.

Instead of trying to weigh in on whether MLB’s decision in this case was right or wrong and what McCourt should or shouldn’t do, I’d like to take a philosophical look at the concept of a league-owned or league-operated franchise. This situation has come up a few times in professional sports over the past decade, including the Texas Rangers, the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals, the New Orleans Hornets, the Phoenix Coyotes and now the Dodgers. While the circumstance behind each situation is different, there are some fundamental issues at hand any time a league steps in to manage an individual franchise.

If a league owns or operates an individual franchise, in essence the other 30+ owners within that league are now in charge of that team, since the league itself is owned equally by all of the separate team owners. While each owner is primarily concerned with their own franchise, even having a 1/30th stake in another team is a significant investment. This additional “ownership” can represent a unique conflict of interest for those put in charge of the team’s operations.

The owners want this franchise to be run profitably, but what is the best way to do that? Often times, the best way to generate a short-term profit is through reducing costs, whereas long term profit is more sustainable via investing in the team’s operations. If the other owners care more about the short-term, which could easily be the case since they theoretically won’t own the team for long, then those in charge may be forced to cut costs. In addition, the specific approaches the team takes in their operations could be dictated by that league’s revenue sharing system. If more revenue is shared from ticket sales that local media, will those in charge be forced to focus more on that specific revenue stream to the detriment of the other.

This problem is even more significant when looking at the on-field operations of the team. Those in charge should theoretically continue to do what they can to help the team win, since that will in turn lead to more revenue. However, if that team wins more games, logic dictates that other teams will lose more games, which can decrease revenue for those team owners. This question came up last year with the Texas Rangers. The team was doing well, but until new ownership was in place, the team seemed unlikely to make any roster changes.

A more recent example took place this year with the Hornets, when those in charge of the team did make a significant trade in an attempt to improve the team. Mark Cuban spoke out vehemently against this trade in particular because the team took on additional salary, which mean as a partial owner of the Hornets, Cuban could end up losing more money. He didn’t seem upset about the team’s attempt to improve (he said that he wouldn’t mind the trade if they hadn’t taken on additional salary), but I wouldn’t be surprised if behind the scenes, other owners were angry about this aspect as well.

Finally, you also need to look at the context under which the league steps in. One of the most unusual arrangements was when MLB decided not only to “purchase” the Expos, but also arrange for the sale of the Marlins to former Expos owner Jeffrey Loria, and in turn the sale of the Red Sox to former Marlins owner John Henry. While I will not attempt to analyse the various motivating factors behind these deals (how often do you see owners “trade” their team?), there’s no doubt that Henry and Loria benefited greatly from the situation, while the “rest” of the league ends up owning the orphaned Expos, which surely had a negative cash flow until the time they were sold as the Nationals. Again, there does seem to be some conflict of interest when other owners end up having to support the operations of an additional team as part of another owner’s franchise purchase and sale.

Even putting that unique situation aside, other events will continue to arise where a league has no choice but to step in and own or operate a franchise. It is clearly in the best interest of any professional sports league to make sure all of its teams can operate successfully. The conflicts that these situations present are real, and must be delicately managed by all parties involved until operations can be turned back over to the team, hopefully as quickly as possible.