When Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig last week selected the Lerner group to own the Washington Nationals, he said he was moved by a preference for family-centric ownership, calling it the most successful model throughout the game’s history. The Lerners, he said, would provide stability and lay the groundwork for a successful franchise for generations.
“In the end, I determined that family ownership, and major investment by a central person has served baseball well in the past and will continue to serve it well and in the future,” said Selig, who named several family owners from the past including the O’Malleys in Los Angeles, the Wilpon family in New York and the Fetzer family in Detroit. “I believe the Lerners will be another excellent example.”
But while baseball’s history has indeed been populated by teams with family owners touting a central figure, there appears to be no true pattern in how such teams fare on the field or in the community.
For every family like the O’Malleys that brought stability and championships for more than 40 years with the Dodgers franchise, there have been controversial and oft-criticized owners like Peter Angelos in Baltimore, the Pohlad family in Minnesota and Marge Schott in Cincinnati. Meanwhile, corporate-owned teams like the Atlanta Braves and Seattle Mariners have enjoyed great on-field success, and many partnership-owned teams like the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox also have thrived.
Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, and frequent commentator on the business of baseball, said a local owner can tap into the pulse of the fan base better than a corporate-run group or conglomerate. But he said any ownership model can easily succeed or fail.
“If you had your druthers, and all other things are equal, you’d like to have a non-corporate owner with a local base,” said Zimbalist, who is author of the book “In the Best Interests of the Game? The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig.”
“But you can find advantages and disadvantages to any of these structures,” Zimbalist added. “It just depends on how well they are implemented in each instance. It can be done right or wrong no matter what it is.”
History will be the judge of the Lerner family, but it appears it already has a plan for success. The group’s investors include Stan Kasten, once a well-respected executive with the Atlanta Braves, who will run the team’s operations. Kasten will be the face of the business side, with Ted Lerner and his son, Mark, running the show behind the scenes.
Family ownership was once the norm in baseball. But as the value of franchises grew in the 1990s, corporations began entering the fray. News Corp. bought the Dodgers from the O’Malleys. Time Warner bought the Braves from Ted Turner. Disney Corp. bought the Angels from the family of singer/actor Gene Autry. These teams were successful on the field, but it’s unclear whether the corporate ownership can be credited.
The Angels won their first and only World Series title in 2002 while owned by Disney, and the Atlanta Braves have won 14 straight division titles, the last 10 of which have come since Time Warner took control of the team.
“The impetus should be more focused on what’s in the best interest of the team — short-term and long-term — not in shareholder value,” said Dennis Howard, a professor at the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, who has studied ownership in sports. “But looking at it from a business perspective, successful teams are often more profitable, and often business motives are in sync with building more capable franchises.”
In more recent years, however, the trend toward corporate ownership has been reversed slightly. Disney sold the Angels to local businessman Artie Moreno in 2003, and developer Frank McCourt bought the Dodgers from News Corp. in 2004. Meanwhile, Time Warner has placed Arthur Blank, an Atlanta-area millionaire and owner of Atlanta Falcons, on its short list of potential buyers for the Braves.
But Selig’s preference for family ownership appears to have less to do with championships and wins and more to do with stability and loyalty. Historically, family-owned teams have hailed from the team’s city, and have been reluctant to move franchises elsewhere. And they have often stood by the league during tough negotiations, and were easy contacts for commissioners because of their central figures. Peter and Walter O’Malley, for instance, were the face of the Dodgers for years.
“They were very close with the commissioners at the time,” said Fred Claire, a former public relations director and general manager for the Dodgers under the O’Malleys. “They were central. It wasn’t a case where there were a lot of high-profile people involved in the ownership. If you wanted to know what the organization thought, you really only had to go to one person.”
John Fetzer, for instance, was a former broadcast executive who was instrumental in negotiating television packages for the league in the 1960s. Jerry Reinsdorf, the long-time owner of the Chicago White Sox, sits on several of the league’s committees and chaired the group in charge of bringing baseball back to the District. He was also the league’s chief negotiator of a new ballpark lease with the city.