Why Time Warner Cable is no lock to buy Dodgers

Without Tom Lehrer to poke holes in the New Math, I’ll take a stab at it.

Lately online, I’ve seen a rash of speculation that Time Warner Cable will buy the Dodgers, based on the following algebra: Why would Time Warner Cable pay up to $4 billion for 20 years of Dodger cable television rights when it only needs to spend an estimated $1 billion or so to buy the team (and in turn control of the TV rights) and be home free?

Well, I’m here to tell you why.

The main thing is that the math above doesn’t compute. Sure, TWC would be committing less money initially if it bought the team, but it still has to operate the team. You can’t simply ignore the cost of that, and it’s going to be considerable.

So while TWC wouldn’t pay the TWC-owned Dodgers $4 billion for broadcast rights, it would have to pay them a big dollar amount nonetheless. How much will Dodger player payroll alone be over 20 years? I’d say $3 billion (not adjusting for inflation) is hardly outlandish. Then there’s stadium improvements to be made, etc., etc. And TWC would be paying out all that whether the Dodgers made money or lost money.

That leads into a second but not insignificant point. Operating a sports franchise is a big headache, and the Dodgers, with all their on-field and off-field needs, are no different. It takes a lot of manpower, and if you’re not doing it right — if it’s not your top priority — it can be a public relations disaster.  And the odds are that lots of fans will find decide TWC doesn’t know how to run a baseball team.

Fox essentially has every reason to try to buy the Dodgers that TWC has — as we’ve discussed here repeatedly, the fate of Fox-owned Prime Ticket probably depends on keeping the Dodger’ TV rights — yet with the benefit of previous ownership experience, Fox is not going to bid on the franchise. Despite the New Math, Fox doesn’t want the hassle, even if it means risking astronomical sums in the event of a Prime Ticket collapse.

Then, finally, there is Frank McCourt himself. He will decide which of the MLB-approved ownership groups will get the team. No doubt, he will go for the richest bid, and secondarily, an owner he isn’t personally affronted by. But if the competition is close, he’s likely going to feel more comfortable, in terms of doing what little he can to salvage his legacy, selling to a group that has a friendly face, be it Magic Johnson or Joe Torre, than a group that has no face at all.

I’m not saying TWC won’t bid on the Dodgers — I mostly expect it to. Owning the Dodgers eliminates the risk of Fox retaining the TV rights, and heck, maybe TWC can learn from Fox’s mistakes (not to mention the very different mistakes of the McCourts) and make the Dodgers’ day-to-day operations themselves purely lucrative.

But it’s worth remembering that there are no free rides. Buying the Dodgers has great reward potential but is also a bonafide risk, more so if the bidding becomes heated. The ultimate prize for TWC right now is the success of its upcoming new cable channels dedicated to the Lakers. Those are the real revenue generators, and if TWC is confident it can acquire the Dodgers’ TV rights to support those channels (without the angst of running the Dodgers themselves), or even if it isn’t confident, TWC might let Dodger ownership be someone else’s problem. 

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