Originally created 05/16/03

Disney, Fox, AOL sour on synergy, put pro teams on market



LOS ANGELES -- For the Walt Disney Co., owning two professional sports teams playing just down the street from Disneyland seemed to make good sense in the 1990s.

The buzzword then was synergy, and the entertainment giant figured baseball's Angels and hockey's Mighty Ducks could provide key programming for its proposed sports network, ESPN West, while spawning profitable film, TV and theme park tie-ins.

Other media giants like News Corp. and AOL saw similar opportunities. News Corp., parent company of Fox, bought the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997 for a then-record $311 million. AOL picked up baseball's Braves, hockey's Thrashers and basketball's Hawks, all in Atlanta, when it acquired Turner Broadcasting as part of its merger with Time Warner in 2001.

But when the economy soured, corporate investors clamored for quick profits, and executives found that owning sports teams required too much time and money.

Now, all those teams are back on the block.

"Fox, Disney, AOL Time Warner, what they realized was they had trouble running the franchises because it wasn't their core business, and they had trouble with the synergy," said David Brown, president of the Angels before the sale to Disney.

Disney has agreed in principle to sell the Angels for an estimated $185 million to Arizona businessman Arturo Moreno, a price that seems more in line with a cellar-dweller than the reigning World Series champions. Forbes magazine estimated the value of the team at $225 million.

The bid by Moreno, who hasn't spoken publicly about the deal, was approved Thursday by all the baseball owners at their meeting in New York.

Angels spokesman Tim Mead said the high-profile boost that Disney had sought when buying the team slipped away when the idea for ESPN West was shelved.

Disney paid $147 million to buy the Angels in two phases ending in 1998 and another $100 million to renovate Edison Field. But the team has lost as much as $16 million a year under Disney, including an estimated $17 million in its championship season.

"Shareholders want to see the stock going up," Brown said. "When you win the World Series, which is the ultimate, but you lose millions, it may be good for the fans but not for the shareholders."

Disney hasn't fared much better with the Ducks, despite this year's Cinderella-like ride in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Disney formed the team in 1993, a year after "The Mighty Ducks" movie hit theaters. Two sequels, promoted heavily through the team, didn't score with audiences.

The team has consistently lost money, an estimated $8 million in 2001 alone, according to David Miller, an analyst with Sander Morris Harris.

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. bought the Los Angeles Dodgers to help build its Fox Sports Network. Derrick Hall, a spokesman for the team, said Fox found limited success. While the network was a winner, the team claims to have lost $100 million over the past two years.

News Corp. intends to retain the programming rights even after the team is sold.

"With News Corp., they had a strategy in mind," Derrick Hall, a spokesman for the team, said. "They felt like they accomplished it with the success of the sports network."

AOL Time Warner declined to comment on the sale of its three teams. But analysts have said AOL is under pressure to shed sports teams and other assets to reduce a debt of $26 billion.

AOL Time Warner said earlier this month that it was negotiating exclusively with Dallas car dealer David McDavid to sell him its Atlanta basketball and hockey teams.

The fate of the Braves, the most successful and valuable of the three teams, was murkier. Turner Broadcasting continues to negotiate with several interested parties about the Braves, a source familiar with the discussions has said.

No price for the teams was discussed. Analysts say the three Atlanta teams are worth about $750 million.

Sports teams require all the executive attention of a huge business that can add millions to the bottom line. But even in the best of times, the profits of a sports franchise are relatively small, said Marc Ganis, a sports industry consultant based in Chicago.

"The Dodgers are at most a $150 million business. One big movie can make that," Ganis said.

If the teams aren't providing corporate owners with profitable programming or boosting other operations through tie-ins and synergy, they aren't worth it, he said.

Long-standing labor problems in professional baseball and hockey also worked against synergy, said David Carter, a sports business consultant in Los Angeles.

Baseball averted a strike last year by reaching a new contract agreement. But hockey could face a strike or a lockout next year. While corporate owners like Disney and AOL want out of the hockey business, selling isn't going to be quick or profitable, Carter said.

"If you are a prospective owner of the Ducks, how much would you be willing to pay for a business that might go dark for a year after you buy it?" he said.