Local television and the Dodgers-Red Sox trade

Are the Dodgers loading up on stars in advance of a new local TV deal?

The words “local television” conjure images of infomercials, Seinfeld reruns, and lame repartee on cheesy newscasts, infomercials. But local television is also critically important in today’s baseball world, as further proven late last month when the Los Angeles Dodgers traded for the hefty contracts of Boston Red Sox underachievers and malcontents Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett. The stunning deal, in which the Dodgers gave back a mediocre position player and a couple of top prospects, came on the heels of the July acquisitions of the similarly rich and unproductive Hanley Ramirez and Shane Victorino.

For better or worse, the Dodgers are now must-see TV in the Southland—despite their recent struggles, players like Beckett, Ramirez, and Gonzalez bring the Dodgers a star power that the team has lately lacked. That’s just what makes the team appealing to the local broadcasters seeking to spend big bucks for the rights to televise their games—money that the new owners of the franchise, including Magic Johnson, hope will make the $260 million or so in salary they just assumed look like stray nickels found in the shrubbery.

The Dodgers’ deal with Fox runs through next season, and negotiations aimed at re-upping are underway. (A $3 billion, 17-year deal has been rumored.) But Johnson—the public face of Guggenheim Partners, the consortium that paid an extraordinary $2.1 billion for the franchise this past spring—and his cohorts are secure in the knowledge that there are multiple suitors for the property. That means a bidding war is in the offing, and don’t be surprised if the winner forks over a billion or two on top of that Fox offer.

Fox has an exclusive negotiating window that slams shut November 30, and many things can happen between now and the time a deal is ultimately struck. But the L.A. sports landscape is more successful than it’s been since the days when Magic was running Showtime and winning five titles. The Lakers have had an exceptional offseason, adding perennial All-Stars Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to its Kobe Bryant-led nucleus. The Clippers are coming off a strong season fueled by the game’s best point guard, Chris Paul, and above-the-rim showstopper Blake Griffin. The Kings, of all teams, just won the Stanley Cup. The Angels spent furiously this past winter, adding sure-bet Hall of Famer Albert Pujols in what now seems like a quiet move. David Beckham and Landon Donovan still capture hearts and minds with the L.A. Galaxy. And the greatest of all beasts, the NFL, is inching ever closer to a return to the city.

In that context, the Dodgers, who have managed to be less than compelling despite the presence of MVP candidate Matt Kemp and Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, badly needed to sex up its above-the-line talent, in the parlance of Hollywood. Whether Gonzalez, Beckett, Ramirez, and the others actually lead the team to the top is beside the point. The team is interesting again, and to the networks itching to hand over fat stacks of cash to the Dodgers, that means ratings.

For the flip side of this equation, however, one need only look at the other end of the trade. A popular team spent lavishly on players, trying to drive up local TV ratings in a crowded sports marketplace. It didn’t work out so well for the Red Sox. Boston management now has a chance to rebuild their team with winning games, not drawing eyeballs to high-def sets, as their priority.

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Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta. Tags: , , , , ,