Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Where's Magic? He's out of the way, like a smart owner

Since his group's much trumpeted purchase of the Dodgers, Magic Johnson has been sighted at only a handful of Dodger games. It would appear he has had some other commitments. What is his commitment to the Dodgers? Maybe staying out of the way is a good one.


By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in Los Angeles


The Los Angeles Times raised a provocative question this morning: Where's Magic? The answer, of course, is that Magic is in our hearts.

But seriously, Magic Johnson has been conspicuous by his absence from Dodger Stadium, though no more so than the Dodgers hitters.

Magic said at sale time that he would be in the office every day, pounding the rock, working hard to bring a World Champion to the people of Los Angeles. Instead, the Times puts Magic's appearances at Dodgers games around "maybe a half-dozen." That's in two months since his Guggenheim Baseball Management group purchased the team.

As the Times audits Magic's activities since the sale, he launched a television network, Aspire, as well as his own prepaid credit card, the Magic card. Magic also appeared on the NBA Finals coverage for ESPN and ABC. After the NBA Finals, Magic went on vacation to Morocco and St. Tropez.

Sounds like Magic had some previous commitments as the sale closed. He might be more stunned than any of us. Guggenheim came in quickly with its extraordinary bid of $2.15 billion. Suddenly, the flagging Dodgers were associated with a winner, Magic, and he was supposed to electrify the Dodgers with his passion. So, he becomes the figurehead right as the Dodgers are in first place and he smiles for the cameras, sits through a couple games, the Dodgers win and everything's good.

Now, the Dodgers are 12-22 since May 27 and Magic is nowhere to be seen because, you know, he's Magic and he's busy. But he said he was going to be in the office every day. What gives? Fair question.

And it raises a deeper question, which we did not ask at the time of the sale because the answer seemed so obvious, and maybe it still should be so obvious: What would, or should, Magic's ownership role actually amount to? What, specifically, was going to be the cause and effect relationship between Magic rolling up his sleeves and the Dodgers making progress as a baseball franchise?

We didn't ask that question because news of the ownership group included some other names, like the Guggenheims, who know something about money, and Stan Kasten, who built the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals from different kinds of rubble. Thus, the more obvious question was: Why should Magic roll up his sleeves at all?

Around sale time, one of the principals in the new group said that Magic's title was going to be "Owner." Owning something isn't the same as producing it. The smart way to own something like this is by turning it over to people who know how to produce it, then you make money for owning it. That's how capitalism works: You own the means of production but lack the expertise or muscle, so you hire the expertise and muscle, then profit or lose on the difference between your costs and your revenues. What you don't do is hover, micromanage beyond your depth or expertise and cripple your producers.

We knew Magic wasn't going to suit up and throw assist passes at the rim to Matt Kemp and Elian Herrera. We knew he came into this with absolutely no roots in baseball. We didn't expect him to move into Dodger Stadium, sleep on a cot in the situation room like Dick Vermeil and mastermind the 2012 World Championship. We knew he wasn’t going to tell Kasten how to run the baseball business or the Guggenheims how to work the money. We wouldn't want that.

We all know horror stories about the wealthy novice who buys a baseball team, starts playing around with his favorite toy and winds up with a disaster on his hands. Ted Turner was one of those guys when he first purchased the Atlanta Braves in 1976. He put on a jock strap and managed a game one night. The Braves couldn't escape from his shadow.

Finally, Turner realized that baseball is a different kind of business that he didn't understand and, in 1986, he turned it over to experts -- Bobby Cox on the baseball side and Kasten on the business side. The Braves won 14 straight divisions and they have always since been competitive.

By the accounts, Magic has succeeded in numerous businesses -- movie theaters, restaurants, health clubs, commercial real estate -- having little or nothing to do with his expertise in basketball or sports. How is this possible?

Knowing nothing about Magic's method of operation except for what we've seen of him with the Dodgers, we might see something like this: Among the people alive today, Magic Johnson qualifies as a prestigious eminence with the whole winning image as a cheerful competitor, an athletic champion, a crusader against disease and a success in business. Being prestigious, Magic lends his prestige to anything he wants to do. That attracts money, because Magic's prestige is a leg up on profitability. And the money that Magic's prestige attracts then attracts, in turn, expertise, because experts like to be paid. And all of this stuff somehow coalesces around Magic, who signs the documents to put the operation in motion, then leaves it alone to send him checks and status updates while he moves on to the next deal having something to do with pizza or coffee, or the NBA Finals, or Dodger Stadium, or his vacation in St. Tropez.

Perhaps the long and short of Magic's business acumen, and his business contribution to the Dodgers, is his ability to attract money and expertise, then put them together so that the expertise spends the money profitably. He can be selective, and he apparently selects well. There might be a little whip cracking here and there, but he's not in the day-to-day operation, because he doesn't know the restaurant business, or the movie theater business, or the commercial real estate business, or the baseball business. Stan Kasten knows that stuff. The guy at the Burger King knows that stuff. The investment banker knows that stuff. So, Magic leaves his people alone, says, "Send me the checks," and moves on to the next deal. And if that's all there is to it, that's still a lot, because there is a lot of talent and expertise out there without capital, and there is a lot of capital in the hands of clowns.

Magic's job is "owner," which isn't really a job, but he seems to have done it pretty well at other stops. His job is to be Magic, which isn't really a job, and he seems to have done that pretty well, too. When news broke that Magic was buying the Dodgers, the whole town was giddy because his name strikes the air with a glorious sense that he will not fail. That's what he brings to his ownership stake in the Dodgers, who were wounded when he found them.

He's not going to be a mascot at Dodger Stadium for three hours every night, laughing and high fivin' in his box seat, though we can count on plenty enough of those TV shots when the Dodgers are in some meaningful games. He will make contributions as an owner, the kind that only he can make, maybe putting the Dodgers over the top with a big free agent here and there.

Perhaps Magic's ownership role, his relationship with the Dodgers, might be described, in today's ugly parlance, as "co-branding." Making no mistake about it, the Dodgers brand received a much higher kick than did the Magic brand from the news of their blissful union. Now, what’s good for the Magic brand is good for the Dodgers brand, and vice versa. But they are separate brands, and they must pursue their ends separately.

That's why we ask, "Where's Magic?" while, at the same time, we say, "Kind of glad he isn't here," even though he said he would be. Magic has helped put the group together, given it profile and credibility and helped it through the sale. The top people are in place and Magic has nothing to add right now.

So, it's fine for Magic to be Magic, track his other enterprises and do the jet-setting global superstar thing, taking the Dodgers with him that way wherever he goes. The baseball people don't need him watching. Kasten is on the case. They're trying to improve the club. They were willing to spring $8 million for Carlos Lee. They'll get something done.

One might even credit Magic for restraint. We might like to see him more at the ballpark, but his absence is a small price to pay if the alternative is Magic wandering around the Dodgers offices thinking he's Branch Rickey, getting into everyone's business and causing people to make emotional decisions.

In this corner, we like hands-off owners who let baseball people do their jobs. Give them the budget, set the expectations and review it at the end of the year. Until then, stay out of the way. That's how we see Magic right now. We kind of like not seeing him.

Saying all that, Magic, c'mon out to a game at Dodger Stadium some night, anyway, brother. It would be good to see you, and the parking is only $10.

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