Drop into Tom Bergin's Tavern in Los Angeles on any given night, and the big screens over the horseshoe-shaped bar in front are turned to whatever sports game. This week, it's the World Series.
And even though the Dodgers didn't get past the playoffs, the ball club is very much on people's minds. That's because the Boston transplants who own the Dodgers, Frank and Jamie McCourt, are divorcing, and, since they're divorcing in California, the team could be part of the division of community property.
Emphasis on "could." Frank McCourt says he is the sole owner of the Dodgers, because he and Jamie signed an agreement in 2005 that gives him sole ownership of the team, while she is given several expensive pieces of real estate.
She counters by saying that she signed that document to protect their property in the event the Dodgers deal went bankrupt and that she never intended to give her ownership of the team away permanently. Skeptics raise their brows at this, because Jamie has a law degree.
Questions About 'Community Property'
Who actually owns the Dodgers is turning out to be a central point of contention. Lawyer Steven Mindel is a specialist in family law at Feinberg Mindel Brandt & Klein, one of L.A.'s largest family law firms. He cautions that "half" in California doesn't necessarily mean a straight 50-50 split of every single thing, as long as the end result is equitable.
"In the case of the Dodgers, the very first thing that will have to be determined is whether or not the asset is community property," Mindel says. "And if it is community property, the judge will have to decide what's half."
If the team is determined to be community property, according to Mindel, the judge could decide several things in regard to the Dodgers' fate: "One person may be bought out, the other person could then get to run the team — or they may have joint management of the team."
Wife Contributed To Team
That latter is highly unlikely, since Frank McCourt recently fired his wife from her CEO position. The news was made public on the day after the Dodgers lost to the Philadelphia Phillies in the playoffs. T.J. Simers, a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, says he's skeptical about how Jamie McCourt got her job.
"She had a nice husband who gave her the title," said Simers. "I wondered about that a couple of years ago. I mean, what'd he do, roll over one night and say 'Jeez, I think you should be CEO'?"
Simers is maybe being purposefully provocative. He is, after all, the columnist who sometimes refers to Frank McCourt as "the parking lot attendant," because McCourt's real estate development group was buoyed by revenues from a huge parking lot in Boston.
Jamie McCourt has contended, through her lawyers and in court filings, that it is she who is the public face of the Dodgers. She says she has worked hard on team outreach to women, who now make up 40 percent of the Dodgers' fan base.
She sponsored special events that brought women face to face with team players, to make them more invested in the sport, and sponsored seminars for women on the mechanics of baseball, so they could follow the game more easily.
A Past Example
All good things, but they might not lessen fans' anxiety, since they have a close-to-home example in the Mooreses. John Moores sold about one-third of his interest in the San Diego Padres to Jeff Moorad, a general partner in the Arizona Diamondbacks, last year to settle his divorce obligations with his now ex-wife, Becky. Associated Press sportswriter Bernie Wilson says fans definitely got the short end of that transaction.
"John Moores is getting his money, and we're getting a fourth-rate baseball team," Wilson said. Post-divorce, the Padres' payroll was slashed and expensive players, like pitcher Jake Peavy, a Cy Young Award winner and incontestable star, were traded for cheaper players to save money.
Wilson says the new owner conglomerate didn't hike ticket prices — something that often happens when a ball club changes owners — but the same buck isn't delivering the bang it used to.
"They did hold the line on tickets, but fans are not happy to be paying major league prices for a minor league team," he said.
Padres fans seem to be voting with their feet. Ticket sales are down. Wilson says many are still watching — just not in the stadium: "They're no longer season-ticket holders because they realize it's not a good value." The price of tickets for a family of four, he argued, could be a nice dinner out, a weekend away, or a whole lot of beer at non-ballpark prices.
Long Battle Ahead
Divorce attorney Mindel says don't hold your breath that a decision on who really owns the Dodgers will be arrived at anytime soon. The McCourts have both indicated they're ready for a long fight. Mindel's best estimate: "It will be between 24 and 36 months."
It's a lot to ask of fans who have lived through other kinds of disasters — fires, floods, earthquakes, the departure of the Raiders. There's a lot invested in keeping the Dodgers in L.A. — the revenues from television coverage alone would make it financially imprudent to let the team leave town. But as family law attorneys like to point out, emotion and logic don't always sit in the same room, let alone the same pew, when a nasty divorce is in full swing.
Ironically, earlier this year, the Los Angeles Business Journal published a glowing profile of the McCourts as one of L.A.'s power couples. It also revealed the McCourts' method for dealing with disagreements: "They just keep arguing until one side gives up."
And that won't happen anytime soon.