Now that the Los Angeles Dodgers sale from Frank McCourt to the Magic Johnson-Stan Kasten group has been consummated for a record $2 billion – the highest price ever paid for a sports franchise – the fortunes of both the Dodgers and the Honda LA Marathon just took a turn for the better.
Why is the Dodger’s sale a good sign for the marathon? Well, until today they were owned by the same man, and with all the turmoil surrounding the McCourt ownership of the Dodgers over the last two years, and his concurrent divorce from wife Jamie, the marathon was put on something of a back burner. Not unexpected considering the value of the Dodgers, the amount of the pending divorce settlement, $131 million, and the approximate worth of the marathon, $20 million, at best.
Though the McCourt Group separated its holdings into different bins, even as recently as last November there was some interest in unloading the LA marathon at the same time as selling off the Dodgers. But after a cursory look-see by a few interested parties, McCourt pulled the marathon from the sales floor. Now with the Dodgers well-disposed and the divorce almost final, the marathon might finally become a more prominent asset for the McCourt Group.
“When all this (sale of Dodgers and the divorce) settles down, he will settle on the marathon and focus,” Howard Sunkin, senior VP of the McCourt Group told me over marathon weekend. “What I want is when people talk about the sport (of marathoning), they will say ‘Boston, New York, Chicago and L.A. We don’t have to be the first name on that list, but we want to be part of that conversation.”
Heady words. And perhaps long overdue from the marathon’s perspective. When the city of Los Angeles decided to carry the good feeling of the 1984 Olympic Games into a city-wide marathon in 1986, the expectations were high. Just as the rise of the Chicago Marathon in the early 1980s upped the game of the New York 26-miler in the same fall time frame, running insiders saw L.A. as the West Coast counter to the Boston Marathon in the spring. Competition would be good for all concerned while raising the profile of the sport and expanding top-class marathoning to a continent’s width.
But as Boston was being resurrected from the final reluctance to professionalism by Boston Mayor Ray Flynn and then the sponsorship of John Hancock Financial Services in 1985 -`86, L.A. soon settled into an annuity and political show pony for its operators Bill Burke and Marie Patrick. Rather than focus on becoming a world-class marathon, L.A. cruised along at a Sunday long-run pace with its annual 20,000 runners – 90% of whom drove to the event – and never attempted to sharpen its speed or elevate its stature. While it was a godsend to the city in times of civic agony and disaster – think fire, floods, and riots – the LA Marathon was by no means in the same orbit as the other American marathon majors.
“You know that we can’t be Boston, New York, or Chicago,” Marie Patrick once told me.
“Marie, you’re not Cedar Rapids,” I replied. “You choose not to be like Boston, New York, and Chicago.”
But with evergreen programs like LA Roadrunners and the incomparable Students Run L.A., at least the Burke-Patrick management team was a North Star you could steer by. They paid their bills, staged the event behind a well-ordered staff led by Nick Curl, and maintained their slow, but steady pace. Then the disaster that was Devine Racing Managment arrived in 2004 when Burke and Patrick sold operating rights to Chris Devine for a reported $15 million. In short order, LA nearly went off the cliff with its trail of unpaid bills, and gross mismanagement. That’s when Frank McCourt came onto the scene, seizing the opportunity to buff his own civic image by taking over the faltering marathon operation in 2008.
At the time, Dodger fans saw McCourt as a Boston transplant who had failed in his attempt to purchase his hometown Red Sox, and so settled instead for the Dodgers when they became available. Unfortunately, the mishandling of the Dodger franchise and divorce difficulties quickly overwhelmed the McCourt Group’s attention span. The marathon, though it was put back on firm financial footing and developed the iconic Stadium-to-Sea course, never had the breathing room to leverage all that Los Angeles and a dedicated owner might bring to bear in fashioning a real red-carpet, klieg light level of a marathon.
Well, now that the Magic Man has stepped into the Dodger front office, let’s see where Mr. McCourt might take things down marathon lane come 2013.