- Magic Johnson becomes one of the rare team athletes to become a team owner
- Professional players have had a mixed record when they have turned to team ownership
- Nolan Ryan's Rangers have done well, but Wayne Gretzky's Coyotes fell flat
- Johnson says he's committed to improving team and "selling the Dodger brand"
Magic Johnson is a part of some exclusive clubs: NCAA and NBA champions. Basketball hall of famers. Olympic gold medalists.
Now he's joined an even more exclusive group: players who have become owners of professional sports teams.
Last week, the Los Angeles Dodgers announced that a group including Johnson, film producer Peter Guber, baseball executive Stan Kasten and Guggenheim Partners CEO Mark Walter had purchased the team. The staggering price tag: $2.15 billion.
Johnson told ESPN's "Baseball Tonight" that the new ownership was determined to turn around the ballclub, which has suffered from uneven play, an attendance decline and the Bryan Stow fan-beating scandal in recent years as well as controversy over previous owner Frank McCourt's financial situation.
"We're going to work hard to bring them a winning team and a great fan experience," Johnson told the ESPN program. The 2012 baseball season officially opens Wednesday, though two teams played games last week in Japan.
The owner's box has traditionally been occupied by the likes of oil tycoons, real estate barons, old-money industrialists and high-tech millionaires. Even in these times of athletes making eight-figure salaries, it's rare for professional players to move from the playing field to the executive suite, observes Richard Davies, a sports historian and professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Among those who have made the jump: Michael Jordan (part owner of the Charlotte Bobcats), Mario Lemieux (who has a major piece of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins) and Nolan Ryan (principal owner of baseball's Texas Rangers).
There's also historical precedent. Connie Mack, a onetime journeyman catcher, owned baseball's Philadelphia Athletics for more than 50 years; he was also the team's manager and primary executive. George Halas, who played a handful of games for baseball's New York Yankees, took a job with the A.E. Staley starch company of Decatur, Illinois, after his hardball career ended in 1919; a year later he took control of the company-sponsored football team, which became the NFL's Chicago Bears. His family still owns the team today.
No guarantee of success
Johnson may find out that big-league experience counts for little in his new profession.
Mack had some good runs as A's owner -- particularly in the beginning -- but his teams suffered greatly after post-championship fire sales in 1915 and the early 1930s. In the last 20 years of his ownership, the team finished last 10 times. In those days, there were no multimillion-dollar television revenue streams to provide a rebuilding nest egg; the team almost went bankrupt in the early '50s.
But it's not like all the 21st-century perks that teams get these days -- TV money, luxury suites, sponsorships -- have helped some players turn their athletic expertise into ownership triumph.
The legendary hockey player Wayne Gretzky became a part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2001. Even after Gretzky took over as head coach, the team struggled. It declared bankruptcy in 2009, and Gretzky stepped down as coach and owner that fall.
Jordan bought the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats in 2010. On Sunday, with the team in the midst of a horrific season, Jordan put out a statement that he was "100% committed to building the Bobcats into a contender" and has "no plans to sell the team."
Johnson's already a proven businessman, having built Magic Johnson Enterprises into a $500 million-plus operation with movie theaters and Starbucks franchises, according to Forbes. He said he's committed to being the public face of the team and making the Dodgers the talk of Southern California again.
"I will have my office at Dodger Stadium. ... I'll be doing the community, getting out, selling the Dodger brand," he told "Baseball Tonight."
Mike Veeck, who's a partner in seven minor league baseball teams, said he thinks Johnson can provide exactly the magic the storied Dodgers need.
"They couldn't pick a better front guy," Veeck said. "I think this is a tremendous opportunity for both the fans and for him. I think baseball (fans) are clamoring for a face -- for somebody they feel who is on their side or one of them."
Can Johnson just use his magic?
Veeck knows something about bringing fans to the ballpark, using a "fun is good" mantra for such promotions as groundskeepers dragging the field in drag, massage-giving nuns and "VHS Demolition Night."
He's the son of the late, legendary major league owner Bill Veeck, who gave Chicago's old Comiskey Park its exploding scoreboard, hired 3-foot-7-inch Eddie Gaedel for an at-bat and won pennants with the 1948 Cleveland Indians and 1959 Chicago White Sox. The '48 Indians set an attendance record that was surpassed just twice in the next 30 years -- both times by the Dodgers.
Mike Veeck urges Johnson to listen to the fans by hosting town hall meetings and making frequent appearances.
"Now we have a chance for a legitimate hero on several planes to say, 'Let's get in this together,' " he said. "The most important thing is to involve them."
And once the Dodgers have re-established a customer-friendly reputation, then Johnson can tap into the benefits of Hollywood, Veeck suggested. "We're celebrity-driven. At first blush I'd name every night of the season after some (star) and almost dare them not to come!" he laughed.
There are never any guarantees in sports, of course. The Dodgers may have been overpriced, hurting future bottom lines. The ownership group dynamics may change. (When he bought the New York Yankees, George Steinbrenner said he'd be a hands-off owner; years later, one of his minority partners, John McMullen, offered the classic observation that "there is nothing quite so limited as being a limited partner of George Steinbrenner's.")
More directly, the crosstown Angels had a huge off-season, signing marquee player Albert Pujols, and have blanketed Southern California with billboards. On the other hand, the Dodgers are coming off a third-place finish and aren't expected to make the playoffs this season.
But, said Veeck, don't count Johnson out.
"His name is synonymous with fun and laughter," he added. "I'd love to have that gig, to promote fun and laughter with someone named Magic."