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FOX WANTS OUT, BUT WHO'S BUYING? WITH SNAGS GALORE, DODGERS' SALE WON'T BE A HOME RUN.

Byline: BRIAN DOHN

The relative peace and tranquility the Dodgers enjoyed in 2002 after four years of mayhem is over, and it won't return until well after News Corp. sells the historically rich franchise.

The only known bidder at this time is former Madison Square Garden boss Dave Checketts, who had the New York Knicks and New York Rangers under his jurisdiction before he was ousted.

Checketts reportedly offered $650 million for the Dodgers and Dodger Stadium, but the bid came with several twists that have made business analysts and baseball officials skeptical about it becoming reality.

First, Checketts has yet to reveal investors to fund such an endeavor. Second, Checketts wants one of the Fox Sports cable stations in Los Angeles to be included in any such deal before News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch's tumultuous ownership run comes to an end.

One thing is certain, though: Murdoch wants out so he can raise cash to make the $4.5 billion bid for satellite television provider DirecTV or Echostar. Murdoch is so ready to get out of the baseball business that New York investment bank Allen & Co. was retained to find a buyer.

In 1998, Murdoch bought the Dodgers from Peter O'Malley for $311 million to build a cable network on the West Coast before competitor Disney could do the same. It worked; Disney, owner of the Angels and Mighty Ducks, canceled plans to form an ESPN West channel.

Murdoch's son, Lachlan, left little to be debated regarding News Corp.'s future with the Dodgers during an interview on ``Charlie Rose'' last week.

``With the Dodgers, strategically it was the right thing to own the Dodgers while we were building our cable (assets/sports channels),'' said Lachlan, News Corp.'s deputy chief operating officer. ``I think that strategic imperative has passed now.''

A sale, of course, also likely would mean Bob Daly's tenure as team chairman is over.

Former commissioner Peter Ueberroth is also a psuedo-candidate to purchase the Dodgers, but he couldn't muster enough financial backing to buy the Angels at a much lower price.

Another possible buyer is real-estate mogul Alan Casden, but other baseball owners might frown on him. Casden has legal problems after a jury awarded more than $250 million to defrauded investors.

The Dodgers said they lost nearly $100 million the past two seasons, fueling Rupert Murdoch's desire to dump the franchise. It doesn't make for an attractive target for many potential buyers, and Murdoch's holding of the television rights and station is another stumbling block.

Murdoch isn't eager to sell either Fox Sports Net or Fox Sports Net 2, which air Dodgers games. Only recently did the stations begin turning a profit, and business analysts said it didn't make strategic sense for Murdoch to sell the stations and turn around and purchase DirecTV, since that would provide programming, as well.

``Basically, (Murdoch) has got a good number of (sports) stations across the country,'' Janco Partners analyst Mathew Harrigan said. ``It's a distribution platform. With DirecTV, Fox Sports would be featured prominently.''

Major League Baseball has not been notified of an impending sale, but the office of the commissioner becomes involved only when a potential buyer asks to see a team's financial data.

Questions abound about Checketts' ability to put together an investment group. After being ousted by the Dolan family last year amid the Rangers' and Knicks' struggles, he tried to form a group to buy the Boston Red Sox. That fell short and the Red Sox were sold for $660 million, with New England Sports Network included in the deal since investors try to gain broadcast rights with the purchase of any ballclub.

``I would expect News Corp. wants to retain Fox Sports Net and have a long-term contract with the Dodgers and Angels,'' Kagan World Media analyst John Mansell said. ``A few years ago, it looked like (Murdoch) was pretty intent on holding onto both (stations), and I don't think that has changed much.''

Dodgers officials said talk of the imminent sale hasn't distracted them, but they are aware of it.

``It really hasn't affected anything we've done in our preparation for the upcoming season,'' Dodgers general manager Dan Evans said. ``It's business as usual. I have no control over the situation, so I'm not going to worry about it. It's not an issue I can do anything about. It's how you perform. That's what we'll be evaluated on by Bob Daly or anybody else. We're trying to do everything to win. I was in the office with (president and COO) Bob Graziano the other day, and we must have talked 10 times, and (the sale) never came up.''

Dodgers manager Jim Tracy said he will address the ownership uncertainty next month at spring training.

``We have no control over what's going on with the sale of the club,'' Tracy said. ``I don't think any of us are going to put a bid in for it, and no one is going to ask us our opinion on anything, so why should we concern ourselves with it? If the ballclub is sold during the season, then obviously it raises questions. In the meantime, it is of no concern of ours.''
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 26, 2003
Words:867
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