The Snake Pit
Last week Rupert Murdoch announced that he had bid $350 million to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose games would help fill the hours of cable and satellite television time on his networks in the U.S., Asia and around the globe. The Australian-born Murdoch is no stranger to the bare-knuckled ways of business, having broken the backs of Britain's print unions in the 1980s as he built his multibillion-dollar media empire. Should he be approved as a major league owner, however, he will find himself part of a faltering industry whose captains can compete with anyone in the world when it comes to animus and ego.
To wit: the lawsuit filed May 6 by the New York Yankees' George Steinbrenner against his fellow owners, charging that they had broken antitrust laws by attempting to block a 10-year, $95 million exclusive sponsorship deal the Yankees struck with Adidas in March. (Adidas is also a plaintiff in the suit.) Baseball's executive council opposed the deal, ruling that all licensing agreements must be approved by Major League Properties, the teams' licensing arm. In his 91-page suit Steinbrenner saved his most pointed language for the Milwaukee Brewers, noting that they "have gone 14 years, the longest of any current club, without winning their division." Less successful teams like Milwaukee, the suit says, "have embarked on a concerted and collective effort to achieve in off-field alliances and committees what they have been unable to achieve in the marketplace and on the field."
The executive council responded to Steinbrenner's suit by voting 9-0 to suspend him from its ranks. The Boss's smug perspective—in his suit, he doesn't mention that before 1996 the Yankees had themselves gone 14 years without a division title—did not endear him to his brethren, but it no doubt felt like a slap to Brewers owner Bud Selig, who is also acting commissioner. In '95 it was Selig, as chairman, who had been instrumental in paving the way for Steinbrenner's return to the executive council after the Boss had served a three-year suspension from baseball for making a $40,000 payment to self-described gambler Howard Spira.
Selig, of course, has been a combatant in baseball's internecine feuding; he helped oust the last commissioner, Fay Vincent, almost five years ago. Steinbrenner's suit threatens to deepen the internal chaos by challenging baseball's antitrust exemption, which has allowed the owners to control franchise movement and discourage competition from rival baseball leagues. It is quite possible that Steinbrenner, by pursuing his own agenda, could destabilize all of baseball.
Keep Hope Alive
Bill Futterer, a 46-year-old sports marketer from Rockingham, N.C., is perhaps the first president of a storied team to run everything but the team. Hired by the NFL last July, as he says, "to protect the tradition and logos and history of the Browns franchise, and to remind Clevelanders that football will be back," he has a staff of 14 and an office in the Browns' old training site at Berea, Ohio. Until the league matches Cleveland with an owner through expansion or relocation—which it promises to do in time for the new Browns to take the field in 1999—Futterer is in charge of getting things in order. That includes setting up concession, media and marketing deals, selling permanent seat licenses and approving details on the new Cleveland Stadium, for which ground was broken on May 15.
Futterer also has a mandate to psych up fans, a task he pursues tirelessly. Since coming to Cleveland, he has made 168 speeches and public appearances, showing up at everything from church functions to neighborhood parades. He takes the high road, though, rarely invoking the despised name of erstwhile owner Art Modell, who moved the old Browns to Baltimore after the 1995 season and rechristened them the Ravens.
Under Futterer's leadership the Browns also sponsor tailgate parties, cookouts, player reunions and a Web page, which counts down days until the 1999 season opener. "At first everyone was just angry," says Futterer. "They hated Modell, hated the sport—everything was negative. But now we're making strides. It's amazing what a few cookouts can do."
In the Wake of the Flood