iThe airwaves around Marseille have been buzzing for the past several hours. Finally, at long last, the club has been sold. The buyer? Frank McCourt, president of McCourt Group, and former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers (baseball team). The Boston native was announced this morning as the new owner of Olympique de Marseille, to the surprise of many. So, who is he?
Frank McCourt (right), with Marguerita Louis-Dreyfus (left), and Marseille mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin (center). Photo credit – latimes.com and Betrand Langlois.
Frank McCourt Jr., owner and president of McCourt Group, made his fortune in real estate development, and more specifically, parking lot development. Achieving great success in his hometown of Boston, McCourt’s fortune grew, allowing him to delve into sports ownership. It is in sports ownership that McCourt’s notoriety grew. However, even today, his reputation as a sports owner is extremely controversial.
The Dodgers Saga
After failing to buy his hometown team, the Red Sox, in 2004, McCourt set out to buy another baseball team: the Los Angeles Dodgers. Acquiring the team in 2004 for $430 million, McCourt aggressively shook up the organization to achieve success. While raising ticket prices to help finance the purchase of the team, McCourt brought in Paul DePodesta as General Manager. DePodesta was known for sharing the unique and eccentric baseball philosophy of Billy Bean (portrayed in the book/movie, Moneyball). DePodesta made several big trades in an effort to build the team in his vision. However, the team never lived up to expectations.
McCourt brought in several other managers and personnel, but the team never reached the World Series. His fortunes worsened when the team came under investigation by MLB, over concerns about the club’s finances. Soon after the investigation began, MLB decided to take over the club’s finances, and file for bankruptcy. While fiercely opposing the decision, McCourt eventually agreed to sell the team. The team was sold for $2 billion dollars, a record price for any sports team.
McCourt’s tenure at the Dodgers ended in a takeover by MLB, leading to a $2 billion sale of the team. Photo courtesy of the latimes.com
Despite his doomed tenure with the Dodgers, McCourt has seen success in other sports ventures, particularly the Los Angeles Marathon and the Global Champions Cup, an equestrian competition that operates around the world. However, OM is an altogether different beast, which is the reason why people are concerned, especially after the Dodgers saga.
Why OM Fans Should Be Optimistic
1. He is a Boston native
While this may seem to be a rather ridiculous reason, anyone who knows Boston will understand what I mean. Boston is a proud, tough, port city with one of the biggest sports cultures in the world. Boston and all of New England live and breathe their sports teams, and are considered some of the most passionate fans in the US. Despite its small size, Boston shares an intense sports rivalry with none other than New York City, where in each sport, New York-Boston games attract national attention.
Does this sound familiar? The profile of Boston is very similar to Marseille, in the way the culture of sport and the city blend together. Both cities are fiercely proud of their sports teams, which are part of their identity. His Boston heritage will allow McCourt to have a better understanding of what OM means to Marseille fans. My biggest fear with a foreign owner has always been their failure to understand the link between the team and the city. Mishandling the relationship between the club and the fans can prove disastrous, as demonstrated by Marguerita Louis-Drefyus. Perhaps, his Boston roots will help McCourt relate to les Marseillais?
2. He has learned from his Dodgers experience
While his failure with the Dodgers will understandably raise huge red flags, one can also see it as a lesson that McCourt has learned from. The aggressive upheaval and unsuccessful management of the Dodgers will have included harsh lessons in how to oversee a massive sports organization. These lessons could (and should) be remembered as he begins his reign in Marseille. The club has a history of poor management and financial (or all-around) turmoil, and McCourt must be cautious and measured with every decision. He is playing with fire by entering the Marseille fray.
Perhaps, this OM aventure can be a moment of redemption for McCourt. Ridiculed and hated by Los Angeles and all of baseball, perhaps moving into a Ligue and sport less-scrutinized and known to American fans and media will allow him to apply himself in this role and correct mistakes he has made in the past. In a unique project, and a big opportunity to compete with Paris in Ligue 1, McCourt could quietly achieve success, away from his bad reputation in the US. However, it is not as if the French media are soft. L’Équipe are certainly licking their lips at all of the storylines about to unfold…
He Can Tap Into the American Market
Despite his poor reputation state-side, McCourt’s arrival will certainly draw American soccer fans (very passionate about European leagues) towards Marseille. While the US is very implicated in the Premier League, the French Ligue (after PSG) is poorly understood. The main issue is that it is very difficult to see the Ligue on TV, and there are not as many big names players. If OM improves, the PSG-OM rivalry could entice US soccer fans to pay closer attention to Ligue 1, following the model of La Liga (on a smaller scale). Also, the French Ligue has an opportunity where more parity between PSG, OM, OL, and AS Monaco could lead to highly competitive and dramatic seasons, yielding higher TV ratings. The Premier League has proved that higher competition yields higher TV revenues, and McCourt’s marketing towards the US could help move Ligue 1 towards that direction. This is a big, “maybe”, but certainly possible. An easy way for McCourt to bring in more American fans is very simple: sign an American player, and play him often. A perfect example of this, was Michael Bradley’s transfer to AS Roma, a club run by an American.
Michael Bradley, an American, was signed to AS Roma by an American owner. Photo source – gazettaworld.com
3. He Bought the Club
OM is in a rut, as of this moment. The club has been downsized over the past 5 years. The fans are near mutiny. The team is made up of loaned players and few big names. To sum it up, the passion has temporarily left the Vélodrome. With the current state of affairs, most buyers would stay far away. The club needs a lot of investment, and the toxic relationship with the fans bears with it a lot of risk of failure.
The fact that McCourt saw enough in the team to buy it shows that he believes he can turn the club around. The warning signs were visible, but he still went forward and made a bid. I believe this sign of courage (or insanity) proves that he deserves a chance to turn the club around. The past is the past, and will always be there, but I am willing to give McCourt a chance to turn the club around. If he surrounds himself with the right people, the club could reach new heights.
While I am cautious, I feel a small sense of optimism for OM, that I have not felt since Bielsa resigned (I still can’t think of Bielsa without tearing up). Only time will tell with McCourt, but we cannot judge him till we see him in action. Let us hope the Américain can turn it around. Allez l’OM ! Aux armes, les gars !