PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There are things that a faceless corporation can get away with in the sports world that the average owner just can't.
Say what you will about Marc Cuban and his Dallas Mavericks, the Steinbrenner family and its New York Yankees, Jerry Jones and his Dallas Cowboys or even Donald Sterling and what are only temporarily his Los Angeles Clippers. With each of those faces comes personal accountability. When players are signed or cut, the team wins or loses, something loathsome is said or a franchise move is threatened, fans and local governments know who's behind it and who's accountable. Liberty Media (LMCA) offers Atlanta none of that as its baseball team steamrolls its way toward a move to the suburbs.
The Atlanta Braves once had that face of public accountability in Ted Turner. The cable magnate bought the team in 1976 and used the Braves as one of the driving forces behind his TBS network. In the 1980s, even kids in towns hundreds of miles away from the nearest Major League Baseball team new who Braves slugger Dale Murphy was and could watch Cy Young Award-winning pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz tear through lineups and dominate the National League.
After 1996, when Time Warner (TWX) bought Turner Broadcasting and all its holdings, Ted Turner's role with the Braves went from a one-day stint as manager in the '70s to that of a hands-on owner in the '80s to figurehead in the late-'90s and early 2000s. By 2005, it was just about nil as Time Warner began shopping the Braves to potential buyers. Liberty picked them up -- along with a publishing company and $980 million in cash, for nearly $1.5 billion in Liberty stock options. At the time, Braves officials said they believed Liberty would play no active role in day-to-day operations and would serve only as the capital behind the team.
That was certainly one way to look at it. When the Braves began griping about the location of Turner Field -- away from Atlanta's MARTA subway line, far from fans in the Northern suburbs and in a neighborhood that trolls commenting on stories about the ballpark had no problem throwing around the loaded term "ghetto" to describe -- nearby Cobb County decided that it would have a run at the team. Offering a new $630 million stadium complete with a surrounding faux neighborhood of hotels, shops and other amenities, Cobb County received the Braves' blessing to wrest the team into the suburbs and even farther away from transportation options.
When Cobb Commissioners voted unanimously to devote $392 million to building a new Braves stadium, scheduled to open in 2017, they only allowed 12 people to discuss that funding. All 12 spoke in favor of it, as business interests packed the meeting with like-minded supporters who lined up five hours before the event began. With their blessing, commissioners approved an operating agreement allowing the county to borrow up to $397 million -- even though the $400 million in private investment for the fake Braves wonderland surrounding the stadium is in no way guaranteed by the team.
Keep in mind that this is a county that cried poverty a year ago as it cut 186 teaching positions and forced the teachers who stayed to take a five-day unpaid furlough.
You can point the finger of blame at Cobb County, at Atlanta for blowing its hotel-motel tax money on a new stadium for the National Football League's Atlanta Falcons or even at Braves President and Lead Figurehead John Scheurholz. However, none of them twisted the Braves' arms and forced them from Turner Field, where they've been playing only since 1997. None of them started scouting locations and making moving plans. None of them packed a county meeting with $400 million on the line.
Who would have the power to hire line-standers and impose its will like that? As Comcast (CMCSA) proved during Federal Communications Commission hearings in 2008, it isn't beyond the pale for a media conglomerate to massage the political system and stack the deck in its favor while largely avoiding public scrutiny for it.
The Braves are only one of Liberty Media's holdings. It owns McNeil/Lehrer Productions, QVC, Evite and law enforcement GPS company TruePosition outright, while holding big stakes in Live Nation (LYV) (26%), Charter Communications (CHTR) (27%) and Sirius XM (SIRI) (49%). It's portfolio is big, its assets are valued at nearly $27 billion and its chain of command leading up to chairman John Malone and chief executive Gregory Maffei is circuitous.
It will never face the same scrutiny Cablevision did from New York Rangers and Knicks fans before its spun off Madison Square Garden Company (MSG) because it lacks an easy villain like James Dolan. It will never be as loathed as Adelphia was by Sabres fans in Buffalo because it lacks outright evildoers like convicted criminal John Rigas and his sons. It will never be as favored as Comcast was in Philadelphia when it owned a stake of the Allen Iverson-era 76ers because it doesn't have an incredibly public business partner like Pat Croce.
Because of that facelessness, it will never receive any credit for the Braves' success, but it will rarely fall under scrutiny for its shortcomings. It operates in a world largely without consequences that's shielded from public wrath through multiple layers of holdings.
If owners of U.S. sports franchises want $400 million in tax dollars -- which, by the way, is about four times the amount of public money that's going into the San Francisco 49ers' new football stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. -- without any of the protest and scrutiny that comes with it, they'd be wise to bury themselves within a company like Liberty and shield themselves with its logo. The returns on that public investment can multiply at will while the corporate owners collect in anonymity.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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