Ovitz trial shows the games showbiz plays

Studios, like sports, deal with high priced superstars, pressure on management

A HIGH-PRICED SUPERSTAR asks for a lucrative signing bonus. Later, when he doesn’t fulfill expectations amid clashing egos, management subtly tries to manipulate a competing outfit into picking him up.

No, this isn’t former Lakers Gary Payton, Shaquille O’Neal or some underperforming relief pitcher, but scenes from Michael Ovitz’s short-lived tenure as second in command at the Walt Disney Co.

The parallels between Hollywood and bigtime sports have been evident for years. In each realm pressure inevitably arises to replace retiring Hall of Famers, and a two-tiered system has developed separating superstars from journeymen. Moreover, coaches (otherwise known as production or programming chiefs) tend to get fired every few years, as owners seek a quick fix after (and sometimes during) a disappointing season.

Ongoing testimony from the Disney shareholder lawsuit regarding Ovitz’s hiring and firing provides stark reminders of how operating a studio can mirror running a ballclub, and maybe even why frustrating forays into sports ownership prompted News Corp. and Disney to eventually bail out.

At almost every turn, Ovitz’s narrative about his Disney tenure seems awash in sports metaphor — appropriately, perhaps, given his high-profile fondness for Laker games (where courtside seats represent their own form of product placement) and Disney’s stewardship of the Mighty Ducks and for a time the Anaheim Angels.

Ovitz arrived with a glossy reputation but never won over his teammates, who, based on his testimony, clearly resented him. When it became obvious the chemistry was off, Disney chairman Michael Eisner began hoping another franchise — namely, Sony — would sign Ovitz, taking his lucrative contract off the studio’s hands.

AS IN SPORTS, one faulty personnel move can trigger long-term problems. In fact, sports might be the only endeavor more vexing than Hollywood in terms of how painfully fragile success can be. The Boston Celtics, arguably, have never fully recovered since top draft pick Len Bias tragically died in 1986 of a drug overdose. Similarly, the untimely death of Frank Wells began the dominoes falling at Disney, including the Ovitz experiment.

After Ovitz’s arrival Disney saw key players leave, and the studio found itself lacking the bench strength it enjoyed into the early 1990s. With these high-stakes games, opening one door invariably means closing others, so if a choice doesn’t pan out the competition has a way of passing you by.

In that respect, while fascination with the shareholder suit owes something to the insider glimpse of Hollywood it offers, its resonance goes deeper because it’s such a familiar storyline — much like the drama surrounding the aforementioned O’Neal and Kobe Bryant’s inability to peacefully co-exist with the Lakers.

Faced with such oversized headaches, it’s no wonder Fox jettisoned the Dodgers and Disney sold the Angels despite the rush of a World Series victory. Rubbing elbows with stars is enticing, but when they don’t deliver there is only so much owners can do besides reshuffling the deck. In addition, Hollywood has at least displayed the sense to avoid crippling work stoppages in the last 15 years, which is more than can be said for basketball and hockey.

Of course, given the jaw-dropping money involved — inflated by conglomeration of big media and the spiraling cost of sports salaries, in part courtesy of big media rights fees — there’s not much patience for excuses, and past triumphs rapidly fade from memory.

Against that backdrop, it’s easier to see how even a one-time star player like Michael Ovitz can become just another free agent.

PUNT, PASS & PAY: Speaking of sports, I didn’t believe CBS and Fox for a second when they stated that they’re going to turn a profit on their combined $8 billion, six-year extension of NFL broadcast rights. Yet faced with losing pro football, it’s hard to question the logic behind even such a spine-shriveling deal.

In an era of fragmentation, football remains an unparalleled draw. Weekly ratings might have diminished a bit, but the playoff and Super Bowl games each network gains will surely reach enormous audiences, signifying a welcome throwback to broadcasting in its truest sense.

Just as the Olympics have been a boon to NBC, football puts bite into sometimes-toothless claims about network television’s unique power. In that context, the NFL renewals prove it’s possible to come out ahead in the long run even if you’re being thrown for a loss.

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