A fox in the bullpen?

Murdoch on the fence about a Dodgers bid

NEW YORK — News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch left the door ajar for a News Corp. bid for control of the L.A. Dodgers Thursday, saying he was “hesitating” about whether to pursue the team.

Murdoch told an Intl. Radio & Television Society luncheon at a Gotham hotel that while News Corp. was unlikely to pursue acquisition of sports teams, he did not want to rule out the concept.

“I would expect the answer will be ‘no,’ but I am not saying that absolutely,” Murdoch said. Asked later to elabo-rate, he said “I am hesitating. I haven’t thought about it yet.”

Murdoch indicated that issues of both price and synergy were important in his thinking. The Dodgers, which were put up for sale by the O’Malley family earlier this month, are expected to fetch at least $300 million, and specula-tion has centered on a range of media companies or entertainment industry execs as possible buyers.

Dubious precedents

Murdoch’s hesitation may reflect the questions raised in recent years when media companies like Comcast Corp. and Cablevision Systems have acquired sports teams. Comcast bought a majority stake in the Philadelphia Flyers hockey team and the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team last year, promising to “create super-regional cable programming services anchored by the sports teams,” although the rationale for the deal was closely questioned at the time. Cablevision and ITT bought the New York Knicks and Rangers as part of its purchase of Madison Square Garden in 1994, which also included the MSG cable sports channel.

In addition to the heavy sports coverage on the Fox web, News last year entered into a joint venture with Liberty Media on regional sports channels. Natwest Securities analyst Gary Farber said Fox’s western sports network and possibly News’ Sky Latino satellite TV venture in South America could exploit ownership of the Dodgers.

Pigskin legitimacy

Additionally, Murdoch told the IRTS lunch that Fox’s move into sports programming in the past couple of years — beginning with its acquisition of the NFL broadcast rights in early 1994 — had “made us a network.”

“Four years ago, we were still struggling to get to seven nights a week,” Murdoch said. He also said the sports channel joint venture with Liberty would not necessarily “be the best business … (but) it’s a very important brand-ing effort.”

In answer to a question, Murdoch told the lunch that his recent sparring partner, Time Warner deputy chairman Ted Turner, would be “very welcome” at the Super Bowl, which is being broadcast by Fox. “I have known Ted for several years now and treated him as a friend, and I would love to have him there. It would make for a very inter-esting game,” Murdoch said.

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