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Murdoch set to add baseball team to empire

Tim Cornwell on the tycoon's bid to buy a part of history
Los Angeles - Rupert Murdoch is poised to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, in a move that adds a signature name in US sports to his global portfolio and promises to tweak the nose of his public enemy number one, US television mogul Ted Turner.

The Dodgers' owner, Peter O'Malley, confirmed yesterday that he was in the fifth of an expected six months of negotiations to sell the team to Murdoch's News Corporation for a reported $350-$400m (pounds 213-pounds 243m).

The O'Malley family has owned the team since the 1950s, and commentators called the sale the end of an era in baseball. Mayor Richard Riordan waxed enthusiastic about the deal, helped perhaps by the $1m that Murdoch has donated to the coffers of the California Republican Party. He told the Los Angeles Times that Murdoch had been "a very loyal resident of Los Angeles for a number of years now", and was "a very quality human being."

The sale underlines the role that sports programming has played in the build-up of Mr Murdoch's global media empire. In the US, as in Britain, the Australian-born Mr Murdoch has bought up the most prestigious sporting events and used them to trumpet his television stations. The deal is likely to be finalised next month, when it will be presented at a meeting of baseball owners, who under league rules must vote to approve it by a 75 per cent majority. It would be by far the highest price ever paid for a baseball team. Beyond confirming that negotiations are under way, News International spokesmen have declined to comment.

Peter O'Malley's father moved the Dodgers to their current home from Brooklyn, New York, almost 40 years ago. He ran it in a family style, keeping seat prices low. But in the last ten years, international media conglomerates have been snapping up the few remaining family-run baseball teams. Walt Disney Co, one of News International's major commercial competitors, owns the Anaheim Angels.

The Chicago Tribune newspaper group has the Chicago Cubs. The Atlanta Braves baseball team is the pride and joy of CNN boss Ted Turner, who last year compared Murdoch to Hitler in a very public personal rivalry. It is now part of Time-Warner, into which Mr Turner folded his television interests in a merger. The news broke just as Murdoch's Fox broadcasting network celebrated its first ten years, in which the upstart fourth US network has shoved its way into the ranks of old-time heavyweights NBC, ABC and CBS.

Fox fared well with such series as The X-Files and Beverly Hills 90210. But it also used the broadcast rights of Sunday afternoon football games, acquired for a vast sum, to draw viewers, just as BSkyB used exclusive sports rights to build its pay-TV business in Britain. Fox also broadcasts major league baseball games. Along with the prestigious and lucrative Dodgers franchise, Murdoch is also promised prime real estate at bargain prices. It includes 300 acres around the stadium near central Los Angeles, as well as baseball complexes in Florida, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.

There is speculation that Murdoch could use the land for a second football or basketball stadium. Murdoch has reportedly been trying to buy a stake in the LA Lakers basketball team, and if he succeeded in bringing a professional football team to Los Angeles, he would become a local hero.

Sporting world's glittering prize

The rich and famous of Los Angeles were itching to buy a piece of the Dodgers after the team's long-time owner, Peter O'Malley, announced in January that he was looking for a buyer. Rupert Murdoch's vast financial clout quickly dwarfed such pretenders as actor Kevin Costner and celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro.

America's best known celebrity owner is CNN founder Ted Turner. He has delighted in accepting trophies won by the Atlanta Braves. Last year, when Mr Murdoch was enraged by Mr Turner's attempt to block cable broadcast access for his Fox News Channel, a rival to CNN, he sent a light plane buzzing over the Braves' Atlanta stadium, flashing messages to warn him off. Now Murdoch can take the battle on to the field.