Air Ball: How Disney Almost Owned the L.A. Lakers

     May 18, 2020

Last night saw the end of The Last Dance, ESPN’s hugely hyped, wildly popular and completely brilliant documentary series about Michael Jordan’s final season. It also means that ESPN, one part of the vast Disney empire that has really been feeling the pinch since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, will go back to broadcasting cornhole games, cherry-pit-spitting competitions and Tetris tournaments while they wait for normalcy to return. It’s also enough to make you think about how Disney, in its efforts to expand its competitive hold on the sports world (and to have something to broadcast on its newly acquired ABC/Capital Cities channels, including ESPN) made a bid to purchase the Los Angeles Lakers. The attempt was one of the company’s rare air balls in the years before they were known for high-profile acquisitions and was such an embarrassment that it’s rarely – if ever – talked about.

When Disney CEO Michael Eisner appointed Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz as president of Walt Disney Studios in 1995, it marked one of the more tumultuous periods for the company. Ovitz’s appointment was immediately following the radioactive resignation of Jeffrey Katzenberg and the sudden, unexpected death of Disney’s former president and COO Frank Wells and coincided with a period of extreme scrutiny, over the failing Euro Disneyland resort in Paris and the recent purchase of ABC/Capital Cities in a deal worth $19 billion in cash and stock (and this was 1995 money).

disney-logoOvitz seemed like a savvy play: he was well connected in Hollywood and could put together projects that felt exciting and new, full of movie stars and top creative talent. But from the beginning things seemed to be amiss. According to Ovitz in his recent memoir Who Is Michael Ovitz?, while working on the press release to announce his hiring, he already had misgivings. While at Eisner’s Bel Air home for the sign off, he snuck away and called his wife. “No matter what I do, I’m going to fail in this job. I think I just made the biggest mistake of my ilfe,” Ovitz told his wife. Still, he conferred with confidants and decided to make the best of the situation. “Eisner was working on a memoir with a writer named Tony Schwartz … he told Schwartz exactly what I’d told my wife the night before – that he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life,” Ovitz said in his memoir. “He wondered if he could take his offer back. I wish he had.”

By all accounts, Ovitz’s 14 months at the Walt Disney Company were nothing short of disastrous. He was conversely micro-managed and shut out by Eisner (Ovitz said Eisner was responsible for “cutting me off from the boar and boxing me in from executives below”), and partners within the company, like Joe Roth, openly worried about Ovitz aligning himself with talent from his former CAA and pushing those projects forward. Disney was notorious for making profitable movies out of slightly shopworn stars and filmmakers; Ovitz wanted nothing but the biggest and the best. (Disney also disliked the “packages” that Ovitz had become infamous for.)

Ovitz busied himself. “I put forward new ideas in publishing, music, digital technology, and international operations,” he said in his memoir. He claims he had established deals with Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton and Stephen King (“three of the four bestselling authors in the world”) for a deal that would include exclusive rights to books and the movies and TV shows based on those books. He attempted to buy publishing houses and wooed Janet Jackson from Virgin to Disney’s own Hollywood Records with a lavish, multimillion dollar deal. All of these ideas were shut down by Eisner. Roth was so bored – and so left to his own devices – that at one point he attempted to mediate an agreement between Disney and Katzenberg that would have been way cheaper than the $270 million that the company wound up paying the former executive.

At one point, he set his sights on the Los Angeles Lakers.

the-mighty-ducks-disney-lakers

Image via Buena Vista Pictures

While in 2020 this idea might sound insane, it wasn’t that far-fetched at the time. In 1993 Disney founded the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim, California, their area (nicknamed The Pond) located just east of the Disneyland resort. (The team was named after Disney’s 1992 hit.) In 1996, Disney would purchase the California Angels and would rename them the Anaheim Angels; their stadium was even closer to the Disneyland resort complex than The Pond. Not only would these sporting endeavors give ABC and ESPN something to broadcast, but it also fit comfortably into the company’s synergistic marketing approach, allowing for elaborate tie-in possibilities. And during this time Imagineering, the covert group responsible for Disney’s parks and resorts, was being farmed out for work that had nothing to do with attractions or hotels or theme parks. They had designed the new ABC headquarters in Times Square and worked on projects for LAX and the Autry Museum. They had also designed The Pond and oversaw an elaborate, hugely expensive renovation of the Angels’ stadium, which they then saddled with the incredibly Imagineer-y name Edison International Field of Anaheim. It’s hard to imagine what kind of elaborate coliseum the artists and engineers at Imagineering would have cooked up for the Lakers and what technological innovations they would have pushed through to accomplish it.

Ovitz made his plea to L.A. Lakers owner Jerry Buss. After meeting with the Buss, who had owned the team since 1979 (he purchased the team in a massive deal that also included the Los Angeles Kings hockey team and The Forum in a then-record deal of nearly $70 million), where he pitched his idea, he followed up with a letter. “Jerry, the climate for a change has never been better,” Ovitz said in the letter. “Our broadcast holdings and worldwide marketing ability could transform the Lakers from L.A.’s most popular team to the world’s most recognized team.” In the letter Ovitz said that Disney was “committed to continuing our course of a purchase of the Los Angeles Laker organization.”

It’s unclear what, exactly, happened with those plans. Considering how Ovitz was treated at the company, his attempts at a multimillion-dollar purchase of one of the league’s most iconic institutions might have simply been forgotten about. “For the most part I ran in place,” Ovitz said in his memoir. “My directives were ignored; my suggestions vanished down the memory hole. More than one person at Disney later told me that Eisner went around me to everybody who mattered.” Later, Ovitz described his time at the company: “I was a lame duck awaiting the ax.”

Los Angeles Lakers LogoIn fact, this episode in the company’s history has never really been talked about. The Lakers attempt shows up briefly in Kim Masters’ The Keys to the Kingdom, but is wholly absent from James Stewart’s Disney War (the definitive account of this time in the company’s history) and both Ovitz and Eisner’s memoirs. The more overt effort to secure the Lakers, and the snippets of Ovitz’s letters to Buss, were only released in 2004 as part of a stockholder lawsuit brought against the Disney board for allowing Ovitz’s $140 million in severance (they think Eisner should have fired Ovitz for cause). Investment lawyer Steven Schulman attempted to show, during the trial, that Ovitz was “ineffective as an executive.” His evidence was the failed Laker bid. (He also made a similarly disastrous go at bringing the Seattle Seahawks to downtown Los Angeles; it was also brought up in court.) What’s unclear is what kind of executive Ovitz ever really was or ever really could have been, considering what a short leash Eisner had him on. He might have been the wrong fit for the job at Disney but he was also not equipped or encouraged in any meaningful way; during his brief tenure, he was systematically denied success. Couple that with his inexperience at running a company and Disney’s tenuous standing in both financial and creative circles, and it was a recipe for disaster.

Ultimately, Disney’s investment in professional sports teams would fizzle. In 2005, Disney would sell the Mighty Ducks to Orange County billionaires Henry and Susan Samueli, who changed the name to the Anaheim Ducks, putting a fair amount of distance between themselves and Disney, if not geographically than at least name-wise. The same year they would also sell the Anaheim Angels. The new owner changed their name to the Los Angeles Angels, which prompted litigation from the City of Anaheim. For a while they had a suffix attached (“of Anaheim”) attached to their name, but it’s since been dropped. More recently in 2016 Disney CEO Bob Iger, in his capacity outside of the Disney company, made a bid to bring the Chargers and Rams to Carson but was summarily rejected. (They would instead head to Inglewood.) But there’s still a connection to professional basketball – the NBA Experience, a kind of shopping, dining, interactive experience at the Disney Springs shopping complex in Orlando, Florida, recently opened.

So while the saga of Jordan’s final season might have come to an end on ESPN and with no live sports in sight, maybe some enterprising documentarian will look into one of the oddest and least-reported moments in Disney’s fabled history. The failure of the company to buy the L.A. Lakers isn’t just notable as a juxtaposition to all of the truly incredible deals they’ve secured over the years. It also lets you imagine a world where, since the mid-1990s, one of the NBA’s most established franchises had been teamed with one of the most recognizable brands. How that would have changed professional basketball – and professional sports as a whole – remains a tantalizing what-if.

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