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An Ex-Owner of the Dodgers Takes Another Swing in Marseille

09/15/18 |
The New York Times |
Rory Smith
MONACO — Not long after Frank McCourt arrived at his luxury hotel here, there was a knock at the door. A valet had returned with a newly pressed shirt. McCourt, freshening up after an overnight trans-Atlantic flight, called out from the bathroom with an instruction to hang the shirt in the closet.

McCourt carried on with his ablutions. The valet, in that smooth, five-star silence, carefully slid the shirt onto the rail and, without seeing McCourt, prepared to slip out the door. As he was leaving, though, he could not help himself. “Allez l’O.M.,” the valet said, and vanished.

That sort of encounter is fairly standard in France, McCourt has discovered. Even before he completed his 2016 takeover of Olympique de Marseille, the country’s most popular, most fervidly followed, most compelling club, it had become abundantly clear just what he was getting into.

There was the time, for example, he attended a wedding in Provence — not long after he sold the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending a forgettable experience for all involved, and long before he was considering investing in French soccer — and talk turned to sports. “Being in that part of France, that meant Marseille,” he said.

Any part of France, really: While McCourt was working on the deal, he was introduced to a “huge” Marseille fan who had been born in Amiens, around 90 miles north of Paris, hundreds of miles from the Mediterranean. McCourt and the fan have stayed in touch on and off since then, even though both have quite a lot on their plate: Not long after McCourt bought Marseille, the fan, Emmanuel Macron, became the president of France.

That is the thing with Marseille fans: They are everywhere. They are the sort of fans McCourt says he prefers: intense, ardent and exacting. They are the sort of fan he was, for the Patriots and the Celtics and the rest of Boston’s teams, before he was an owner.

That applies all the way to the Élysée Palace. Macron has not offered McCourt advice, but his support is not an affectation, a piece of political posturing.

“He is a real fan,” McCourt said. “O.M. is something real, something in the blood.” He would not have it any other way. “It would be dreadful to have apathetic fans, or fair-weather fans,” he said.
His predecessors at Marseille might point out that passion has its drawbacks. There have been times in the recent past, an era of drift and disappointment, when the demands of the fans at Stade Velodrome have seemed to suffocate the team, when mutiny in the stands has reflected — or driven — chaos on the field.

McCourt does not see it like that. He sees those fans, that fire, not as some burden from Marseille’s past, but as the key to its future.

Buying In
In summer 2016, when Jacques-Henri Eyraud, an urbane French media executive, approached McCourt to invest in Marseille (the idea of buying the club outright came later), what captured the American’s imagination was the club’s “real history, the real pedigree, the real passion.”

It had a sleek, ultramodern stadium, worldwide renown, a fanatical fan base and a rich history, culminating in its victory in the Champions League in 1993. (Marseille is still the only French team to win club soccer’s biggest prize.) McCourt saw it, he said, as “one of the last, if not the last,” of European soccer’s blue-chip properties that was obtainable. “It is,” he said, “an epic brand.”

In a different light, though, it might have looked like a relic. Soccer has changed beyond all recognition since Marseille stood on top of the European game (though admittedly in a period in which the club was tainted by a match-fixing scandal). The landscape has been shifted not only by the influx of huge sums from Russian oligarchs and Gulf sovereign wealth funds, but also by globalization, by social media, by celebrity culture.

History and local fervor are no longer enough to attract viewers, to generate traction, to make a team famous. Increasingly, fans are drawn to individuals rather than collectives; more and more, what matters is star power, a trend best exemplified by Paris St.-Germain, Marseille’s most bitter rival.

In the French capital, P.S.G.’s Qatari backers have transformed an underperforming team into a European power by drafting in — at great expense — some of the most famous names in the world: most notably, of course, turning Neymar into the planet’s most expensive player and making Kylian Mbappé his deputy.

When McCourt bought Marseille, he vowed that the team would soon be able not only to compete with P.S.G.’s galaxy of stars, but to surpass it.

It seemed a quixotic idea, a romantic folly. Short of sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into acquiring talent, it was not apparent quite how that metamorphosis might happen. Marseille’s golden era was gone; P.S.G. and Monaco — the plaything of the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev — glittered now.

McCourt’s plan, though, was never to copy their methods. “We have a celebrity culture, driven by social media, that drives these numbers and eyeballs, but that is not O.M.,” he said. “Others are taking that course, but we need to make sure that O.M. is the star.”

He would still try to attract players, of course: Under his aegis, Marseille has moved to acquire players the caliber of Dimitri Payet, a French forward, and Kevin Strootman, a Dutch midfielder. Five members of Marseille’s squad were part of the France and Croatia teams that made the World Cup final in July. “More than anyone else,” McCourt said proudly.

But the focus — Marseille’s selling point — would be the one thing that Monaco and P.S.G. could not match: its fans. Though he is keen to praise the work that Nasser al-Khelaifi, P.S.G.’s president, has done, McCourt does not see the team as an obstacle to his ambition. It is, instead, a useful counterpoint.

“Marseille really is very naturally positioned as the opposite of clubs like P.S.G.,” he said. “Marseille is not a rich city. It is not Paris. We are, as a club, well behind the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, the two Manchester teams.

“Our project is to appeal to the fans in the city, first and foremost, but to fans all over the world, too — to people who want to support David over Goliath. We are the underdog.

“People from Marseille struggle. We fight, we overcome, we have passion, optimism, a generous spirit. That’s a familiar story for 99.9 percent of humanity. We want to be their team: That sounds like a marketing line, because every team wants to be everybody’s team, the people’s team, but not every team can be, not every team has it in their DNA. O.M. does.”

It is an approach that can work: Borussia Dortmund, in particular, has successfully positioned itself as a sort of insurgent antidote to Bayern Munich’s hegemony in the Bundesliga.

Whether it will work for Marseille remains open to question, but the initial signs have been encouraging. In McCourt’s first season as owner, the team finished fifth in Ligue 1; it had been 13th the season before.

The club was fourth last season, but just as important — 25 years after it won the Champions League — it reached the final of the Europa League, the club’s first major European final since 2004.

There is, for the first time in some time, a feel-good factor around Stade Velodrome. McCourt has reopened Marseille’s charitable arm, and he is hoping to turn the area around the stadium into a civic space. He is building a new youth academy near the Velodrome, in what he calls the “heart” of the city.

An Unexpected Rapport
McCourt was in Monte Carlo on the first Sunday in September to take in Marseille’s game against Monaco. Thousands of the club’s fans made the short journey along the French Riviera to the principality, spending the hours before the game gazing out at the yachts moored in Port Hercule, or filling the bars and cafes that line Port de Fontvieille.

An hour or so before kickoff, McCourt — in that fresh-pressed shirt — walked along the running track that surrounds the field at Stade Louis II. His route to his seat took him past the corner in which his club’s hard-core supporters had gathered. As he approached, they offered warm applause. He smiled, waved, and continued on his way.

At the outset, such a rapport between Marseille’s fans and its American owner might have seemed unlikely. After all, his only previous experience in sports had been with the Dodgers. McCourt bought the team in 2004, and it had a winning record under his stewardship — picking up three National League West titles — and he sold it in 2012 for a record $2.1 billion, but few fans had happy memories of his tenure.

By the time he left Los Angeles, the Dodgers had filed for bankruptcy, become embroiled as a bargaining chip in his acrimonious divorce, and surrendered the day-to-day running of the team to M.L.B. officials. McCourt, who had made his fortune in real estate, had even been accused of using team funds to pay for his lifestyle (an accusation he denied).

Marseille, meanwhile, is home to the most challenging set of fans in France, fans who had spent years protesting against the previous ownership group. Marseille even has an ultra group called Les Dodger’s. It might have looked, to some, like an unhappy omen.

That it has not proved to be is down, in part, to results: winning, as McCourt said, is “the objective of all this.”

But he deserves credit for Marseille’s improving so much, so quickly, something he attributes to lessons learned in Los Angeles.

“Without the Dodgers experience, being steward of a club like O.M. would have been very daunting,” he said. “Without that experience, I would be a less successful owner than I am now.”

Los Angeles, he said, taught him that “alignment is critical.”

“It took awhile to get that right at the Dodgers, to get everyone — owner, chief executive, sporting director and the coach — pulling in the same direction,” McCourt said. “This time, I did not wait awhile.”

His Dodgers experience also left him convinced that, while he believes family ownership is “the best form” for a team, family management is not. “If there is a problem — and in my case, it was a divorce — it becomes a problem for the business,” he said. At Marseille, Eyraud oversees the day-to-day running of the club.

Just as important, though, has been McCourt’s manner. Discussing his team, McCourt chooses his language carefully. He is not the “owner”: he is the “steward.” It is not Marseille: it is O.M. He has taken time to try to understand the mind-set not just of the club, but of the city — richly diverse and economically troubled, proud and independent, elegant and gritty — it represents.

It is a place he feels he belongs: He sees in Marseille’s relationship to Paris an echo of Boston’s to New York. Two years in, even as a non-French speaker, McCourt sees the people of Marseille as not “they,” but “we.”

“I am proud to consider myself a Marseillaise,” he said.

He believes others can experience the same conversion, that even in a social media age, in a culture of celebrity, they will be drawn — from hotel laundries to the presidential palace — to the real.

Follow Rory Smith on Twitter: @RorySmith.