Cleveland Indians Owner Paul Dolan Faces Big Challenges in 2021
Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan gave a rare interview last week. He discussed everything from changing the team’s name to the future of ownership during a virtual Akron Roundtable forum moderated by WKSU's Amanda Rabinowitz.
WKSU commentator Terry Pluto was tuned into the conversation and reflected on the big challenges that are ahead for the owner.
A losing cycle
Pluto said what stuck with him the most was how candid Dolan was in describing the team's outlook, with a $45 million payroll and after trading key players like Francisco Lindor.
“He went into a very long explanation of what he called the cycles for middle-market teams like Cleveland. And his phrase was ‘a losing cycle.’ I’m sure some of the people at Progressive Field winced a little bit, because they don’t really want to hear that," Pluto said.
The team has had a remarkable stretch in the last decade. It has had eight consecutive winning seasons, five trips to the playoffs, and one World Series berth.
But the team has also cut payroll by around $100 million since a record-high $145 in 2017. Pluto noted that most teams are cutting payroll this season as a result of the losses suffered during the pandemic, but the Indians have been forced to cut more than most.
Pluto said Dolan outlined how middle-market teams like Cleveland have to operate.
“Sometimes you lose for a few years and then you come back. You add prospects. You cut your payroll, and you trade for younger players and then you make a move back up again,” Pluto said.
"His phrase was ‘a losing cycle.’ I’m sure some of the people at Progressive field winced a little bit, because they don’t really want to hear that."
Can they still win?
Pluto said he asked Chris Antonetti, the team’s president, what the expectations are for this season.
“He said, ‘We intend to compete, and we intend to win the Central Division. That’s our goal and that’s been our goal every year for the last eight years and it still is.’ He thinks it’s realistic, and I think if they do manage to find a way to have a winning season this year, it might be one of the best accomplishments over this whole span. Because this is not a bad team, but a very young team,” Pluto said.
Name change timeline
Dolan also talked about the timeline for changing the team’s name. The team formally announced in December that it will drop the Indians nickname, presumably in 2022. Dolan said the team will have a better idea later this year if that's still the target date.
“I think they’re finding [that] it’s harder to pick a name than they thought. He mentioned [that] a lot of these names, people have already bought the copyrights on them,” Pluto said.
Pluto also said he believes Dolan may be taking an “under-promise, over-deliver” approach.
“Which isn’t a bad way to be. He may be giving a rather realistic or even a bit bleak picture of how the team may be this year, thinking, ‘If we win more half our games, it’s going to look better than I portrayed it,'" Pluto said. "In the same way with the process of the name, maybe they’re farther along than we think. He just doesn’t want us to know that for whatever reason.”
Finding a minority owner
The team has been in the Dolan family for going on 22 years, and Dolan made it clear he has no intentions to sell but is still shopping for a minority owner.
“And he better find one,” Pluto said.
It’s been several years since minority owner John Sherman bought the Kansas City Royals. His estimated 20% stake in the Indians is in escrow.
“My guess is Dolan would be willing to sell them more than the 20%, say you buy out Sherman for 20% and 10 more percent from Dolan, giving you 30% of the team. But a lot of people who would put in that kind of money would want controlling interest," Pluto said.
For fans, there are two camps
Pluto says fans fall into two camps when it comes to how they view Dolan’s ownership. They either feel he’s delivered a good team despite a smaller payroll, or they feel Dolan should sell the team if he’s not willing to spend.
But Pluto tells fans to look at the front office. Team president Chris Antonetti and general manager Mike Chernoff, along with manager Terry Francona, remain committed to Cleveland, despite many opportunities to leave.
Dolan says it’s because of the team’s culture. “Terry Francona calls it pure baseball. In other words, they may not have all of the money to spend, but they also don’t have ownership interference," Pluto said.
And Pluto says for the Dolans, running the team is family business.
“When you look at the Cavaliers, Dan Gilbert [has] Quicken Loans, Rocket Mortgage, casinos. He had all kinds of stuff going, and he continues to have that going," Pluto said. "Well, that’s often the case with other franchises. But all five fingers of the Indians go to the Dolan family. They’re not involved in any big business elsewhere."
And Pluto says for the Dolans, the return will come when they eventually do sell. The family bought the team for $323 million in 2000. It’s worth more than $1 billion now.