He is not just rich. He is absolutely wallowing in the kind of lucre that allows a grown man to act out his boyhood fantasies, to play big-league games with real live athletes of his very own. And play he does, dabbling and meddling and dickering for bodies with all the sensitivity of an Arab slave trader. Deaf to detractors, suspicious of his peers and steadfastly opposed to change, he operates behind closed doors, a remote, secretive figure covetously guarding his millions.
But pop a flashbulb or turn the TV cameras on a victory celebration, and there he is, brushing aside his sweaty hirelings to pose as the humble man of vision who made it all happen. In defeat he rages—right there in the headlines for all to see—about the gutless sluggards who are ruining his fun. And whenever he intrudes on the scene, onlookers feel compelled to ask: Who is this joker?
He is the typical owner of a professional sports team. Typical, at least, in the eyes of the fan. If the image is distorted, it is understandable. For most fans the owner is faceless yet notorious, a necessary evil wrapped inside a tax shelter. What few deeds he is held accountable for are not good. The owner? Oh, sure, he's the idiot who makes bad trades and keeps jacking up the ticket prices. Truth be told, nobody likes a rich guy.
"Being an owner," says one who has had his share of bad notices, "is like being a giraffe. You're always sticking your neck out whether you want to or not."
So ponder the lot of the owner. Pro sports are in a state of transition. Soaring salaries, free-agent gypsies, fan resentment, government intervention, bidding wars, bankrupt franchises, suits and countersuits. All are tremors foretelling a seismic shakeup. And for better or worse, it is the men in the big walnut-paneled offices who will play a major role in shaping the future of professional sports. In a word, says Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association, the prospects are "hairy."
So ponder. Although biased observers like Ed Garvey, director of the NFL Players Association, tend to describe owners in two damning little words—"inherited money"—they are not so easily categorized. The species includes good guys, bad guys, sportsmen, con men, humanitarians, boozers, ego freaks. In short, your average slice of corporate life.
What makes the focus even fuzzier is the fact that not only are there more owners around, but they are also moving around more. While the number of pro teams has more than doubled in the past decade, the ranks of owners have increased 10-, 20-, 30-fold. No one knows for sure, because owners come and go like gawkers at a peep show, paying their money, getting their thrills, then splitting. For a while, with all the World Football League, American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association franchises fluttering around, you weren't worthy of your Guccis and suede leisure suit in certain circles if you didn't have a hunk of the Sharks or the Infernos or the Kumquats. "Deedee, come meet No-Neck Bronkowski; he plays for my team."
Even the relatively stable NBA has felt the impact of the hit-and-run owner. Between 1963 and 1975, while the league added nine new teams, it had a turnover of 44 owners and principals. Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association, has plotted the pattern: "They buy in and take a very active role for two years or so, until the novelty wears off. Then they begin to disappear and are gone completely after four years, maximum five"—or just about the time their tax writeoff benefits expire.
The Tax Reform Act of 1976, which curtails the owners' privilege of depreciating the value of their players, should discourage that trend, but the army of owners keeps growing in the form of syndicates, shareholders and conglomerates. Anyone trying to fathom the inner workings of the New York Knicks would soon find himself lost in the corporate wilderness of Gulf & Western Industries, of which the Knicks are a subsubsidiary. Fans in Milwaukee can actively effect change, because 2,800 of their number are shareholders in the Bucks, who are one of nine publicly held major pro teams in the U.S.
Cincinnati is solid syndicate; the Reds, Bengals and Stingers are all owned by local investment groups whose involvement, except in the case of the Stingers, is pretty much limited to hiring a general manager, staking out their private boxes and bringing their kids into the locker room to mingle with the stars. That practice proved a problem in Indianapolis during the Pacers' early ABA years. Seems that the team's controlling group numbered 100. Multiply that by 2.5 kids per owner, and you had a locker room that looked like giveaway day at the candy store. Now the Pacers are owned by Arena Sports, Inc., a tidy little club of eight, whose board chairman, Bill Eason, says, "The people in Indiana seem to work better in groups."
What the owners are working at is another question. Only a very few can be reached at their teams' offices. The rest are toiling elsewhere, across town, downstate or halfway across the country, where they keep their real offices and attend to their real businesses. The absentee landlord is a growing trend in pro sports. Even so, imagine San Franciscan Robert Lurie's surprise last winter when, desperately needing an additional $4 million to buy the baseball Giants and prevent them from moving to Toronto, a perfect stranger stepped off a plane as the deadline neared and anted up the saving sum.
Shucks, said Bud Herseth, the Phoenix meat packer who became Lurie's impromptu partner, there's nothing unusual about doing business with a man you never met. "The lawyer I brought with me has been with me 10 years, but I met him in person for the first time this morning at the airport," Herseth said shortly after closing the Giants' deal.
Last summer's image of A's owner Charles O. Finley peddling bodies in Oakland to merchants in Boston and New York from his home office in Chicago is no longer startling. But it is still a little disconcerting to fans who have an old-fashioned notion that the chief should be with his boys. Disaffection, they say, is only one of the evils that can develop when the boss is not around. Some fans in New Orleans feel one reason for the Saints' history of instability in the National Football League is that owner John Mecom Jr. is otherwise engaged. Mecom, who manages to keep an eye on Coach Hank Stram's expense account from atop his oil well in Houston, does not help matters when he says things like, "I'll tell you, this football team will not be allowed to interfere with the gas and oil business."
"It's no longer possible for someone to buy a team, delegate everything to other people and treat it like a hobby," says Brad Corbett, owner of baseball's Texas Rangers. "Handled this way it can be an expensive hobby, and it's ultimately counterproductive, because the players feel the remoteness of an owner they never see and they react against it." That is why Corbett, who runs a plastic-pipe empire in Dallas, listens to his players' complaints, a practice that caused him to fire Manager Billy Martin in 1975. On his way to the showers, Martin fumed, "Corbett knows as much about baseball as I do about plastic pipe."
An owner's vocation often has a material bearing on his success as a sports mogul. Techniques that are surefire in one line can fizzle in the other. Critics of Paul Snyder, co-owner of the NBA's Buffalo Braves, claim that the hardsell approach he uses in the highly competitive frozen-food business fails to warm hearts on the basketball court. "Maybe my personality isn't good for sports," says Snyder, who for a while this year refused to talk to the press. No wonder Snyder, who also happens to be the largest stockholder in Nabisco, has been called the Cookie Monster.
On the other hand, if one happens to be a superpromoter like Ray Kroc, the man who gave the world Ronald McDonald, then baseball is just another Big Mac to go. When Kroc took over the San Diego Padres in 1974, his come-ons helped increase attendance by 460,000, even though the team had the same record, 60-102, as it had the season before. Kroc's variations are endless. "Like this year, we went to a $1 bucket of popcorn," he says. "It was my idea I'm happy to say, and it's been a big seller. It's great to see four or five hands in a bucket of buttered popcorn."
THE MAGIC CHEF
To understand the New Orleans Jazz, it helps to grasp the true essence of ketchup. "See this," says Sam Battistone Jr., holding up a bottle of Heinz. "We could use another brand, but Heinz says quality. And that's the secret. Quality at reasonable prices."
And who would dispute him? At the time Battistone was polishing off a burger and a side of fries in one of a chain of 750 Sambo's restaurants he operates in 40 states. As for the Jazz, which Battistone's Invest West Sports bought as a new NBA franchise in 1974, their quality is best summed up by the Heinz TV jingle: "Anticipation is making me wait."
But talk about reasonable prices. General admission to Jazz games is $1.50, a steal—basketball at burger prices—made possible by the vastness of the 60,000-seat Super-dome. Small wonder then that the Jazz has been drawing like every day is Mardi Gras. In October, with a good quarter of the crowd whooping it up in the cheap seats, New Orleans set a new NBA single-game attendance record of 27,383 in a town that five years ago chased an old ABA derelict called the Buccaneers off to Memphis.
"You have to keep your product in reach of your customers, moneywise," says Battistone. "We have a lot of fans who become $6 and $7.50 customers after being exposed to the NBA. We're going to keep that $1.50 ticket."
Battistone sees only eight to 10 home games a season, his headquarters in Santa Barbara being some 1,800 miles removed from the Superdome and the wonderful, whirling world of Pete Maravich. But no matter, he claims, because there are always the telephone and the sports pages. "I keep in touch," he says.
At 37, tall, trim and altogether California smashing in his vest and French cuffs, Battistone still plays an aggressive forward for two Santa Barbara basketball teams, one of them sponsored by the Mormon church, of which he is a member. It was his passion for sports, he says, that led him to found Invest West Sports, a group of young jock-businessmen like himself who have invested in such enterprises as team tennis, pro track, sports camps, an ice-skating rink and a tennis club. "Besides the profit motive, it's an opportunity to make new business contacts and have some excitement at the same time," Battistone says.
Frustration and a financial bath is what he ended up with when IWS got burned with the Southern California Sun. "The WFL was an interesting experience," he says. "I came out poorer but wiser."
But not overly so. Battistone, who whipped up his first bacon burger at 11 and was raised on the concept of teamwork for shared profit (Sambo's owns 50% of each of its franchises), finds NBA owners' meetings a bit bewildering. He says, "In a business sense the NBA is unusual in that I'm dependent on the success of my competitors. It requires a joint effort to make the league prosper, but I find that people in sports are motivated differently than those in business. The ego and show business influence is there. By nature the owners are very independent, very competitive, very used to having their own way. To my mind, their decisions are not always practical."
While trying to divine the collective psyche of the NBA, Battistone dreams more pleasant thoughts. "I'm just waiting for the day the Jazz gets into the playoffs," he says, "because there're going to be 60,000 hysterical fans jammed into that Superdome. I just want to see us win one in overtime. Mayhem!"
PASS THE KETCHUP
Though the invasion of the jet-age owner has profoundly changed the character of professional sports management, vestiges of the old one-man's-family approach exemplified by the benevolent reign of the late Tom Yawkey and his magic Boston Red Sox checkbook still are tenaciously entrenched. Indeed, so many of the owners have sons, wives, nephews and distant cousins on the payroll that it all but insures that there will always be a Wrigley, a Rooney and a Jack Kent Cooke VIII checking gate receipts somewhere.
The former intimacy of the player-owner relationship, however, seems to be forever changed. No longer do the Chicago Cubs hit up the old man, P. K. Wrigley, for a loan or an advance. Wrigley, now 82, does not go to the ball park anymore, and even if he did, the players would find that everyone's favorite quirky uncle has changed. Living in semi-seclusion at his Lake Geneva, Wis. retreat, Wrigley sums up his more than four decades in the game thusly: "We've been too lenient, too lenient."
Calvin Griffith was the batboy for the Washington Senators when they won the 1924 World Series. Now he owns the Minnesota Twins. Throughout his career—beginning when he inherited the Senators from his adopted father Clark Griffith in 1955 and continuing through the time five years later when he moved the team to Minneapolis until today—Griffith has been that rarest of sports phenomena, an owner who makes his living solely from the game. "All these owners today are millionaires," he says. "All, that is, except for old Calvin. They're doing it as a civic duty; I'm trying to stay alive."
Flanked by an American flag and photographs of Washington luminaries ("I've shaken the hand of every President since Coolidge," he says, "and Carter's next"), he sat at his desk recently and ruminated about the state of the game:
"Baseball has got to go backward, back to the good old days. You know, I used to be very proud of the boys we put on our ball club. Of the 25, we'd have as many as 22 who came through our farm system, and that's one of the real thrills in baseball. But now you get people like Bill Campbell going to Boston. If the owners are stupid enough to pay these free-agent guys $1 million, what can you do? Campbell should get down on his knees and thank God that we didn't give him his release when he pulled a muscle and hardly pitched for a year.
"What people don't realize is that it takes 25 guys to make someone like Campbell a star. And when he gets all the big money, it's bad for the ball club. One of the players said to me, 'Hell, we made 25 double plays for that guy. Where's our cut?' What happens, of course, is that the fans end up paying the freight, and if we demoralize them, we're in trouble. Just today I had a call from a woman. 'Who does Campbell think he is?' she said. 'I remember when he wouldn't cover first base.'
"It's the principle of the thing. We put all this money into the farm system developing players, then they go to somebody else. You have to wonder if they have the good of the game at heart. Players think owners are so rich. Let them subpoena the books and see for themselves. They're going to bleed teams to death.
"And now they've all got agents. I would rather deal with the ballplayer. They say ballplayers aren't smart enough. But I'll tell you something. When you talk money, everybody's smart. Even the Cubans, who are always saying no comprendes when you talk to them about something else. But you talk doe-ray-me, they understand.
"I know it's a new ball game. But I think we should go back. Baseball used to be like a big family. I remember traveling with the Senators by train. We'd go into the dining car, take the tablecloths off and play hearts for 5¢ a card. I remember Walter Johnson and Al Schacht would play casino. And they would talk baseball. Now the players are all plugged in to these recorders with earphones, and they can't wait to get to the next town.
"Ah, I really do miss those old days."
Almost to a man, owners claim that they would do better by putting their money in a savings account than by investing it in a pro franchise. "You must be a fan or be nuts to get into this business," says Gene Klein, president of the National Football League's San Diego Chargers. "It's not really a good investment, never has been and probably never will be. It has almost the worst dollar return potential in the world for the amount of dollar outlay." The Dallas Cowboys' Clint Murchison says, "Green Bay makes public its figures, and it showed about $500,000 profit in 1975. On a franchise valued at $15 million, that's about a. 3.3% return. Some government bonds pay out at 7.81%, so that's about half what you could make if you put your money there and never worried about anything."
Who's worrying? Certainly not the fans. Despite the owners' poor-mouthing, the spectators can be forgiven if they find it hard to sympathize with the poor little millionaires. Indeed, the single biggest problem faced by the owners is credibility. The laments of Klein and Murchison, for example, are blunted by the fact that they are speaking of football, which is generally the most prosperous of the pro sports.
The NBA claims that only about one third of its teams made a profit last year. Baseball is better off, but the weeping grows louder. "The people don't know what's going on," says Bud Selig, president of the Milwaukee Brewers. "We're fighting for our lives in Milwaukee and in a lot of other cities as well. Nobody did this to make money, and we haven't. If our children begin to see some of the money we've put into the club, we'll consider it a success."
As for pro hockey, its perilous state is perhaps best summed up by George Strawbridge, an owner of the Buffalo Sabres. "It's interesting that we have to transport our players, who make an average $85,000, by bus from Philadelphia to New York to save money," he says.
Michael Krupp, a wealthy San Diego financial adviser, spent a year investigating professional sports as a business, applying all the criteria he uses in guiding corporate investments. By a process of elimination (hockey was the first to go; "Very little if anything at the end of the tunnel," Krupp says) he settled on what he considers the single best sports investment. Today he is the sole owner of the San Diego Breakers of the International Volleyball Association.
On the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville, Fla., through a massive iron gate, past lush gardens and down a long shaded brick driveway is Los Cedros, a Mediterranean-style mansion modeled after El Greco's retreat in Spain. It is the home of Hugh Franklin Culverhouse and his wife Joy.
They are nice people. They have a nice life. They skip off in their private jet (they're both pilots) or yacht to the Bahamas or some other foreign clime for long weekends of golf, gambling and dancing. Out by the pool at Los Cedros, there is a patch of AstroTurf. Drawing on a supply of 10,000 Japanese golf balls, the Culverhouses often while away a leisurely hour or so on the AstroTurf, teeing up and driving one ball after another into the river.
The question is: Why would a man who seemingly has all that the good life can offer, whose tastes run to collecting porcelain Boehme birds, want to pay a record $16 million to be hazed as the rookie owner of a new NFL franchise called the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? "Frankly, I'm not that challenged by my law practice anymore," says Culverhouse, a tax attorney whose clients have included Richard Nixon. "It's become too easy. I enjoyed representing Bebe Rebozo in the Watergate hearings, being a part of history, but that was an exception. So I thought that starting from line one and seeing what you could do with a new team would be fun. I figured at age 55 it would give me a diversion."
It was not his first urge to splurge. In 1971 Culverhouse thought he had bought the Los Angeles Rams for $14 million. He progressed to the point of having publicity shots taken with Coach Tommy Prothro, but at the last moment negotiations broke down. Culverhouse sued for "tortious interference" and settled out of court. But he ended up with no team.
For the Tampa venture, he primed himself like an undergrad at exam time. He read every available study of the tax laws and economics of pro sports. He interviewed NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and dozens of coaches, players and general managers. He studied medical treatises on the relationship between AstroTurf and knee injuries. He delved into the intricacies of concessions, parking, TV and radio contracts. And he committed his economic survey of Tampa to instant recall: "Twentieth largest retail market in nation...will overtake Atlanta by 1978...17th largest and fastest growing TV market...ninth largest pro football stadium in U.S.... 71,000 good seats...first row nine feet above playing field...."
Then came the involved part, forking over the money and tending to such necessities as building a $500,000 office and training center with two practice fields. Culverhouse personally worked out the stadium lease arrangements and not only negotiated the contract for a new $1.5 million scoreboard but also went out and hustled the advertising. Roaming the country on a talent hunt, he hired Ron Wolf away from the Oakland Raiders and made him the youngest vice-president in the NFL at 36. And with a final hard rush he landed a celebrity college coach, Southern Cal's John McKay. "In sum," says Culverhouse, "you have to give to get."
Joy tended to such niceties as meeting the mother of No. 1 draft pick Leroy Selmon at the airport with a bouquet of flowers. She read The Superwives and Pro Quarterback, hoping to "learn by osmosis." A former state golf champion in both Alabama and Florida, she was quick to spot little correlations, especially when she first saw a thing called a punt. "Looks like a good nine-iron shot to me," she said.
Then the season opened. Hoping to break even or better at the gate and perhaps win a few games in the Bucs' first season, Culverhouse reassured himself with a little saying that is his personal motto. "As Louis Pasteur said," he recites imprecisely, "chance favors the prepared."
Final season results. Buccaneers: 0-14. Culverhouse: minus $1.7 million.
Was it Pasteur who said you can't win 'em all?
While winning helps, it is no guarantee that a team will flourish at the gate. Witness the Oakland A's and their successful but lonely pursuit of three World Series championships. Or the Indiana Pacers, who in the ABA's first seven seasons lost less than any other team. On the court, that is; on the ledger, the Pacers dropped $500,000.
Conversely, losing is not all bad. Since they were purchased by Leonard Tose in 1969, the Philadelphia Eagles have never had a winning season. But their profits have nevertheless risen each year, from $412,000 in '69 to an estimated $1.5 million in 1975.
Ed Garvey says, "Most of the NFL owners have made so much more than they expected that they don't want to get involved in negotiations with the Players Association. They don't want to rock the boat. Their average cash flow is $8.5 million a year, and they've been making an average—an average, mind you—of $1.7 million net profit before taxes." Of course, the NFL owners hotly dispute Garvey's figures, claiming that at least four teams finished in the red last season, that the average pre-tax profit was $800,000 and that the profit was that large only because of a $215,000 per team windfall from returned pension contributions. Of course, Garvey has an answer for that, too. "These guys don't want to show a profit," he says, "so what they do is spend it all on the good life."
Tose, a trucking magnate who travels by limo and 'copter, is a high roller. Squiring models and entertaining Jet Setters, he follows the horses at tracks around the country and the sun to Beverly Hills, Acapulco and Nice. In 1969 and 1970, because of the amortization of players, he paid no personal income tax. An involved owner who once charged that his players "lacked character," Tose attends practices, chattering with reporters and dropping comments like, "If the play works here, why doesn't it work on Sunday?"
Playboys or philanthropists, in the red or black, the bottom line on the NFL owners and the Players Association has been the same for three years: no contract.
Robert Ruliph Morgan Carpenter III. That's a name, not an infield. An owner to the manor born if there ever was one.
Grandson of R.R.M. Carpenter Sr., the DuPont Corporation patriarch who bought the Philadelphia Phillies in 1943, young Ruly was raised on a full-size diamond conveniently located on the family's front lawn. As a 17-year-old pitcher, he bet his father, Bob Carpenter, $5 that he could hold three Phillie hitters—Roy Smalley, Woody Smith and Joe Lonnett—to less than four runs in three innings. And he won, allowing only two, on a homer by Lonnett.
But that accomplishment cut no ice at Yale, where he captained the baseball team and played football (he was called the "world's richest end"). "My classmates always used to razz me about how bad the Phillies were," Carpenter says. "And I'd say, 'O.K., guys, someday maybe I'll be in charge, and we can turn the thing around.' " He got his chance in 1972 when, after a fitting apprenticeship, he became, at 32, the youngest owner in the major leagues.
Now, four years and one divisional title later, no one is razzing Ruly Carpenter. It only feels that way. "Yes, we turned the team around," he says. "I knew in my heart that we could. But the haggling has taken a lot of the fun out of it. I mean, those astronomical salaries. Pretty soon we're going to have the Six Million Dollar Man. Where does it all end? We have one of the highest payrolls in the National League, and still we're not able to satisfy all our players."
Known as a player's owner, Carpenter compensates the Phils in other ways. He gets involved to a point just short of taking the mound himself. He attends batting practice. He frequently travels with the team. Trading on his youth, he is always in the clubhouse mixing with the players and organizing family junkets. When transcendental meditation became the clubhouse rage, he took lessons and chanted his mantra right along with the players. "Ruly understands the modern generation," says Manager Danny Ozark.
Carpenter also defends his charges, lashing out at the local press at the first drop of a disparaging word. "When they attack my people, I attack back," he says, tugging at the Yale bulldog needlepointed on his belt. "I've never come in contact with anyone like him," Infielder Dave Cash once said. "He's a member of the team."
But now Cash has taken the free-agent express to Montreal for $1 million and change, and Ruly feels jilted. "I try to be fair," he laments. "I'm not trying to gouge anyone." In 1974, when the Phils turned a profit for the first time in five seasons, he blew the $100,000 net on bonuses to his staff. He says, "We're at a point now where we have to draw close to 2.3 million people to break even [1976 attendance was 2,480,150]. There's just got to be a limit to how much a player is worth."
Though the family fortune is estimated at $100 million, Carpenter fears that an escalation of the bidding war could result in the haves stripping the have-nots clean. "There's no way the Carpenter family can compete with an Augie Busch, a Ray Kroc or the Wrigleys," he says. Still, he is confident that the barons of beer, burgers and chewing gum will not take unfair advantage, if only in deference to their bank accounts. As it is, says Carpenter, "Someone has to suffer for the superstars' salaries. First it will be the marginal player, the utility guy. He will get less. Then we will get down to the bottom line—ticket prices. They will go up."
And then down will come the wrath of the fans, Carpenter predicts, right on the heads of the politicians who are calling for an end to baseball's antitrust exemption. "Some people in Washington don't understand these facts," he says. "We have to make them aware that fans are voters, that it could cost an election.
"Sure, I know the reserve system had to change. It was obvious that everything was in the owner's corner. But now the balance has shifted, and I'm spending most of my time in legal proceedings. What I really dislike is having my destiny controlled by outside forces. Instead of lawyers and politicians, the owners and players have got to take a more active role in solving our problems.
"Sometimes I ask myself if it's worth it. But then I think of the satisfaction I've gotten from watching this team develop, and I long for the day we win a World Series—or three or four. I want to make up for a lot of bad years."
In the meantime, feeling suddenly ancient when he found that his youngest players do not remember the Whiz Kids, the heroes he used to take batting practice with at age 10, Carpenter says, "I'm going to write a book, How to Make a Small Fortune in Baseball. First, you start with a large fortune...."
If a pro franchise is really such a high-risk, low-yield venture, then why do so many supposedly astute businessmen get involved? Well, how can one be a pillar of society without a favorite charity? The Pacers' Bill Eason says, "I help support the symphony and the art museum, and I think pro basketball is just as important, or more so. It's simply one of those necessary elements in a large city."
Walter O'Malley, who had no compunctions about stripping Brooklyn of its most visible status symbol, terms his Los Angeles Dodgers a "hobby investment." Jack Kent Cooke is not so fussy. The Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, Washington Redskins? "It's a hobby," he says, gesturing at the grand piano in the main lodge of his 16,000-acre Raljon Ranch. "Just like my playing the piano or composing music. It's so much more fun than almost any business that I know. I'd much rather watch Kareem than see a bunch of Chevy Novas come off the production line."
George (If-You-Can't-Beat-'Em, Buy-'Em) Steinbrenner loves watching his boyhood fantasies being acted out by New York Yankees with nice clean-cut short hair, just like his idol Joe DiMaggio had. "I never played baseball, except sandlot, but I read a lot of good books on the subject," says Steinbrenner. "I am childlike, almost infantlike in my respect for the Yankee tradition. I am like a kid with his first lollipop."
Loserville, U.S.A.: A morality play in five acts, with a little dramatic license.
ACT I: 1965. Rankin Smith, 41, Life Insurance Company of Georgia heir, buys new Atlanta Falcon franchise for $8.5 million and meets the press.
Smith: Doesn't every red-blooded American boy want to own his own pro football team?
ACT II: 1974. Falcon nine-year record: 41-75-4. Smith under fire. Former Coach Norb Hecker says Smith's nine-year-old son was allowed to make a draft choice. Smith calls Coach Norm Van Brocklin into his office.
Smith: Norm, I've got to make a change.
Van Brocklin: You s.o.b. You don't know anything about football.
Smith: I'll help you in any way I can.
Van Brocklin (shifting his feet): I don't need your help. I'll never speak to you again.
Smith: You going to hit me, Norm? If you do, you'd better kill me.
ACT III: October 1976. Falcon record: 47-94-4. Smith under fire. General Manager Pat Peppier recommends that Coach Marion Campbell be fired. Smith, angry because he thinks Peppier is guilty of second-guessing Campbell, calls the general manager into his office.
Smith: You would like to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, wouldn't you, Pat?
Peppler: No, Mr. Smith. I do not believe that I would like to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
Smith: Well, I do believe that you would like to become head coach of the Atlanta Falcons.
Peppler: No, I am busy enough as the general manager.
Smith: I sign the paychecks around here.
Peppler: Then, in that case, I gratefully accept the head coaching job of the Atlanta Falcons.
Smith (aside): It's his to fish or cut bait.
ACT IV: November 1976. Falcon record: 48-96-4. Smith, under fire, lunches at the Capital City Club.
Smith: Being an owner is very intriguing. You meet interesting people. I bought the team for my two boys to give them the option of Life of Georgia or the Falcons, and for civic reasons, and because I had the money. Rankin Jr. is with the club now, and he'll be getting a new title soon.
Of course, when you have the kind of record we have, the media jumps on you pretty good. They call Atlanta "Loserville, U.S.A." They say I'm unpredictable, don't know what I'm doing. Heck, I don't do the drafting. They say I'm arrogant. That's ridiculous. I may be dumb, but I'm not arrogant. I'm sure I've made a lot of mistakes, but I don't think I'm alone in that. But they've been mistakes in my judgment of people, not policy. Still, I have to take the rap, no question about it, and I don't mind that.
Very frankly, I want to get somebody who can take the team over, and they can run it—as long as they don't flush me away. But I'd hate to go out a loser. We haven't made the playoffs yet, but I'm convinced that someday, somehow, we'll win the Super Bowl. And then you know what will happen? They'll want you to win it every year.
ACT V: Present. Falcon record: 50-100-4. Smith under fire. Telephone rings in the offices of Life of Georgia.
Fan: Let me speak to that s.o.b.
Owners, for reasons that are not always clear, are habitual popoffs. Consider this random sampling. George Halas of the Chicago Bears, after disagreement with Houston Oiler owner Bud Adams over rights to a player: "Adams has the biggest mouth west of the Mississippi." Ray Kroc, on stadium P.A. during losing effort by Padres: "Never in my life have I seen such stupid baseball played." Bill Ford, after his Detroit Lions were defeated 20-0 by the Washington Redskins on network TV: "They had the distinction of disgracing themselves coast to coast instead of just locally." John Mecom, when asked on a live telecast about what he could do to halt the increasing number of no-shows for New Orleans Saints' games: "I just might take my team and leave town." Mecom later: "I was misquoted." Bob Irsay, addressing Baltimore Colts after exhibition season loss: ' "X&ZX'%&XZ!" Walter O'Malley, on owners: "We all talk too much."
Carl Scheer. President and general manager. Two years in Denver. Two-time ABA Executive of the Year. One of Colorado's 10 Most Influential Men.
So the pitch begins. And standing there in the boardrooms and factories and garden clubs in the shadow of the Rockies, slowly advancing the slides and flip cards with the big block letters, is the audio-visual whiz kid himself, Carl Scheer, 40, beaming, spieling, urging. Caution perhaps prevents him from also revealing that he was named Salesman of the Year by the American Salesmaster Corporation. Don't want to come on too strong.
What Scheer is peddling are the Denver Nuggets, late of the ABA and a commodity that for several seasons had all the sales potential of a soggy bagel. When he arrived in Denver in 1974, having prepped in the front offices of the NBA, the Buffalo Braves and the ABA Carolina Cougars, the franchise was foundering badly in a dingy bandbox (capacity 6,985). Scheer changed the team's logo, its nickname and its colors to red, white and blue (the old Bicentennial hard sell). Changing attitudes was something else.
Active involvement of local ownership.
Going into his act, preaching civic pride and the economic virtues of 1) a pending move into the new McNichols Arena (capacity 17,297) and 2) the inevitable (he hoped) merger with the NBA, Scheer headed a group of 30 local businessmen who bought out the team's San Diego owners. And he dealt for talent with a "let's get rid of everybody" flair that established him as the best of an aggressive new breed of career owner-managers. No fooling around with other businesses for Scheer; the Nuggets were it, 14 hours a day, seven days a week.
Larry Brown, the coach who followed Scheer from Carolina, tended to the winning part. Picked to again finish last in its division, Denver not only made it to the ABA playoffs with a sterling 65-19 record but also sold out the snake pit 29 times. Last season, installed in its new McNichols digs, the Nuggets battled all the way to the ABA finals. Nuggets' official souvenir magazine voted best in ABA two consecutive years.
Scheer, meanwhile, was beating his drum all the louder, the better to drown out the death rattles of the ABA. "Rome was burning around us," he says. "I remember the Virginia Squires came in here and I had to pay their hotel bill before we could play."
So boom! boom! boom! On and on went the Carl Scheer Magic Merchandising Road Show. Care to purchase a choice block of tickets in exchange for an ad in our two-time Most Valuable Program? Sign right here. Like to sponsor Nugget clinics, contests, giveaways? Line up over there. Supper with the stars? Bring your bib. Tickets for bingo prizes? Bingo! Or how about Carl Scheer himself addressing your top executives on Staff Motivation and Resource Management? "Ahem, like the Denver Nuggets, you too can have an unlimited future if only you will...."
Attendance, 1975-76: 730,624. Fourth highest in pro basketball.
Last spring Scheer and Nets owner Roy Boe petitioned for membership in the NBA. The move outraged other ABA owners, but it helped break the fullcourt freeze. It also broke the Nuggets. Scheer says, "The NBA owners knew they had us by the throat, and they kept squeezing. When they said the cost of admission was $3.2 million, we had no one who could sign the check."
The Nuggets are planning to go public to raise the NBA admission fee, and odds are that few if any of the projected 3,500 shareholders will flinch at the warning printed on the prospectus: "These securities involve a high degree of risk." After all, Denver is not only leading its division in wins and season-ticket sales (10,600), but Scheer also has a new flip card theme to get absolutely bullish about. Color us Brown. Or how the NBA was won.
So why exactly is Scheer popping Maalox and mainlining Diet Pepsi? "Complacency is the forerunner of mediocrity," he is fond of saying. He also likes to tell how David Thompson, the team's star player, was persuaded that the primary reason he should come to Denver was not the grubby half million ("How many Mercedes can he drive?" Scheer asks), but the "psychic income" accrued from joining the "Nugget family" and taking part in "teamwork."
But mainly Scheer goes on about how "obsessed" and "consumed" and "haunted" he is by "my dream to build a champion and—this may sound tacky—to contribute to the stability of our industry." What it sounds like is another sales pitch. Or is that the flutter of another flip card? One can almost see it now.
Nuggets win NBA championship.
Scheer enshrined atop Pikes Peak.
As the tremors in professional sports continue, there is cause to question whether the leagues are equipped to cope. Small groups of owners that once found it difficult to agree on anything are now larger groups that agree on nothing. The incompatibility is built in. League meetings, in which men of strong wills and robust egos are asked to seek accord with their opponents in the bidding wars, are often little more than stylized free-for-alls. Personal rivalries abound. Cliques clash. Says one combatant, "Off the record, dealing with my fellow owners is like trying to go around the world in a rowboat."
Owners love to speak off the record. It has something to do with keeping favored scribes abreast of the latest conspiracy. In the NFL more than one owner is whispering about supposed problems in the commissioner's office. Some baseball owners still contend that Walter O'Malley is operating major league baseball from a ravine in California. The Seattle SuperSonics' Sam Schulman says openly that the Lakers' Jack Kent Cooke is trying to run basketball. The Buffalo Braves' Paul Snyder disagrees; he says it's the Knicks' Mike Burke who is plotting the overthrow. And the rest are not so sure about Schulman and Snyder.
Carroll Rosenbloom was disgusted—again. A couple of months ago the Los Angeles Rams' owner went into a kind of prolonged snit, announcing that he refused to take part in any more league meetings until everyone came to his senses. One of the more engaging owners, Rosenbloom nonetheless speaks his mind—often and bluntly—on whatever displeases him about the game. On this occasion, he took on Pete Rozelle, saying that "his majesty" has been "listening to lawyers and accountants instead of running the league."
Rosenbloom's beef, and the reason for his self-imposed exile, was that he felt that neither Rozelle nor anyone else in power had taken any meaningful steps toward resolving the long, bitter standoff between the league and the Players Association. "A plague on all their houses," he said from the comfort of his Bel Air estate.
Now 69, Rosenbloom speaks from the vantage point of a veteran who has fought in 23 NFL campaigns—19 with the Baltimore Colts, four with the Rams—and survived with only one losing season since 1956. Recently, dressed in tennis togs, he paused over lunch at his home to expound on his feelings.
On player-owner negotiations: "Ed Garvey has probably been the biggest stumbling block in getting a contract with the players. He is entirely unreasonable in some of his demands. I think he believes he's going to get a contract in the courts. And management has also done a terrible job. The blame is equally shared. So there they sit, Garvey on one side, Sargent Karch of the management council on the other, two grown men writing nasty letters to each other. Just childish. It's like watching the crew of the Titanic polish brass while the ship goes down."
On economic survival: "The players have been fed a line by Garvey that millions and millions of dollars are made by every club. It's hard for them to accept the fact that this isn't so. We're in trouble. Quite a few of the owners will be and have been operating in the red. I think a player should get all the traffic can bear, but when the only one who suffers is the fan, then the players have to realize that there is a limit. One of these days some of these franchises may blow up. Look at the WFL. It can easily happen here."
On bidding wars: "They shouldn't exist. If the owners had refused to allow the prices to skyrocket, we wouldn't be in this chaotic state. When we have Wellington Mara of the Giants, a member of the management council, going out and picking up Larry Csonka, paying him that kind of money with a big stamp of approval from the league, well, that's just ridiculous. What Mr. Mara doesn't understand is that he has 27 other partners. Once he pays this money, every other player says, 'Hey, how about me?' I don't want people like Csonka around me."
On teamwork: "Except for a few uniforms and some footballs, the only inventory we have are our players. And all they have is us. But somewhere along the line, we all got out of sync, like an orchestra playing out of tune. The only solution is for us to realize that we are partners. We both want the same thing. So what are we fighting about? I just can't believe that the players are so stupid that they want to kill the game. They have to realize that we're in the same boat together. If we don't work together, we won't have anything to work with."
On the future: "Our sport is so strong. We have the most valuable commodity in the world. I don't think there are fans in any other sport who would have stood still for all the nonsense they've had to endure. The strikes, the lawsuits, the pop-head owners who don't know the game criticizing their players. Our fans must love us to have put up with that. I know they do. Given the chance, these franchises will double in value."
About then Willie Shoemaker and Ricardo Montalban dropped by, tennis rackets at the ready, and off Rosenbloom went to play a round of doubles at Johnny Carson's place. Bel Air isn't exactly Elba, but then Rosenbloom isn't your everyday exile.
So whither professional sports? The prognostications vary widely, even wildly. Angelo Drossos, president of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs, sees grim days ahead for the owners if present trends continue. Indeed, he says, the species sports mogul may become extinct. "Many teams are already being subsidized by cities, counties or states in that special concessions have been made for them to survive," he says. "If such things continue, I can envision that within a decade or two city governments will own the teams and athletes will have to be put on some kind of civil service contracts."
The San Diego Chargers' Gene Klein prefers to look through the other end of the telescope. Eyes all but twirling at the prospect, he foresees pro football teams playing twice a week, 40 games a season, in the U.S., Mexico, Canada, Japan, England, Germany.... "I think we can have an international league with 50 teams within my lifetime," he enthuses. "We've just scratched the surface."
Global explosions aside, the only seemingly sure thing is that as long as there are men eager to play there will be owners willing to pay. As Jack Kent Cooke says, "Where else can you have so much fun?"