This Bud's Not For You

Franchise frenzy sizzled on as Jacksonville bid for—and lost—Bud Adams's Oilers
November 02, 1987

Once upon a time, in a beautiful city that lay by the Magic River that Flows the Wrong Way, the people were very happy. Then one day the caliph said, "But we cannot be happy, for, alas, we do not possess a team." The wise men said uh-huh, the multitudes nodded, and the cry went out over all the great land that a team must be found. Great riches were promised to Emir Irsay and Maharajah Mecom and other potentates who owned teams. But they would not settle in the beautiful city that lay by the Magic River that Flows the Wrong Way. And the people grew sad.

Then a new caliph took over the beautiful city that lay by the Magic River that Flows the Wrong Way, and he said, "The first thing I will do for you, my people, is make you happy by getting a team." And the multitudes cheered—except for one little boy, who said, "Maybe it is best that we do not have a team." The wise men laughed at the little boy, so he put on his Reeboks and went away.

He went to the Duchy of New Orleans, where the people were ashamed of their team and had bags on their heads, and to the Shire of Baltimore, where people were ashamed of their city because they had lost their team. He went to the United Atlanta Emirates and to the Dominion of Columbia, where the people wouldn't even talk to him, for in both lands they were hastening to build a great theater with a roof and silk parlors in the sky to appease the sultans who owned their teams.

So the little boy rushed back to the beautiful city that lay by the Magic River that Flows the Wrong Way, and he told the caliph that he had found the truth—that a city could no longer have a team. It was the other way around: The prince who owns a team has the city. But the caliph and the wise men would not listen, for they had to entertain the Oil Emperor Adams, who said he might bring his team to the beautiful city that lay by the Magic River that Flows the Wrong Way, if only the people would give him 125 million gold pieces and build him a palace for his court and silk parlors in the sky.

Moral: No purchase necessary. Your city may already be a winner.

Jacksonville believes in fairy tales. Why not? The river that bisects it, the St. Johns, is one of the rare rivers—the most glorious being the Nile—that flow north. Jacksonville is only the 47th most populous metropolitan area in the country, but by incorporating its surrounding areas, it has transformed itself, geographically, into the largest in the continental U.S. New York and Los Angeles together could fit comfortably inside Jacksonville. Once known as Cow Ford, Jacksonville is, in fact, about the size of the whole country of Luxembourg. No wonder the town has brashly spent years trying to seduce NFL owners to leave their homes and families behind and find a place within its wide embrace.

Certainly the proposition is enticing. As Green Bay has proved, with a core of fans to buy season tickets and an equal-opportunity league television package, population is not critical to a city's success in the NFL. Moreover, as the "other woman," Jacksonville is not only beautiful but also well endowed. Her Gator Bowl seats nearly 82,000 fans, making it the third-largest municipal stadium in America. And she comes with a dowry: a promise of a new training facility and more sky boxes and a guarantee of $125.8 million. Plus: uncritical love and affection. Jacksonville is not an evil home-wrecker, either. She only goes after husbands whose football marriages are already on the rocks because they have been bad providers—men like Robert Irsay in Baltimore, John Mecom in New Orleans, Rankin Smith in Atlanta, Bill Bidwill in St. Louis and most recently Bud Adams in Houston. The Oilers have been 20-59 since 1982.

So Jacksonville winked, showed a little leg, and two weeks ago Adams came to town. "This Bud's for you," the mayor cried, and the citizens cooed. The people of Jacksonville don't mind playing municipal Mistress America. Both city hall and city businessmen are convinced it's better to have loved and lost than...etc. As the mayor, Tommy Hazouri, says, the NFL is "an odor-free, pollution-free industry," and Jacksonville is always seeking to attract that kind of salutary business. Besides, according to an economic survey, even if a team should stink up the Gator Bowl as thoroughly as Adams's Oilers have stunk up the Astrodome, it will be worth more than $600 million to Jacksonville over the next decade.

So far, all the philandering owners, including Adams, who announced on Monday that he intended to remain in Houston after all, have returned home. They subtly used their dalliances with Jacksonville as leverage to get better deals. Greg Larson, sports columnist for The Florida Times-Union, explained the cynical truth to his readers before Adams made his decision: "Bud Adams has himself set up [so that]...he's going to be a hero.... If he stays...then Houston, where he is somewhat despised now, would embrace him. If he moves to Jacksonville, it's obvious he would be received as the city's alltime hero."

Like most modern owners, Adams responded one-dimensionally: "...this is a business we're in. It's not a hobby."

Mayor Hazouri, who took office only this summer, is of the just-spell-my-name-right school. Whatever happens, he explained earlier this month, Jacksonville has made the national wires. "You're here, aren't you?" he said to a reporter from New York, which was true enough, although the observation overlooked the fact that reporters also go out of their way to visit train wrecks. Hazouri, whom Adams affectionately refers to as Mayor Tommy, also said, "It's a win-win situation for us. We're using the NFL as much as it's using us." Mary Ann Christensen, the mayor's spokeswoman, added, "This is exposure for Jacksonville, not exploitation."

Much larger and allegedly more sophisticated and secure metropolises than Jacksonville—starting with New York City itself—have shamefully pandered to team owners. Indeed, Jacksonville's submission to Adams appeared as responsible as it was innovative. Because the Gator Bowl is built and paid for, only a relatively small investment of $25 million would have been demanded of the taxpayers. This sum, which would probably have been raised by means of revenue bonds, would have paid for the construction of that new sanctum sanctorum of sport, the sky box. Fifty-four were to be built, and 26 existing ones renovated. And a training facility was to be erected.

Team owners on the make have amazing power. In 1979, Jacksonville helicoptered Irsay of the Colts into the Gator Bowl, where 50,000 subjects cried huzzah. But the owner turned his nose up at the stadium's facilities. George Olsen, executive director of the Gator Bowl at the time, had been seeking improvements for years, but, he says with a chuckle, "Irsay complains, and vrooom—sky boxes, new locker rooms, new press box!"

When Adams came to Jacksonville, several radio and television stations suspended their regular programming to cover his arrival. Mayor Tommy then gave him a key to the city, promising that the next time it would be "the key to our hearts." In the limousine conveying Adams to the Gator Bowl, Mayor Tommy serenaded him with The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, having learned that Adams was a devoted brother of that fraternity.

But if you really love me, you would buy me something. Jacksonville guaranteed Adams $125.8 million, spread over the next decade, if he would sign a 20-year lease. The bulk of that money was to have been anted up by fans, who would have purchased 10-year tickets—minimum: $2,152.50—a creative scheme suggested by Don Roth of Merrill Lynch, who played football, lacrosse and basketball while at Princeton and excelled at getting the ball to Bill Bradley at any cost.

William Hightower, president of American Transtech, a subsidiary of AT&T, and the mayor's point man from the private sector, sagely points out that fans in cities with franchises "have a mental contract" with their teams and would never think of financing them into the 21st century. But it's different when you're on the outside looking in. "Bill's no hick," the mayor says. "He's from Texas." So Floridoiler fans who requested ticket information would have received 1) a stadium seating diagram and 2) loan information. Jacksonville is a financial center, and the bankers were prepared to do their part.

Adams is a fast learner. He exploited—uh, leveraged—Jacksonville to get an additional 10,000 seats in the Astrodome, as well as 72 sky boxes, which will earn him a tidy sum, and a more favorable lease from the Houston Sports Association. Evidently Hightower didn't tell Adams the part about the "mental contract" fans have with home teams that habitually lose.

Adams even had the gall to suggest to Houston that even if he went to Jacksonville, expansion plans for the Astrodome should proceed apace so that he would have a "fallback," just in case. Adams's agreement to remain is contingent upon 54 of the sky boxes being leased by Dec. 15. He consoled his friends in Jacksonville by saying that he would "do everything I possibly can to help them get a team in their city."

The Oilers' only owner ever, Adams, 64, may be described the way Kuwait always is—oil rich. Originally from Oklahoma, he has lived in Houston since the end of World War II, and despite his avowed allegiance to business, he is known as a man of deep and abiding personal loyalties. The Oilers are held in a family trust, and when Adams's only son, Kenneth III, committed suicide in June, son-in-law Tommy Smith became the heir apparent. Grizzled old-timers recall that, long ago, the Oilers were a power in the AFL. They won the first two league titles, in 1960 and '61, but the soup has been thin for a long time.

By contrast, Adams's metropolitan inamorata has been on the uptick lately, after nesting for most of the century as just another humdrum southern burg. Before World War I, for example, Jacksonville's benign climate and picturesque environs attracted more than two dozen companies engaged in a peculiar new business. However, the stuffy city fathers took the Bible belt to the newcomers, tossed the degenerate industry out of town and, by default, made its burgeoning West Coast rival, a little place called Hollywood, the film capital of the world. Even now, Floridians of the subtropical species derisively place Jacksonville in south Georgia, and, in fact, much of the town remains more Dixie than Dade or Disney. One telling statistic: Only 1.8% of the Jacksonville population is Hispanic. The town has never had a major league franchise in any sport. The Gator Bowl draws leftovers, and the annual Florida-Georgia game is more bacchanalia than sport. To be sure, Jacksonville was the jewel of the World Football League.

The consolidation legislation that created jumbo Jax also brought in a powerful, mayor-dominated government. "The mayor here is literally a chief executive officer," says Hightower, "and Jacksonville is radically different because of that." Hazouri's predecessor was Jake Godbold, who came from the wrong side of the tracks and was laughed at as "Joke" Godbold behind his back. But by the time he left office, Mayor Godbold had revived downtown, brought scores of companies to town, helped make Jacksonville one of the 10 fastest-growing metropolitan areas in the country, begun the NFL hunt and become revered. He also paved the way for Hazouri, who is of Lebanese heritage and is called a camel driver behind his back. But the people saw what Godbold did, and they can imagine where Hazouri's enthusiasm and indefatigability can take them. So they too have climbed onto the dromedaries.

Now that Jacksonville has apparently been jilted again, Hazouri says he will simply put the troll out for another franchise. "I still have another three and a half years in office," says Mayor Tommy. Lock up your sons and husbands.

PHOTODENNIS HAMILTON JR./FLORIDA TIMES-UNIONMayor Tommy (right) greeted Adams with a key to the city and sang him a frat song. PHOTOBILL FRAKESA sign of dashed hopes. The Gator Bowl is the third-largest municipal stadium in the U.S. PHOTOFLORIDA TIMES-UNIONThis love note appeared in a local newspaper on Oct. 12. TWO PHOTOSFLORIDA TIMES-UNIONWhen the Colts' Irsay came to the Gator Bowl in 1979, 50,000 suitors greeted him. PHOTOBILL FRAKESHightower maintains that pro franchises have a "mental contract" with their fans.

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Eagle (-2)
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