The sports world lost one of the last men to live by the handshake deal when Jets owner Leon Hess died last Friday at 85, and his passing may I shake up the NFL. In life Hess was known for caring more about his players and coaches than about the bottom line. In death he might be responsible for sending the cost of NFL franchises spiraling out of control. � The Jets' worth was estimated at $259 million last year, a reasonable figure given that they don't own their stadium and are in the lower half of the NFL in ancillary revenue. Yet when the Hess family puts the team up for sale, as is widely expected, the Jets will fetch more than $500 million, perhaps from one of the owner wannabes who crawled out of their boardrooms for the Browns' and Redskins' auctions. As one league official says, "This will be an emotional buy for someone who'll pay between $600 million and $750 million—or more."
For a team with one division title in the 29 years since the AFL-NFL merger? A team chained to tenancy in its rival's venue, Giants Stadium, through 2008? Sure, the Jets are in the nation's top TV market, but could they really fetch such a price?
They could and they will, for three reasons. First, the Jets have always been undersold. While the Cowboys rake in about $60 million a season from stadium, local broadcasting and licensing fees, the Jets make less than $15 million. A savvy owner could quickly double that figure. Second, with revenue-sharing, guaranteed labor peace through 2004 and a TV cut that averages $70 million per team, the NFL is the gold standard of sports investments. Finally, Wall Street's boom has created a ton of new millionaires. "With so many guys making millions in the stock market, you've got a new group of potential owners," says Bills owner Ralph Wilson, "and they'll pay much more than what others think is reasonable."
Jets employees get choked up recalling Hess's vigils at the bed of Dennis Byrd, partially paralyzed in a '92 game. In business, says Ravens owner Art Modell, "his handshake was his bond." But Hess, who parlayed a one-truck fuel distributorship into a $720 million fortune, was no football genius. He was too patient with ineffective executives and coaches—until he hired Bill Parcells from the Patriots in '97.
This will probably be Parcells's last year as Jets coach, and while he could surely find moneymen to help him buy the Jets—a hot rumor last week—friends say he's disillusioned with the crass business side of the game and would rather buy a minor league baseball team. Still, a successor is in place: assistant head coach Bill Belichick, who can take over when Parcells quits. Whoever buys the Jets, for whatever ridiculous price, would be wise to be as hands-off as Hess was after he finally hired the right football men.