Now that we've got this building up, we're not going to sit around sucking our thumbs," cried Nick Mileti, his voice rattling around the sports palace he has built on a patch of farmland 25 miles south of downtown Cleveland. "Now we're going to fill this place." A wolfish grin escaped from the shadow cast by Mileti's scimitar-shaped nose. "If not, I'm losing my you-know-what."
Holding a paper cup filled with Scotch, Mileti waited for his listeners to finish laughing. They were businessmen and newspaper people from Ashland, Ohio, the latest in a succession of communities in "Coliseum Country"—which is how Mileti refers to northeastern Ohio—whose VIPs have been invited to tour the new building. Mileti, a bouncy little man who bears a resemblance to Danny Thomas, makes it a point to be present on all such occasions. He never tires of promoting his $25 million baby and now, standing on the main floor, he pressed on. "We're bringing you hockey and basketball. We're bringing you Elton John and Olga Korbut and the circus. We're gonna go, man, go!"
The visitors from Ashland left, and Mileti drained his Scotch. Talking to his guests, he had exhibited the same enthusiasm with which he once spit out siss-boom-bahs as a cheerleader at Cleveland's John Adams High School. Mileti grew up on the city's tough southeast side, the son of poor Sicilian immigrants, and here he is today, at 42, with a spanking-new 20,600-seat arena to add to holdings that include the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers and the WHA Cleveland Crusaders, both of which he runs as president. Though he has been sharply reducing his involvement in the Cleveland Indians during recent months, he remains, in name, president and general partner of the baseball club, too. Stir in Mileti-owned radio station WWWE, which carries play-by-play broadcasts of all three teams, and you have an owner as busy and ubiquitous as Charles O. Finley or Jack Kent Cooke at their most acquisitive.
Nick Mileti did not come to ownership through great personal wealth, however, nor through family connections. Since sports is his chief business—as opposed to pastime—he is in no position to treat his teams and their athletes as adult playthings to be shown off and hobnobbed with. Mileti emerged as a sports entrepreneur only six years ago and has had to beg and borrow all the way. Operating in an era of rapid expansion in professional sport, Mileti put together syndicates of private investors to buy the teams he wanted, then installed himself as boss of each. But he has had to answer to major shareholders, not-so-silent partners and, above all, banks: he owns 39% of the WHA Crusaders, but has never held more than 10% of the Indians or the Cavaliers.
It is a tenuous position, and Mileti seems determined to enjoy it while he can. Despite living in gray, industrial Cleveland, he knows where to find the night life, and he comes on as the city's jiviest middle-aged businessman. Bopping along busy Euclid Avenue, he is a study in Sicilian soul as he greets traffic cops ("Hey, man, what's happenin'?"), snaps his fingers and makes big with the heel-toe action. He also steals admiring glances at his reflection in store windows—and why not? It was Mileti who introduced velour jump suits and $300 Bill Blass Ultrasuede shirts to the shores of Lake Erie.
The payoff is that Mileti is a bigger celebrity in Cleveland than most of his athletes. During games he moves through the stands glad-handing fans and signing autographs. "Hey, didn't Austin Carr look good tonight?" somebody asks after a Cavaliers game. Mileti shrugs. "To tell the truth, I didn't notice," he confesses, dismissing the subject. With a flourish, he adds, "My life is a Van Gogh painting. It's all broad brush-strokes. I'm not interested in details."
It would be nice to report that this painterly approach has been rewarded with world championships, SRO crowds and fat profits. Instead, Mileti's three teams lost upwards of $3 million in 1973, and the red ink continued to flow last year. Only the Crusaders have enjoyed winning seasons, and until they and the Cavaliers moved into the newly opened Coliseum this season, both were condemned to play before sparse crowds in the Cleveland Arena, a Depression-era barn that Mileti, naturally, also owns. Mileti's personal stake in his $45-million operation is barely $1 million, and most of that is borrowed. He is so extended that some detractors believe the Coliseum only too apt a name, that the collapse of another Roman Empire could be just around the corner.
For his part, Mileti argues that the Coliseum is precisely what will turn his fortunes around—that, plus a couple of championship-caliber teams. In support of this view, Mileti never tires of spouting what he calls old Sicilian sayings, homilies that, in truth, also include proverbs from the Chinese and Yiddish, plus inspirational quotations from Churchill, Emerson and Norman Vincent Peale. Ask him about his financial reverses, and he replies with a wave of the hand, "There's an old Sicilian saying that between every dream and reality are 200,000 nuts and bolts." Press him on when he expects to begin to turn a profit and he replies, "There's an old Sicilian saying: 'You know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.' " And while Mileti may not know how Austin Carr fared, he can, on cue, ruminate on the social significance of sport: "There's an old Sicilian saying that bread gives life and flowers give the reason for living. Sports are like flowers."
Even in the face of such eloquence, doubts about Mileti's financial stability have long existed. They reportedly contributed to the decision by the NHL to reject his bid for an expansion franchise, a rebuff that forced Mileti to settle for a team in the new WHA. Similar doubts were expressed by fellow American League owners when Mileti first wanted to buy the Indians in 1972. Stockholders soon were grumbling that nobody was minding the store, and Mileti, while remaining as president, eventually surrendered day-to-day control of the club to others. Last fall, with the bank whose loan he used to take over the baseball team starting to make noises, he sold off a $300,000 chunk of the Indians—roughly half of his personal holdings—and more of his stock is now on the market. Speculation runs high that he will soon bow out of the club altogether.
But Mileti refuses to acknowledge feeling any financial strain whatever. Instead, he invokes his broad-brush approach. "What I like best is to put deals together," he says. "Then I get restless and move on." As far as it goes, the explanation is accurate. Since the Indians were the only one of Mileti's three teams unaffected by the opening of the Coliseum, they suddenly were the loose thread in his grand tapestry, and there is no doubt that his interest in the club waned. During last fall's negotiations to hire Frank Robinson as manager, Mileti seemed far more interested in flying off to Las Vegas to persuade another Frank of note—Sinatra—to star at the Coliseum opening.