SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
January 31, 1977
Are they civic benefactors? Or crazy? Or merely rich men with an expensive hobby? Whatever they are, pro sports owners all think they've got troubles
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January 31, 1977

Who Are These Guys?

Are they civic benefactors? Or crazy? Or merely rich men with an expensive hobby? Whatever they are, pro sports owners all think they've got troubles

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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."


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.

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