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."