He is not just rich. He is absolutely wallowing in the kind of lucre that allows a grown man to act out his boyhood fantasies, to play big-league games with real live athletes of his very own. And play he does, dabbling and meddling and dickering for bodies with all the sensitivity of an Arab slave trader. Deaf to detractors, suspicious of his peers and steadfastly opposed to change, he operates behind closed doors, a remote, secretive figure covetously guarding his millions.
But pop a flashbulb or turn the TV cameras on a victory celebration, and there he is, brushing aside his sweaty hirelings to pose as the humble man of vision who made it all happen. In defeat he rages—right there in the headlines for all to see—about the gutless sluggards who are ruining his fun. And whenever he intrudes on the scene, onlookers feel compelled to ask: Who is this joker?
He is the typical owner of a professional sports team. Typical, at least, in the eyes of the fan. If the image is distorted, it is understandable. For most fans the owner is faceless yet notorious, a necessary evil wrapped inside a tax shelter. What few deeds he is held accountable for are not good. The owner? Oh, sure, he's the idiot who makes bad trades and keeps jacking up the ticket prices. Truth be told, nobody likes a rich guy.
"Being an owner," says one who has had his share of bad notices, "is like being a giraffe. You're always sticking your neck out whether you want to or not."
So ponder the lot of the owner. Pro sports are in a state of transition. Soaring salaries, free-agent gypsies, fan resentment, government intervention, bidding wars, bankrupt franchises, suits and countersuits. All are tremors foretelling a seismic shakeup. And for better or worse, it is the men in the big walnut-paneled offices who will play a major role in shaping the future of professional sports. In a word, says Sam Schulman, owner of the Seattle SuperSonics of the National Basketball Association, the prospects are "hairy."
So ponder. Although biased observers like Ed Garvey, director of the NFL Players Association, tend to describe owners in two damning little words—"inherited money"—they are not so easily categorized. The species includes good guys, bad guys, sportsmen, con men, humanitarians, boozers, ego freaks. In short, your average slice of corporate life.
What makes the focus even fuzzier is the fact that not only are there more owners around, but they are also moving around more. While the number of pro teams has more than doubled in the past decade, the ranks of owners have increased 10-, 20-, 30-fold. No one knows for sure, because owners come and go like gawkers at a peep show, paying their money, getting their thrills, then splitting. For a while, with all the World Football League, American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association franchises fluttering around, you weren't worthy of your Guccis and suede leisure suit in certain circles if you didn't have a hunk of the Sharks or the Infernos or the Kumquats. "Deedee, come meet No-Neck Bronkowski; he plays for my team."
Even the relatively stable NBA has felt the impact of the hit-and-run owner. Between 1963 and 1975, while the league added nine new teams, it had a turnover of 44 owners and principals. Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association, has plotted the pattern: "They buy in and take a very active role for two years or so, until the novelty wears off. Then they begin to disappear and are gone completely after four years, maximum five"—or just about the time their tax writeoff benefits expire.
The Tax Reform Act of 1976, which curtails the owners' privilege of depreciating the value of their players, should discourage that trend, but the army of owners keeps growing in the form of syndicates, shareholders and conglomerates. Anyone trying to fathom the inner workings of the New York Knicks would soon find himself lost in the corporate wilderness of Gulf & Western Industries, of which the Knicks are a subsubsidiary. Fans in Milwaukee can actively effect change, because 2,800 of their number are shareholders in the Bucks, who are one of nine publicly held major pro teams in the U.S.
Cincinnati is solid syndicate; the Reds, Bengals and Stingers are all owned by local investment groups whose involvement, except in the case of the Stingers, is pretty much limited to hiring a general manager, staking out their private boxes and bringing their kids into the locker room to mingle with the stars. That practice proved a problem in Indianapolis during the Pacers' early ABA years. Seems that the team's controlling group numbered 100. Multiply that by 2.5 kids per owner, and you had a locker room that looked like giveaway day at the candy store. Now the Pacers are owned by Arena Sports, Inc., a tidy little club of eight, whose board chairman, Bill Eason, says, "The people in Indiana seem to work better in groups."