SI Vault
Ray Kennedy
September 12, 1977
What used to be one of the outstanding garbage dumps of our time has become a gold mine of a sports center—and more nuggets are on the way. The man who pulled it off is Sonny Werblin
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September 12, 1977

Miracle In The Meadows

What used to be one of the outstanding garbage dumps of our time has become a gold mine of a sports center—and more nuggets are on the way. The man who pulled it off is Sonny Werblin

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Not content to rest on these laurels, Werblin & Co. shut down the harness-racing operation during August, spent $100,000 resurfacing the track and reopened this past Tuesday with thoroughbred racing at night. All told, income from the first year's operation will exceed $50 million, double the original estimate.

And the bite that the Meadowlands is taking out of the action in the Big Apple and its outlying orchards across the river figures to grow even larger. Werblin plans to erect a 20,000-seat arena for basketball with the (ex-New York) Nets as the prime tenant; hockey, ice shows, circuses, conventions, rock concerts and other special events could turn Madison Square Garden into a warehouse.

In sum, the Meadowlands is well on its way to becoming the world's most successful and varied sports complex—if it hasn't, in fact, already reached that lofty eminence.

Which is precisely the way Werblin planned it. "We're just four miles from the Lincoln Tunnel," he keeps saying, "less than 15 minutes by bus from Times Square. And that's the secret—location and accessibility. It's as simple as that."

Originally, getting there was about as simple as Pickett's romp through Gettysburg. From the beginning, in fact, the Meadowlands was a battlefield in a war between states. During the past half dozen years Werblin and his swamp brigade found themselves in combat with all manner of financiers, lobbyists, legislators, mayors, governors and a former Vice-President of the United States. While fending off 14 lawsuits and countless Wall Street ambushes, Werblin's forces have become involved with such diverse outfits as the Audubon Society, the Bank of Tokyo, the University of Alabama, the United States Supreme Court and a Kuwaiti sheikh.

For Werblin, a slight, soft-spoken man with the cajoling look of someone about to say, "Yes, but look at it this way—," the triumph has been worth the heart attack and the sieges of pneumonia and exhaustion he has suffered. Upon celebrating his 67th birthday last spring, he declared, "I enjoy a good fight."

And what of the strident lady in the mustard-colored coat? Though the survivors of the great Battle of the Meadowlands agree that victory would not have been possible without Werblin, none is able to articulate exactly what it is that Sonny does so well. At least none has summed it up as precisely as Mrs. Margaret Hallaway of Kearny, N.J., the lady in the mustard-colored coat. "Mr. Werbling," she says, "is a great persuader." Simple as that.

Mrs. Hallaway should know. After the ground-breaking ceremony, Werblin invited her and the other pickets to a press reception in a nearby enclosure. She accepted, partook of the refreshments and listened as Werblin informed her that the money to build the Meadowlands would not come from the taxpayers but from private funds raised through a bond issue, that the sports complex would be operated and, ultimately, solely owned by the state, and that he served as chairman of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority without pay and would share in none of the profits. Then for his big finish he invited Mrs. Hallaway to take a helicopter tour of the site and, four years from then, to be his guest at the grand openings of the stadium and the racetrack.

Werblin not only followed through but also seated her in his private box, where on Oct. 10 she hobnobbed with his friends Bob Hope and Telly Savalas. Mrs. Hallaway still complains. Only now she does it by note and phone, urging that such crises as a tear in one of the Meadowlands billboards be repaired right away. Says Werblin, "Your work is never finished where the public is concerned."

Multiply Mrs. Hallaway by several thousand other converts and you have the reason for the very existence of the Meadowlands and for its success. Part missionary, part carny barker, Werblin has an almost obsessive concern for keeping the customer happy. A stickler for the niceties, he demands that the pari-mutuel clerks at the track say, "Good luck, sir," every time they sell a ticket. Usherettes—never ushers—direct the flow of people, forever insisting that any mix-up is their fault. Rest-room doors are marked "Ladies" and "Gentlemen," never "Men" and "Women."

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