As for the Honus Wagner baseball card, that was Gretzky's baby all the way. One off-day in Chicago earlier this year, Gretzky was killing time with an autograph hound who haunted the Kings' hotel lobby. Gretzky idly wondered if it wouldn't be fun to invest in the rarest baseball card (do you hear McNall talking here?), which he assumed would be a Babe Ruth card. That's a $7,000 card, the hound told him. What you want is the 1910 Honus Wagner card.
Gretzky mentioned that to McNall. As it happened, the card was soon put up for auction at Sotheby's in New York City, and McNall asked if Gretzky was just talking or if he really wanted it. The Wagner was part of a full set of 1910 cards. Gretzky and McNall inquired and figured that the Wagner would go for about $300,000 and the other cards for $200,000. They agreed to go halves on the entire collection and to spend a maximum of $500,000. The 1910 cards without Wagner fetched $90,000, and where do you think bidding stopped on the Wagner? At $410,000, of course. "How did you work that out?" Gretzky asked McNall.
McNall moved Gretzky into the big time with the purchase of the Argos. Or was it the other way around? McNall was a member of the Hollywood Park board of directors along with Harry Ornest, then owner of the Toronto club. Ornest ran a tidy outfit, always making money but doing little to add to the value of the team or the league. Says Hugh Campbell, general manager of the Edmonton Eskimos, "I wouldn't say [Toronto] was failing, but it wasn't flourishing."
McNall thought that if he bought the team, he could bring some attention to it with a pair of prominent Canadians. Candy, a big hockey fan, had been bugging McNall to make the deal since he had heard his hometown Argos were for sale. Gretzky told McNall that this was a bigger opportunity than McNall knew. "This would be like owning the Dallas Cowboys," said Gretzky, getting carried away. "It's Canada's team."
Gretzky's and Candy's enthusiasm finally pushed McNall over the edge. He anted up $3 million to buy the Argos, and put his two co-conspirators on the hook for $1 million apiece. McNall wasn't sure what he would do with the team. He figured the marquee value of Candy and Gretzky would pull in some fans, and improvement in the team's performance on the field would pull in others. "I wasn't looking for a home run," says McNall. "I just thought there was a lot of tradition there, a terrific stadium, a lot of upside."
It had not occurred to him that he could find another Gretzky. Nobody in the NFL, he figured, could do for a CFL team what Gretzky had done for the Kings. The idea of drafting Ismail was actually a whim, and it wasn't even McNall's. Argo general manager Mike McCarthy claimed CFL negotiating rights to the Rocket almost for the fun of it. McNall became interested, had some figures drawn up and decided to offer Ismail $6 million over two years.
The negotiations were complicated, and the contract that the Rocket finally signed is probably not comprehensible to anyone without a Ph.D. in finance. Contrary to reports in the press, Ismail didn't receive any condos or equity in the team. The key features of the deal are $14 million guaranteed over four years, with bonuses linked to personal and team performance, stadium attendance and other team revenues. That's how speculation began that Ismail could reap upward of $25 million from the contract. "That's possible," says Suzan Waks, a McNall aide who negotiated the deal, "but then, they could have picked any number."
McNall thinks it would be stupid not to recognize that Ismail, even without equity, is a partner in this enterprise. It's he who will or will not fill the seats, attract a TV network to the CFL and generate league-wide interest. Says McNall, "People say, 'How can you pay a guy $25 million?' It's simple. If he makes you $75 million, then $25 million is not so bad."
When you talk to Ismail, he hardly mentions money. Instead, he says he was bowled over by McNall's intellect, personality and trailblazing attitude. Early in the negotiations, McNall dispatched his JetStar to South Bend to whisk the Rocket up to Toronto to look around and then out to Los Angeles so they could meet. The L.A. visit was memorable for both parties. "Have you seen his coins!" says Ismail. "It's ridiculous! Ridiculous!"
McNall was surprised to find that Ismail knew the history behind some of the coins. "I was stunned when he jumped in on some obscure topic," McNall says. For example, Ismail was conversant with the lives of some of the minor emperors.