Bruce McNall has always been intrigued by the idea of undiscovered value. When he was in the third grade, shortly after he had been introduced to the world of coins by one of those little starter kits, he wandered into a numismatic shop in Arcadia, Calif., and happened upon a pair of 2,000-year-old Roman coins.
Get this: The coins were on sale for a dollar apiece. "Can you imagine?" he says. "Something 2,000 years old, with all that history behind it, selling for one dollar?"
The notion boggled his eight-year-old mind. It was as if he had just been introduced to a world populated entirely by schmoes. Remarkable value was to be had just for the poking around, just for the asking. Just for a dollar!
This was powerful knowledge, and here is how he used it. At 15, with inventory he had built through his own mail-order business in ancient coins, McNall opened a numismatic shop. At 16, having sold out to enroll at UCLA and study ancient history, he had $60,000, a Jaguar XK-E, one apartment near campus and a grander one a little farther away. At 20, cajoled back into business by some of his professors and their wealthy friends, he opened a new coin shop, this time on Rodeo Drive. He appraised a coin collection belonging to J. Paul Getty and told Getty it was "junk," after which he became Getty's adviser on numismatics.
At 24, in 1974, McNall bagged the Athena Decadrachm, known to collectors as the Mona Lisa of Greek coins. Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who would become president of France, had wanted it. So had Aristotle Onassis. Until McNall bought the Athena Decadrachm, the record price for a coin sold at auction had been $100,000, but, to his way of thinking, that coin had nothing resembling this one's value. He was surrounded by schmoes. He put in a winning bid of $420,000, left everyone reeling in disbelief, and within a week resold the Athena Decadrachm for $470,000. Here was another important thing to know: Whoever has the best property dictates the economy of its market.
We move on. At 38, having become the country's dominant dealer in antique coins, started a film company, established a string of thoroughbreds that would number 300 and bought the Los Angeles Kings of the NHL, McNall paid the Edmonton Oilers $15 million for Wayne Gretzky, the Athena Decadrachm of hockey. A foolhardy bid, don't you think, when you consider that the entire Kings franchise, which was losing money at the rate of $4 million a year, had set McNall back $20 million? Schmoes!
Average attendance at Kings home games went from 11,667 in 1987-88, the season before McNall took over the team, to nearly 16,000—98% of capacity at the Forum—this season. Over that same span, the average ticket price more than doubled. Sellouts have become routine in a city about which former Kings owner Jack Kent Cooke once said, "There are 800,000 Canadians living in Los Angeles, and I've just discovered why they left Canada: They hate hockey." This season 34 of the 40 games at the Forum were sold out. The value of the Kings franchise may be as high as $100 million.
We move on, a little faster now. At 40, having just paid $5 million for the Toronto Argonauts, once the jewel of the Canadian Football League but lately gone to seed with the rest of the CFL, McNall decided to re-Gretzkyize Canada (it's only fair). In unlikely partnership with Gretzky and actor-comedian John Candy, McNall plucked Raghib (Rocket) Ismail, the NFL's likely top pick in the April draft, out of reach of the richer and more established league south of the border.
Ismail cost the partners $14 million, minimum, almost three times what they paid for the team, and schmoes are still second-guessing McNall on this one. How can he possibly recoup that investment in a failing league, especially with a player who may not turn out to be the Athena Decadrachm of pro football, who may in fact be nothing more than a buffalo nickel? It's easy, explains McNall: Attendance at Argo home games goes from the current average of 31,676 to 40,000, with corresponding increases in TV and other revenues—and it all happens next year. After that, the wealth that falls on McNall and his partners will be embarrassing.
Who can doubt this man, who parlayed a childhood coin collection into a personal fortune that he estimates at a couple of hundred million? Who underestimates his sporting sense, which with one bold stroke turned hockey into Los Angeles's glamour sport? Everything McNall touches turns to gold. Take Gretzky.