July 13, 2010
How To Own A Sports Team The Right Way
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Tuesday night is no longer about some All-Star Game. The Boss has passed away.
When it comes right down to it, there is really no clear cut "right way" to run a pro sports franchise. Some ways work for some teams, some ways don't. You have owners who are either rich or filthy rich (except that Billy Sullivan was neither in 1960), owners who are hands-on or hands-off, owners who are either grandfatherly or are a part of some corporate conglomerate, and owners who either want to win or just make obscene amounts of money.
Where does George Steinbrenner fit into this equation?
The iconic Yankee owner, and the bane of New England Sports fans since he bought the Yankees in 1973, passed away on Tuesday morning, just as MLB was prepping for its annual midsummer All-Star Game out in Anaheim, California. Steinbrenner was largely hated in these parts, and that hate was returned a thousand fold. If you thought Carlton Fisk's hatred of the late Thurman Munson and the Yankees was fierce, Steinbrenner's enmity towards our region far outdid that. Bill Lee's opinion of the Bronx Bombers paled in comparison to Steinbrenner's opinion of the Red Sox.
But the bottom line is that Steinbrenner was, in the largest sense, a winner. He won seven World Series as Yankee owner. He led the team through two incredible runs of prosperity (1976-1981, 1995-present) which added to the rich legacy this franchise has enjoyed since receiving Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for cash 90 years ago. He cared deeply for his fan base, and wanted to win championships for them. He would always go the extra mile financially and get those extra ball players to help the Yankees win while the Red Sox would allow players like Fisk, Roger Clemens and Mo Vaughn to walk away as free agents.
That said, Steinbrenner also had a dark side. He was suspended from baseball twice for felonious crimes. It was his erratic and at times misguided stewardship which led the Yankees down a deep abyss from 1982 to 1994, bringing in one overrated expensive player after another and making the manager's office a revolving door. The current Yankee dominance was drafted by former shortstop/GM Gene "Stick" Michael, not Steinbrenner, and it was done while The Boss was serving the second of his two suspensions. This current Yankee run is more about Michael and current GM Brian Cashman than it is about Steinbrenner.
Red Sox fans hated him because he brought the Yankees back to prominence in the mid-1970s and rekindled the rivalry between the two teams. His whole attitude towards running the ball club the way he did was cruel and disdainful in the eyes of Red Sox Nation. But what argument could the Sox fan base really put up, with the Yankees winning those World Series in 1977 and 1978 while the Sox still hadn't done squat in 60 years (by that time)?
Things are a lot different today. The ownership in New England is by and large solid and a wonder to behold. Bob Kraft is the model owner in the NFL. John Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino have brought two World Series wins and a refreshing new look to the Red Sox in their 8 years at the helm. Wyc Grousbeck, Steve Pagliuca and Bob Epstein have an NBA title and a revitalized Celtic team to brag about.
That leaves Jeremy Jacobs and the Bruins. Do not hate yourself if you sometimes wonder to yourself, "Why can't the Bruins get someone like George Steinbrenner?"
If the Boston area could ever embrace someone like Steinbrenner, it would be in hockey. Jacobs has spent his entire ownership of the Bruins nursing the bottom line. Jacobs' ownership can be summed up from a line from the movie Eight Men Out, where Sport Sullivan, the point man for Arnold Rothstein, says "How much water do you give a horse when you still need a full day's work? Just enough to let him know he's still thirsty." That's basically how Bruin fans are treated. As long as the team is profitable, Jacobs sleeps well at night.
On the other hand, if the Bruins had had an owner like Steinbrenner, do you think the Bruins would still have not won a Stanley Cup since 1972? Not on your TD Garden hot dogs and cold beers.
The Boston owners who have won championships have done it without the bluster of Steinbrenner, but with a good business sense nevertheless. Kraft had made a fortune in the paper business, then bought the stadium, then bought the team. He made mistakes early on, learned from them, brought in the right people, let them do their thing, and he got three Super Bowl wins thanks to his faith in his people. He has since built a new stadium and a shopping complex out in Foxborough, and is well respected among NFL owners. Though the Patriots have not won since Super Bowl XXXIX, they are still among the elite teams in the NFL.
Henry, like Kraft, has a ton of money made outside of football (Henry is a venture capitalist and a billionaire). Werner is a TV mogul. The two of them brought in Lucchino to run the baseball operations, and the latter brought in Theo Epstein to run the on-field stuff. Henry provided the money, Werner spruced up NESN, and Lucchino and Epstein put a consistent winner on the field that did win the whole thing twice. The soft-spoken Henry and the effervescent Lucchino have sparred with Steinbrenner on occasion, but they have brought the Red Sox to be the equal of the Yankees in admiration and heritage, and it is Fenway Park, not Yankee Stadium, which is called "America's Most Beloved Ballpark".
Grousbeck is less heralded than the other two owners but no less appreciated. He is younger and radiates that energy, somewhat like a Mark Cuban but not to the degree of the audacity of the Mavericks' owner. Grousbeck, like Henry and Kraft, care deeply about how the fans feel about the Celtics, and have allowed Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers to help rebuild the Celtics into another era of dominance. With the financial backing of the ownership and the advent of the new Celtic Big Three, the Celtics won an NBA title in 2008 and came within four points of doing the same in 2010.
So, with the passing of Steinbrenner, an era in sports comes to an end. The Boss's way isn't always the nice way or the right way, but for the Yankees, it worked. It's never a good thing for someone to pass away, even someone who is looked on as adversely as Steinbrenner is in these parts. Steinbrenner's passion was for winning championships. How can you argue with that?
Well, can you? Just this: The six titles won up here in the 2000s were done with owners who didn't need to be that bombastic or that fanatical.
But the one team without a title could use a Steinbrenner clone, and sooner rather than later.
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