Owners of professional sports teams are in dire need of an image enhancement. Whether it’s NFL owners claiming poverty while refusing to provide evidence of it, NBA owners like Donald Sterling refusing to cover his employee’s prostate cancer surgery, or the Pittsburgh Pirates playing the role of major league baseball’s welfare queen, sports owners need to take a serious look at how they operate their business and treat their fans.
One of the criticisms of owners is that they try to run their teams like just another business, putting profit margin ahead of the fans who passionately support their local teams both voluntarily (PSL’s, tickets, merchandise) and involuntarily (tax dollars for stadiums). Many sports owners only apply the run-your-team-like-a-business model to the corporate side of the team, trying to monetize every piece of the fan experience from parking to food to the game experience itself.
Unfortunately these same owners don’t transfer that devotion to the bottom line to the player personnel side. Hiring sycophants (Vinny Cerrato), close friends (Rod Higgins), former stars whose talent on the court doesn’t transfer to the front office (Isiah Thomas, Kevin McHale, Wes Unseld, Elgin Baylor), relatives (Jamie McCourt) or the just plain incompetent (Chris Wallace, Billy King, Omar Minaya, Matt Millen, the incompetent list is endless).
So what obligations should owners have to their fans?
- Honesty: Be direct with the fans and admit your mistakes. Give them a clear understanding of what your expectations are for the team. Are they rebuilding? Is just making the playoffs good enough? Will you settle for nothing less than a championship? Which leads me to...
- Professional management: Hire good people who know the business and leave them alone. If they don’t meet your expectations, find someone who can. Jerry Jones lucked into Troy Aikman and Emmitt Smith and has been riding off their success ever since.
- Fairness: If you are going to rebuild, field a team that isn’t competitive and ask your fans to be patient, then you need to reward them by lowering ticket prices or finding a way to get them more value for their investment.
- Willingness to invest: Fans shouldn’t expect their owners to buy a championship, but they should expect them to provide the funds for them to compete. The rules of every sport give different weight to an owner’s willingness to open the checkbook. In baseball you can basically buy a competitive team (yes Mr. Angelos, we know it’s harder then it looks) and in football slightly less so (their salary cap is one in name only). Basketball owners are restricted unless they want to pay the luxury tax and even then there are limits, and hockey has the most restrictive cap of all. As an owner you know what the rules are, if you aren’t prepared to spend the money to be successful, go invest in plastics.
Most of these suggestions seem like common sense but you’d be surprised how few owners operate their teams that way.
Over the next year, owners are going to be put under the microscope like never before. With labor agreements having recently expired in the NFL, and this spring in the NBA, the battle will be fought as much in the court of public opinion as in court. Ultimately, the people with the greatest leverage over the owners are not the commissioners or the players, it’s the fans. The value of their franchise is directly related to the fans support of the team (how much would you pay for the Jacksonville Jaguars?) Hopefully, they remember that the next time they hire their college roommate to run the team, or put their wife’s spiritual healer on retainer.