Part 4 in a series pitting 32 of sport's worst owners in all-out battle
By Scott Henry (@4QuartersRadio)
If your team has an owner or owners who treat the fans with respect, be grateful.
If your team has an owner who spends within his/her/their means, but can still improve the team, enjoy it.
If your team has an owner who is capable of dealing with the team’s home city in a respectful, civil, and productive manner, don’t take that for granted.
After all, you could have ended up with one of these schmucks.
Welcome to Day 4 of the WSOT. The Worst Sports Owners Tournament brings together 32 of the worst owners in the history of sport for a no-holds-barred battle to the death, which you, the faithful reader, can decide. If you think a cheap owner is worse than one who picks up his team and hauls it off to some other city, here’s your chance to voice that opinion. If you’re reluctant to get behind your team on the field when the owner is a criminal off it, vote them up right here and remind everyone just how big a scumbag your team’s boss was/is.
The tournament will roll through three weeks, and the votes will be decided between Athlon’s editorial staff, the comments you post below each piece, and comments on the Facebook pages of Athlon Sports and 4 Quarters Radio. Remember, you’re voting for the owners whose crimes against sport, humanity, and/or nature were the most egregious. We’ll offer anecdotal evidence of each owner’s evil/incompetence, and if you’ve got more, feel free to throw it in.
Here’s the schedule:
Monday, Week 3: Quarterfinals
Wednesday, Week 3: Semifinals
Friday, Week 3: Final
All in all, our little tourney isn't too different from the World Series of Poker. There's stacks of cash, gaudy jewelry, and the occasional tantrum involved, but at least there are no epileptic seizures from staring at Greg Rayner's shades.
There are two other major team sports with some following in America, and they had to be uneasy roommates in this tourney. After all, a 40-person tournament could get a little awkward in the semifinals. Anyway, here are some of the goofiest and nastiest from hockey and soccer (or football, if you're English).
(1) Tom Hicks (Liverpool Football Club, 2007-2010)
(8) Charles Wang (New York Islanders, 2004-present)
Tom Hicks has owned or helped to operate four different clubs in three different sports, and in all honesty, he could have been a contender in this bracket or the baseball tournament. At all four clubs, Hicks’ ownership either alienated fans or put the organization into unsustainable debts. In the other corner, we have Charles Wang, a relative novice in the sports arena who’s admitted to serious regrets about purchasing his team, regrets that are shared by said team’s fan base.
When Wang bought the Islanders in 2000, he gave then-GM Mike Milbury complete carte blanche to spend cash for free agents or trades, anything to improve the team. He quieted the threats of the previous regime regarding a potential move to some other city, at least for the time being. That first season ended with a dismal crash and burn, with the worst record in the league. Fortunes would pick up behind acquired talent like Alexei Yashin and Mike Peca, but after two straight trips to the playoffs, coach Peter Laviolette was fired in 2003.
Still, most of the fits and starts could be charged to Isles GM Mike Milbury, as Wang had given him full autonomy over personnel. In January 2006, though, Milbury announced his resignation from the job. It took Wang five months to settle on former Rangers GM Neil Smith as Milbury’s replacement, and Smith’s tenure lasted a successful and distinguished…five weeks. Wang’s next choice after firing Smith was backup goalie Garth Snow, who retired from playing to move upstairs. That had to be a trippy time for the coaching staff, similar to what you'd experience if Guido from shipping was suddenly your supervisor one morning.
Snow had no sooner accepted the job than he was in negotiations with the man he had been backing up on ice, Rick DiPietro. Wang wanted DiPietro in an Islanders sweater for the rest of his career, and the goalie’s new contract would seem to make that very likely. The deal was for 15 years and $67.5 million, a deal which raised eyebrows at the time and causes snickers now, since DiPietro has played 39 games over the last three seasons, recording a 3.28 goals against average. Yashin’s 2001 contract was shorter, but even bigger, weighing in at 10 years, $87.5M.
Wang was seeking a replacement building for Nassau Coliseum, but has had several privately funded proposals shot down. Just this month, a referendum was on the ballot for a public funding plan, and the voters turned that down. To Wang’s credit, he has never explicitly threatened to move the club. When the Nassau Coliseum lease expires in 2015, things could be very different. Really, the largest claim against Wang is a very shaky track record of hockey decisions.
If a few personnel moves were all that was stacked against Tom Hicks, he might actually still own something. Leaving aside Hicks’ issues with the Texas Rangers and Dallas Stars, his Liverpool misadventure smacks of everything that voters hate about politicians: exorbitant promises that aren’t kept, terrible budget management, and lying about the decisions that were made.
Hicks and co-owner George Gillett promised that within 60 days of their takeover of the club, fans would see “a spade in the ground,” beginning work on a new stadium to replace the aged Anfield ground, which opened in 1884. Other than a couple of fences going up around the intended property, there wasn’t a shovel to be found. Perhaps there should have been little surprise that Hicks and Gillett were unable to secure financing for construction, since they had needed to borrow £185 million from the Royal Bank of Scotland just to buy the club.
The stadium project was kept in the forefront by periodic releases of design sketches, but the consultants and architects in charge of distributing those sketches hit Liverpool up to the tune of almost £50M by themselves. Designs had already been put in place and work was scheduled to start before Hicks and Gillett demanded a redesign, effectively short-circuiting all the work that had already been done.
The debt that was already incurred during the purchase wasn’t being serviced as the team worked through the next few seasons, and Hicks needed some help. Refinancing efforts were protested by club supporters, to the point that lenders backed out and left the owners holding the bag.
The difficulties that Hicks and Gillett were facing were exacerbated by the fact that, a year into their partnership, the two were barely on speaking terms. The team’s chief executive, Rick Parry, was a favorite of Gillett’s, and when Hicks proposed sacking Parry over inadequate stadium progress, Gillett was not consulted. He was very unhappy about being out of the loop.
English football fans don’t enjoy the idea of Americans owning their clubs, and with people like Hicks and Malcolm Glazer (more on him in a bit) involved, it’s hard to blame them.
(4) Atlanta Spirit Group (Atlanta Thrashers, 2004-11)
(5) Malcolm Glazer (Manchester United Football Club, 2003-present)
“Can’t we all just get along?” The immortal words of Rodney King should echo loudly while discussing the stories of the Glazer family and the Atlanta Spirit. Personal relationships go a long way in the business realm, and the destruction of same contributes mightily to difficulties in any industry.
The nine-member Atlanta Spirit Group couldn’t get along with each other, but before that, they managed to alienate someone who wasn’t even officially connected with the franchise. ASG took over the Thrashers in 2004, and the wheels of commerce were allegedly greased by a little old-fashioned nepotism. Ted Turner and Time Warner owned the club, and ASG’s membership included Turner’s son Beau, son-in-law Rutherford Seydel, and a couple of Ted's former TBS employees. Texas businessman David McDavid got salty over the sale, claiming that he had a $215 million deal to buy the Thrashers and the Atlanta Hawks. ASG paid $250M for both clubs and Philips Arena. Time Warner settled McDavid’s lawsuit last year after he was awarded $281M in damages for breach of contract.
After that auspicious start, perhaps karma was never going to be on ASG’s side. Events beyond their control, such as the death of forward Dan Snyder in a car accident that also injured star winger Dany Heatley, conspired against the Thrashers, but in 2007, the team reached its peak in winning the Southeast Division. When they started the next season 0-6, coach Bob Hartley was fired, despite still having a winning record with the club, the only Thrashers coach who could make that claim.
By then, the group was already drawing their swords for a legal battle with itself. ASG member Steve Belkin had attempted to block a 2005 trade to bring guard Joe Johnson to the Hawks, and the rest of the group banded together to force him out. The contract drawn up by the team’s lawyers was described as “botched” and “fatally flawed,” so much so that ASG sued their own attorneys. The lawsuit was not settled until two days before Christmas 2010. The litigation reportedly cost ASG $130 million over its length, and that money could have easily been spent to keep the Thrashers competitive.
The lawyers ended up getting paid more handsomely than the players. Reliable scorers like Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis, and Ilya Kovalchuk were shipped out of town to make room for prospects. Kovalchuk was a particularly galling case, as the Thrashers made him a $101M offer only to watch him turn it down because the ownership group could not reassure him that the club was staying in Atlanta. ASG couldn’t make any assurances because, as they later admitted, they had been trying to sell the Thrashers and Hawks since 2005, one year after taking control. When they finally did, it was an immediate end of hockey in Atlanta, as the club was packed off to Winnipeg.
In both of these cases, somebody’s been unhappy with an ownership arrangement. The Thrashers’ owners themselves wanted out, but in the case of Manchester United, everyone but the owners has clamored for a sale.
By 2005, Man U supporters had their choice of two evils. The club’s biggest shareholders, J.P. McManus and John Magnier, were attempting to force legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson out the door because of a dispute over a racehorse that the three jointly owned. On the other hand, there was the creeping threat of American tycoon Malcolm Glazer buying up a steadily expanding chunk of the club. Glazer reached an agreement in May 2005 to buy out Magnier and McManus, although the deal was not without its white-knuckle moments, as detailed in BBC Sports editor Mihir Bose’s 2007 book Manchester Disunited.
Glazer secured the funds for his repeated Man U share purchases through a series of loans, money lent by hedge funds and secured against the club’s assets. One of the hedge funds failed to transfer its money by the deadline to secure the deal with Magnier and McManus, and the deal appeared doomed to collapse. Another bank stepped in and rescued the deal, a transaction that symbolized the Glazer family’s takeover perfectly.
The level of debt incurred by the time Glazer secured his 100-percent takeover was nauseating to supporters on two levels. For one, the club had operated virtually debt-free for years before Glazer’s consolidation of power saddled it with nearly a billion pounds of freight. Additionally, once Glazer reached 75 percent ownership, he was able to de-list the club from the London Stock Exchange, removing the opportunity for shareholders to profit from their support of United, never mind the additional cash that would have continued to flow to the club itself.
Approximately 220 million pounds had been acquired in the form of payment-in-kind loans that ended up being sold to hedge funds. While the club itself was not liable for the loans, the Glazers faced a 2017 deadline to pay the balance or face losing their shares in the holding company that controls the club. In essence, the club itself would be repossessed. To cover the payments, the Glazers secured a bond issue that would allow them to take half of the club’s cash profits to pay down the loans. The loans were reportedly paid off in late 2010, but questions linger about the origin of that money, too, since the Glazers shifted control of the club to a company headquartered in Delaware, a state where companies can keep their revenues and shareholders in secrecy.
So, in this matchup, there’s a difficult choice of two methods of shoddy ownership: letting petty legal squabbling distract from keeping a team competitive or leveraging the club to its eyeballs and playing chicken with the future of its ownership. Take your pick.
(3) Harold Ballard (Toronto Maple Leafs, 1961-90)
(6) Freddy Shepherd (Newcastle United Football Club, 1997-2007)
Many of our favorite teams’ owners are still fellows who grew up in the early part of the 20th Century, before the advent of women’s lib and the strengthening of feminist ideals. Some of them are downright crusty old chauvinists with very little in the way of respect for the fairer sex. Both Harold Ballard and Freddy Shepherd would seem to fall into this category, making headlines with some very famous misogynistic tirades.
While being interviewed by CBC Radio’s Barbara Frum in March of 1979, Ballard was at his irascible best, repeatedly demanding that she keep quiet and stop interrupting him. The gems were his claims that hearing women on the radio was a complete joke and that the only good position for them was on their backs. Harold’s vanilla sexual tastes aside, the Leafs’ fan base tended to feel like they were the ones getting screwed during his tenure. And they weren’t the only ones.
Ballard recognized that television could aid the spread of hockey’s popularity, and just after the popularity of color TV began to boom in the mid-1960’s, he installed a new lighting system in Maple Leaf Gardens. The lights were good for TV viewers, but the heavy glare made life difficult for the players on the ice. Since the biggest favor was being bestowed on the CBC’s viewers, Ballard would be damned if he and his club were going to be the ones to pay for it. He brandished a fire axe and threatened to cut CBC’s main cables before a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, demanding that the CBC or its sponsors pony up for the lights. CBC did.
Such strong-arm tactics made Ballard legendary. When the Beatles were touring North America in 1965, they made a stop at Maple Leaf Gardens, where Ballard had sold tickets for two concerts. That was news to the Beatles, who were contracted for only one. On a hot summer day, Ballard had turned up the thermostats, shut down the water fountains, and ordered concession stands to sell only large sodas at triple the normal price. With fans sufficiently hot and cranky, Ballard told band manager Brian Epstein that the band would have to play twice, or else the fans would tear the building apart with the Beatles in it. Once again, Ballard got his way.
Ballard was also a vicious combatant in the war between the NHL and the AHL, pulling out all the stops when the upstart league changed the Ottawa Nationals into the Toronto Toros. While Ballard was in jail for fraud (more on that in Round 2 if he wins here), the Aeros’ owners agreed on lease terms at MLG with Ballard’s son Bill. By the time they played the first game there, though, Harold was out of jail and he was pissed. Ballard senior demanded $15,000 per game just for the privilege of playing, plus another $3,500 for use of the lights, which come in kind of handy unless the puck, goals, and all the players glow in the dark. (Actually, that might be sort of cool, but I digress.) Plus, he denied the Aeros access to the Leafs’ locker room, so unless they wanted to file into the men’s room in shifts to get dressed, they had to build their own for another $55K. He even yanked the cushions off the home bench for Aeros games. The intruders lasted one year before shuffling off to that noted hockey mecca…Birmingham, Alabama.
In fairness, many of Ballard’s most infamous antics, the CBC and Beatle scraps included, took place before he even became the principal owner. In a similar vein, Freddy Shepherd was still just a member of the Newcastle United Board of Directors when he traveled to Spain, accompanying fellow director/chairman’s son Douglas Hall. While visiting a brothel, the pair met a wealthy Arab sheikh. Since all men tend to strike up chats with fellow whorehouse patrons (or so we've heard), the group began to talk business. Hall and Shepherd were allegedly a bit tipsy as they launched into tales of laughing at the “mugs” who paid exorbitant prices for club merchandise, called Newcastle legend Alan Shearer “Mary Poppins,” and claimed foreign prostitutes were so much better than Newcastle women, who were derided as “dogs.”
The sheikh turned out to be Mazher Mahmood, a reporter for News of the World, and the conversation was splashed across newsstands all over England. Another claim made in the expose was that Newcastle had knowingly sold striker Andy Cole to Manchester United knowing that he needed serious surgery. Both Hall and Shepherd were made to resign from the board, but since they were majority shareholders, they could vote themselves back onto the board, and Shepherd was actually able to take over as chairman.
Once he did, he struggled to find the right manager to run the club on the pitch. Big names like Ruud Gullit and Graeme Souness, a manager who was staring down the barrel of getting Blackburn relegated when Shepherd came calling, couldn’t put Newcastle back up toward the top. Ex-England boss Sir Bobby Robson put the club back into European competitions, but at the end of the 2003-04 season, they were in the UEFA Cup, not the more lucrative Champions League. Shepherd announced that Robson’s contract wouldn’t be renewed, completely rendering him a lame duck. Players bucked Robson’s authority, including midfielder Kieron Dyer's refusal to play in a game after being slotted into a right wing position. Four games in, Robson was canned, and he came out swinging.
Shepherd was accused of making multiple transfer signings without consulting the manager, and when Robson did ask for status updates on contracts, he was repeatedly denied. Robson and other managers noted that most of the club’s money was being sunk into these mysterious transfer deals, with very little headed toward improving the stadium or even the training ground. Graeme Souness noted in 2005 that the shabby ground was responsible for 600 days’ worth of training lost because of a series of hamstring injuries.
Perhaps Freddy was too busy sinking money into a place to store the club’s spare merchandise. Shepherd’s brother Bruce bought a warehouse for 175,000 pounds in 1997, and just a year later, he was reportedly making 150K per year in rent from Newcastle United Football Club. Bruce was guaranteed 2.5M over a 17-year period. Rent for other properties around the 15,000-square-foot building typically ran four pounds per square foot, so 60K per year would have been considered fair.
While Harold Ballard could have done well to read How to Win Friends and Influence People, Freddy Shepherd should have been gifted a copy of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. He at least had the not-really-trying part mastered, unless one counts trying fans' patience.
(2) Bill Wirtz (Chicago Blackhawks, 1966-2007)
(7) Peter Pocklington (Edmonton Oilers, 1978-98)
Which is a more reprehensible offense: years of sticking to the antiquated notion that games should not be broadcast on TV because people won’t come to the arena, or one seismic trade involving the sport’s GOAT (Greatest of All Time, just in case) that changes the entire future of the game? Our final first-round bout pits a pair of hockey honchos from completely different markets.
Bill Wirtz’s largest legacy may have been his never-ending disdain for broadcasting games on television. His famous quote, “Once you give something away, you’ve set a precedent,” echoed loudly when his club was playing for the 1989 Campbell Conference championship. He still refused to let those games be shown on Chicago’s SportsChannel. In his mind, it was only fair to the loyal season ticket holders, but he may have also neglected the possibility of drawing new, casual fans to the arena. By 1992, he did relent and allow regional broadcasting…if the fans who wanted to watch were willing to pony up for Hawkvision, a pay-per-view service charging $29.95 per month. Over the course of the season, that would come to almost $240, which was astronomical for a TV service at the time. In 2002, the Hawks’ playoff games were finally allowed to be shown on Fox Sports Net. Still, Wirtz’s claim that the Blackhawks were “happy” to bring the games to the fans rang a little hollow.
Doing even greater damage to the game was Wirtz’s role in the 2004 lockout that obliterated an entire season. While the rest of the NHL was spending payroll money that bankrupted some owners, the Blackhawks’ 2003 payroll stood at 47 percent of revenue. Compare that to the 66 percent the league was spending as a whole at the time. Good business? Sure, for the owner that’s only interested in that season’s bottom line. Wirtz, however, was notorious for letting talented players walk, which becomes really bad for ticket sales after a while.
Blackhawk icons like Denis Savard and Jeremy Roenick were traded, just like Phil Esposito, who went on to become a Boston Bruins icon. Chicago native Chris Chelios was dealt to the arch-rival Detroit Red Wings, of all teams. Future Hall of Fame goalies Ed Belfour and Dominik Hasek were allowed to leave in free agency. Perhaps most damning was the 1972 loss of Bobby Hull to the World Hockey Association’s Winnipeg Jets. The WHA was so desperate to have Hull on its ice that all the league’s owners passed the hat to collect the million dollars that Hull had jokingly requested. He was perfectly willing to bail due to irritation with how little Wirtz was paying him compared to his preeminent stature in the NHL.
Wirtz wasn’t above using underhanded methods to deny the players additional earning opportunities, and we’ll hear more about that in Round 2 if Wirtz wins. His opponent, longtime Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, actually allowed many players earning chances they would not have normally had, even if he had no idea at the time.
Pocklington’s entire sporting destiny, good and bad, was tied to hockey’s messiah, Wayne Gretzky. The Oilers were a middling playoff team in the WHA before Pocklington purchased the club and was afforded the opportunity to buy Gretzky from the Indianapolis Racers. Gretzky turned out to be the trump card that got the Oilers into the NHL, due to Pocklington coming up with an end run around the terms of the impending merger between the leagues. On Gretzky’s 18th birthday, Pocklington signed Gretzky to a personal services contract, rather than a standard player contract. (A 21-year personal services contract, by the way.) A standard deal would have forced the Oilers to officially protect Gretzky from being claimed by established NHL teams as a merger condition. Having him under a personal services deal ensured that he was Oilers property for as long as Pocklington wanted him to be, so if the NHL wanted Gretzky, they had to take the Oilers.
Once they were there, Pocklington and his staff began assembling a club that would go on to win four Stanley Cups during the ‘80s. They almost did it as the Toronto Oilers, though. Pocklington claimed in his autobiography that Maple Leafs owner Harold Ballard had approached him about the possibility of the two teams swapping cities. PP admitted that he was highly excited about the possibility, seeing dollar signs over the potential profits that could be mined from Toronto. By the time the book came out, fans were already surly with PP, so what did he have to lose?
Why were they surly? The events of August 9, 1988 provoked the burning of Pocklington in effigy, caused controversy all the way to Parliament, and were generally heralded as the first sign of the Apocalypse: Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, a mediocre club in a non-traditional hockey market. For a comparison, think Michael Jordan being dealt to the Toronto Raptors. Conspiracy theorists whispered after the fact that the league had brokered “The Great One” being dealt to a sunny climate in order to precipitate hockey’s growth into warmer locations like San Jose, Tampa, Miami, and Atlanta. Most of the conspiracy theorists at the time, though, Pocklington included, chose to blame Gretzky’s new wife, actress Janet Jones. Edmonton’s never been considered a movie mecca, so Los Angeles was the prime place to continue her career. Of course, her career never did move any further, since there was no way she was ever going to improve on the cinematic masterpiece that was “American Anthem.”
PP claimed that Gretzky had been impossible to deal with after he began seeing Jones. The trade was defended as being economically necessary, since Gretzky was a year away from free agency, and there was no way that the Oilers would have been able to afford a fair contract for him. Pocklington made it personal, though, claiming that Gretzky’s tears at the press conference announcing the trade were fake and that Wayne had “an ego the size of Manhattan.” Adding to PP's unrepentant reputation was the title of his aforementioned autobiography: I'd Trade Him Again.
The Oilers were later forced to part with the rest of the players who built their dynasty, guys like Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, and Grant Fuhr. Trying to cling to someone with the nostalgia of winning clinging to him, Pocklington personally negotiated a huge raise for pesky left winger Esa Tikkanen. Tikkanen went on to miss 54 games over the next two seasons, scoring fewer total points in that span than he had in any of the last five seasons. Salaries like that aided the market’s rapid inflation, indirectly helping drive the league off the cliff that it reached in 2004.
So, Wirtz and Pocklington both helped set up the 2004 lockout, even though Pocklington was six years gone from Edmonton by then. But who’s got to shoulder more blame? That’s up to you.
Remember, it’s all about the votes in deciding which owners did more to screw over their fans and their leagues, so leave some comments and discussion below or on the above-linked Facebook pages. You guys will decide who you'd like to read more eye-rolling tales about in Round 2. Happy voting.