Owner rankings, 17-32: Wayne’s wretched world
Fifteen years ago, during a long-shot campaign to land an NFL expansion team, Wayne Weaver made the city of Jacksonville sound like a football fan’s version of Atlantis. Bring pro football to the sleepy market, Weaver insisted, and bountiful rewards would follow.
In one of the more shocking developments in sports business history, Weaver got his wish. Then, as the years went by and reality set in, Weaver started complaining, acting as though he’d somehow been blindsided by the area’s obvious deficiencies in population and sponsorship opportunities.
So, two years ago, when I unveiled my inaugural NFL owner rankings, I nicknamed him Whine Weaver. After elaborating further in last summer’s follow-up version, I heard from Jacksonville mayor John Peyton, who rushed to defend the man who, according to several of his fellow owners, was quietly shopping his franchise to prospective buyers not so committed to the nation’s 49th-largest media market.
This year, Peyton will be thrilled to learn that Whine is first on the menu. Thanks to Weaver’s sinking reputation in league circles and a change in format – my third annual owner rankings are now a worst-to-first affair – we’ll begin with the man you definitely don’t want owning your NFL franchise and work our way up. That’s also wonderful news for people like Mary Wilson, the wife of the longtime Bills owner (and another of the league’s resident grouches), who last year fired off an affronted email that, sadly, was too late for publication.
We’ll also unveil the rankings over two days, with Part II coming Wednesday. That means fans of top-tier owners who want to weigh in on the rankings, as half the city of Pittsburgh seemed to in 2006, will have to wait another 24 hours before becoming outraged.
As in the past, these rankings are compiled based on conversations with numerous people in the know and take many factors into account. In general, I am partial toward owners who aggressively generate revenue, pour profits back into the product, view things from a wide, league-oriented perspective and refrain from complaining too loudly in public.
Most of all, I try to answer one question: If you root for this team, is this the person (or people) you want in charge?
32. Jacksonville Jaguars – Wayne Weaver: It was bad enough when moaned his way into hosting a Super Bowl, citing the need to help to finance renovations to a stadium in which he would later cover up nearly 10,000 seats to give the team a prayer of selling out on Sundays. What truly irks me, however, is Weaver’s stubborn insistence that he’s not trying to sell the franchise – “The team is not for sale,” he said earlier this month, “and I cannot say it any more clearly than that” – when it is common knowledge among his peers that he has discussed such a transaction with at least three prospective buyers. “He’s a sick puppy,” one owner says of Weaver. “He’s totally and completely out for his bottom line, and the league’s best interest is not in his mind at all.” Echoed a second owner: “He’s been actively trying to sell for a year-and-a-half, and he’s totally checked out. He knows it won’t work in Jacksonville.” The only way I see Whine escaping the bottom of this list in the foreseeable future? Sell the team – and I cannot say it any more clearly than that.
31. Oakland Raiders – Al Davis: Davis, 79, hasn’t just lost his fastball; the man has lost his changeup, and his metaphorical catcher keeps assuring him he’s better than Bob Gibson in his prime. The decline of a once-brilliant football mind would be sad if it weren’t so damaging, not to mention his behavior so nonsensical. Davis, after hiring 31-year-old Lane Kiffin as coach in January of ’07, grew so disenchanted with him in less than a year that he drafted a resignation letter. But when Kiffin balked, Davis – in an apparent effort to save what a source says was $1.7 million – kept him around, albeit in emasculated fashion. Then, surrounded by yes men (along with top executive Amy Trask, who is smart enough to know better) and armed with the estimated $150 million he scored after selling 20 percent of the team to a trio of hedge-fund managers last fall, Davis went on a spending spree that baffled his peers, handing out huge bonuses for players like wideout Javon Walker, defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and cornerback DeAngelo Hall. Equally perplexing was the way he caved and gave a fair-market contract to No. 1 overall pick JaMarcus Russell last September after the season had started, when the quarterback’s rookie year was essentially a washout. The Raiders, since their Super Bowl XXXVII defeat to the Bucs, are 19-61 over the past five seasons, the NFL’s worst record during that span. But in Davis’s distorted world, it’s always somebody else’s fault.
30. Cincinnati Bengals – Mike Brown: In addition to being among the chintziest owners in major professional sports (as evidenced by his insistence on retaining the league’s sparsest scouting department), Brown is a funny man. Alas, I have come to believe that he is an unintentional comic genius. Consider that last May, as Goodell opened discussions about further strengthening of the league’s personal conduct policy for all employees, Brown was the only person to speak against it. Recalls one owner: “Mike said, ‘We should each be able to manage our own organization without the league getting involved. If we can’t manage it ourselves, we shouldn’t be running our businesses.’ And we were all laughing to ourselves, because Mike is the one whose organization had more players getting in trouble than anyone else’s. He’s doing a helluva job.”
29. New Orleans Saints – Tom Benson: It amazes me that Benson can’t even crack this year’s bottom three, not that he was any less awful than usual during the past 12 months. My favorite moment came last October when Benson, in the wake of a vote by owners to lower teams’ debt caps, told SportsBusiness Journal, “The union forced this, not us.” That contradicted Goodell’s earlier statement that the move had been made in response to turbulent global credit markets, instead suggesting its motivation was to reduce the amount of cash spent on player salaries in preparation for a potential lockout when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2010. In other words Benson, the chair of the league’s finance committee, made an implication that seemed to violate federal labor laws requiring good-faith negotiations. In February the NFL Players Association accused the NFL of collusion, the first such charge in the 15-year history of the current CBA. Two months later owners responded by voting to scrap the debt-reduction plan. Suffice it to say that no one at that meeting was doing the Benson Boogie.
28. Arizona Cardinals – Bill Bidwill (Michael Bidwill): The family that brought pro football to the desert two decades ago, only to screw things up from the start, is showing some disturbingly familiar tendencies. Two years after opening University of Phoenix Stadium, five months after hosting Super Bowl XLII, the Cardinals are having trouble selling out the joint. That’s tough to do, but when you’re so cheap as an organization that you refuse to fly in draft prospects for visits, the paying customers catch on pretty quickly. As for the possibility of future Super Bowls, it didn’t help that many of the people who vote on such matters were among those whose private jets sat on the Scottsdale Airport runway for up to six hours in the aftermath of February’s game thanks to a storm and dubious departure management by air-traffic controllers. For all the promise the Cardinals displayed toward the end of last season under new coach Ken Whisenhunt, and for all of team president Michael Bidwill’s competitive fire and energy, his father’s organization remains grounded in a bygone era.
27. Buffalo Bills – Ralph Wilson: A few months shy of his 90th birthday, Wilson should be in a celebratory mood. Largely because of his bitching, moaning and general grumpiness, Wilson was essentially handed the keys to a monster market, in the form of a deal to play eight games in Toronto over the next five years – one which guarantees his franchise $78 million. “We’ll see if the guy stops whining and complaining now,” one owner says. “Toronto, if you put it in the U.S., would be the fourth-largest city. If Jerry Jones staked a claim to Mexico City, or Robert Kraft did it with Montreal, or Paul Allen wanted to play one game a year in Vancouver, we’d never approve it. Ralph was given a special accommodation because we’re sick of hearing him cry about being in a small market.” Back when he co-founded the AFL, Wilson was considered an innovator. Now he comes off as selfish and stodgy and looking for handouts. It’s also telling that, rather than selling the naming rights, he continues to play his non-Toronto home games in Ralph Wilson Stadium. What a team player.
26. Chicago Bears – Virginia McCaskey (Michael McCaskey, Ted Phillips): By all rights, this should be one of the richest and most successful franchises in sports. The Bears have the NFL’s second-largest market all to themselves, a recognizable brand steeped in tradition and a refurbished stadium. They even played in the Super Bowl two years ago, though it’s hard to remember after last season’s harsh comedown. And yet? “What a disaster,” one owner says. “They should be first or second in revenues; they’re lucky if they’re in the middle of the pack.” With Michael McCaskey, who was publicly declawed by mother Virginia after mismanaging the team back in the ’90s, back in charge of the family business (Phillips is technically the CEO and president), there’s not a whole lot of promise on the horizon. McCaskey, the nominal head of the league’s Super Bowl committee, takes that role very seriously: Before the most recent vote he reminded his fellow owners how important it was to be polite during the presentations, earning eye rolls throughout the room. As for the lagging cash flow, one owner suspects that the Bears intentionally turned down a marketing deal, citing a supposed conflict with one of the league’s national sponsors, in an effort to keep profits low enough to avoid contributing to the league’s revenue-sharing pool. And you thought finding a quarterback was the Bears’ biggest problem.
25. San Francisco 49ers – Denise DeBartolo York and John York: Not since Bonnie and Clyde has a couple caused such devastation, taking a franchise that was the envy of the sports world and turning it into an aimless shell of its former self. After wresting control of the 49ers from her brother, Eddie, and dispatching her husband to run it, DeBartolo York has good reason to avoid showing her face in San Francisco: The era that produced five Super Bowl championships in a 14-year period seems like it happened 1,000 years ago, and everyone knows what went wrong. John York’s condescension and cost-cutting ripped apart the soul of an organization known for its first-rate treatment of its employees. Even more, his brusque personality and lack of political savvy have hamstrung the team in its search for a new stadium. Having alienated San Francisco’s civic leaders, the 49ers have focused in on a site in Santa Clara that doesn’t seem overly promising. The Yorks apparently want to hold onto the team so that their 26-year-old son, Jed, the vice president of strategic planning, can eventually take it over. It would be a lot cooler if they could just go back in time.
24. Detroit Lions – William Clay Ford (Bill Ford Jr.): I don’t have too many specific complaints about these owners, other than the fact that their team perpetually stinks, and they don’t seem to have the slightest clue as to what to do about it. The elder Ford’s uncanny loyalty to team president Matt Millen is perplexing to his peers, as is the failure of Ford Jr. to prevail upon his father to make a change. “The kid lets it happen, but it’s not like he’s a shrinking violet,” one owner says. “He’s the (executive) chairman of the Ford Motor Company!” Granted, it’s a rough time for the auto industry, but that’s not the only explanation for the Lions’ struggles. Despite a new stadium (Ford Field opened in 2002) and a sizeable market, the team’s revenue flow is unimpressive.
23. Minnesota Vikings – Zygi Wilf: When it comes to his shoddy stadium, Wilf is s stepchild in the Twin Cities. Minnesota’s legislature essentially brushed him off like Adrian Peterson shedding a 180-pound cornerback last year, declining to consider a new facility until 2009 at the earliest, and Wilf’s team remains stuck at the Metrodome, with a lease that expires in 2011. Three years into his tenure Wilf, a real-estate developer in New York and New Jersey, does not seem to possess much Midwestern political savvy. The team isn’t generating much revenue, and the big changes Wilf promised after succeeding Red McCombs have been hard to spot.
22. St. Louis Rams – Chip Rosenbloom/Lucia Rodriguez (John Shaw): I love the way Rosenbloom, who took over the franchise after mother Georgia Frontiere’s death in January, reacted after I wrote a story stating that he and his sister Rodriguez were shopping the franchise: He issued a denial which insisted, “I can assure you I have every intention of keeping the Rams in St. Louis.” Right, and I can assure you I have every intention of losing five pounds before I hit the road for my training camp tour … oops. Last week Rosenbloom stuck to his story, explaining that he had hired a Baltimore firm specializing in sports investments merely to field inquiries from interested buyers, a role he portrayed as “simply returning these people’s phone calls.” Translation: The Rams are in play, and there’s a chance that whomever buys the franchise will look to return it to Southern California. The one potential savior, minority owner Stan Kroenke (who has a 40-percent stake), would have to sell off his interest in the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche to satisfy the NFL’s rules against cross-ownership of pro teams in other NFL cities. Kroenke is so highly regarded that some of his NFL peers might push for the rule to be waived, but that would be a long shot; Broncos owner Bowlen, for one, would figure to be highly scrutinizing of such an arrangement. In the meantime, the Rams have a capable CEO in Shaw, who likely won’t be around to solve the stadium issues that, barring substantial improvements to the Edward Jones Dome or a new facility in St. Louis, will result in the team being able to get out of its lease in 2015.
21. Atlanta Falcons – Arthur Blank: I’d like to believe that Blank, having served as the NFL’s most shameless enabler (for Michael Vick), has snapped out of his adulatory haze and will now become the star he has always had the potential to be. I’d also like to believe that the hiring of former Patriots scouting director Tom Dimitroff as general manager was a shrewd move. But I’m skeptical, not because I doubt Dimitroff’s ability to succeed, but because of the way the whole thing played out: After being embarrassingly spurned by Parcells, Blank extended an offer to Dimitroff without having ever met him in person (the job interview was conducted via video conference) and retained Rich McKay – the man Dimitroff was replacing – in the role of team president. Throw in the fact that Blank accompanied Dimitroff on his pre-draft visits with prospects such as quarterback Matt Ryan (the Falcons’ eventual selection with the No. 3 overall pick), and it’s easy for critics to portray Blank as meddlesome and amateurish. Still, Blank has enormous potential, something that can’t be said for most of the people below him.
20. Cleveland Browns – Randy Lerner: Some people in Cleveland, noting the promise displayed by the organization last season, might argue that Lerner should be higher on this list. I would argue that Lerner probably isn’t one of those people. Chances are, he’ll read this and shrug. He seems far more concerned with Aston Villa, the soccer team he owns in the English Premier League, and the frequent trips to London that gig necessitates. Perhaps because his late father, Al, was such a prominent figure in Cleveland – or perhaps because it’s, you know, Cleveland – the younger Lerner doesn’t appear to share the same enthusiasm for the home of the Browns. Lerner recently hired former league employee Mike Keenan as president, finally filling the job that opened after John Collins lost out to general manager Phil Savage in a power struggle in 2005. He also refuted a rumor that he’s moving to London fulltime to be Villa’s CEO. In terms of NFL dealings, one owner says of Lerner, “He’s not very decisive. Whoever gets to him last has got him, and he leads the way in terms of manipulating the revenue-sharing agreement to his advantage. It’s very disappointing.”
19. Tennessee Titans – Bud Adams: Adams, now in his mid-80s, has been less involved in league matters in recent years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Senior executive vice president Steve Underwood is well-liked by the owners, and coach Jeff Fisher, also an executive vice president, co-chairs the competition committee. The Titans are generally regarded as a well-run franchise that milks the most out of the Nashville market, and Fisher’s presence makes it an attractive place to play. To Adams’s credit, he has retained Fisher for more than 13 seasons, making the former Bears safety the league’s longest-tenured head coach, and provided him with a smart, personable general manager in Mike Reinfeldt. This is the point at which I usually make fun of Adams’s hair, but I think he may be too old for that now.
18. New York Jets – Woody Johnson: Give him credit for partnering with the Giants on the $1.6 billion stadium being constructed across from Giants Stadium in New Jersey that opens in 2010 and for finally getting the franchise out of its shoddy home in Hofstra. The team’s $75 million new training facility in Florham Park, N.J., will feature the architectural touches of longtime Jets fan David Childs. Less visually appealing was the on-field product in 2007, which began with general manager Mike Tannenbaum doing the narc thing against Belichick and degenerated into a 4-12 mess of a campaign. Given Tannenbaum’s background as a cap specialist, his status as the team’s highest-ranking executive in charge of personnel is somewhat of a concern. On a positive note, most league observers see the recent departure of team president Jay Cross as a promising development.
17. San Diego Chargers – Alex Spanos (Dean Spanos): Given the way I ripped Dean Spanos a year ago for his resolution of a dysfunctional dynamic between general manager A.J. Smith and then-coach Marty Schottenheimer, I guess I need to start by acknowledging that I was unduly harsh: Smith’s hiring of Norv Turner, though seemingly a major gamble (and an unpopular move in the locker room for much of the ’07 season), worked out well in the end as the Chargers reached the AFC Championship game. Since Spanos is a pleasant guy who seems to care more about winning than his father, who no longer plays an active role in running the organization, I’m inclined to give him a break this time. My chief complaint lies in the franchise’s struggle to land a new stadium. I realize that enlisting public funding is a non-starter in California and that the city of San Diego wasn’t nearly as amenable to working with the Chargers as it was with the Padres, who scored a downtown ballpark. However, Spanos has seemed strangely reactive, most recently holding his breath in the hope that one of two sites in Chula Vista, near the Mexican border, will come through. Meanwhile, the Chargers can exit Qualcomm Stadium after this season by paying off the rest of their lease; the buyout price drops appreciably after 2011. Says one owner: “I would’ve hoped that once they got their freedom they’d have been very aggressive. They need to come out of neutral and go after it.”