Sheep and Ticket-Takers

When famous sports team owners give up the ghost, you see some weird stats. Lakers owner Jerry Buss died on Monday, giving SportsCenter the opportunity to credit his ownership for 10 NBA titles. You’ll see the phrase “ushered” or “shepherded” used to describe his success, as if he had a red suit and flashlight or donned robes and a hook to coax a bunch of Larry O’Brien trophies into a holding pen.

Buss was obviously a fantastic NBA owner. He was universally praised for his business sense and his role in making the Lakers the premiere franchise in the league. Everyone loved him for his success and his photogenic nature, but he wasn’t exactly a great NHL owner.

Here are the last two graphs of Buss’ New York Times obituary:

When Mr. Buss was a neophyte club owner, he saw himself as a fan — but only to a point. As for running hockey’s Kings, money losers in sunny Southern California, he told People magazine in February 1980 that “I think you can buy one ball club for fun.”

But he viewed his purchase of the Lakers and the Forum “as clearly a business deal.”

And as he put it: “I don’t just want winners. I want champions.”

So Buss wasn’t a very good owner for the Kings, who are barely mentioned in the obit. They were not champions under Bus, but he was definitely not their worst owner. Coin collecter/fraud Bruce McNall brought Wayne Gretzky to the City of Angels and plunged the team into bankruptcy. McNall sure seemed to like hockey, but that didn’t help them win. Or become financially solvent.

Buss was great for the Lakers but never saw the same success with the Kings and—other than outward interest—it’s tough to say why that was. There are no clear-cut guidelines to being a good owner. A good rule of thumb is be rich enough to actually buy the team. After that, direction is limited.

tumblr_mi2jrlbQeH1qz6f9yo1_500Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player in the history of the world. He now owns a basketball team who have never been any good. Jordan, who turned 50 last week, was the subject of a long feature written by Wright Thompson.

When I read that story, which is tremendous, I couldn’t help but put myself into the shoes of a Bobcats fan. The piece talks about Jordan’s legendary competitiveness and mean streak. It chronicled his boat trips and how he watches Bobcats games, how frustrated he is with losing games. It was awesome, but also fascinating because if I were to read that as a guy in Charlotte who liked basketball, would I be excited to know that’s how my owner acts? Do I want the millionaire in charge yelling at the TV and worried about what shoes his friends are wearing.

Basketball fans know so much about Jordan’s playing days that it’s tough to remove that knowledge from his ownership of the Bobcats. Other owners, though, are exclusively tied to their teams. In Buffalo little is known about Terry Pegula’s business ventures before he bought the Sabres, but the fracking news is slowly starting to come out.

Over the last week there’s been some debate about what Pegula should be doing with the team. I talked about gatekeepers and all that on a podcast over the weekend, but the real point I wanted to make about the debate is this: I have no freaking clue what Terry Pegula should be doing with the Sabres. There’s no real playbook to follow, and since no one has ever won anything of significance around here, I don’t really have much information to go on as a fan.

If ESPN were to send a journalist to hang out with Pegula for a few weeks, I would read the hell out of that story. We would discuss it for days, maybe weeks, but I have no clue if what I read would make me feel better or worse about his ownership of the team because I don’t know what makes a good sports owner. I have no idea if his dog should be allowed on the premises. I have no idea if he should have fired everyone and made a throne out of the bones of marketing interns. As far as I know, the rules are largely unwritten.

Good owners are made by results, not the process. The robes and hook only matter if the pen is empty.