Owners of professional sports teams are a fascinating set.  Usually wealthy, some charismatic, some stoic, others intensely private.  Only a select few people accumulate enough wealth to own a professional sports team, so naturally they draw a fair amount of interest.

What has changed in the past 20-odd years,however, is what is expected of owners.  For quite some time, owners thought of teams as their own personal toys.  Owners enjoyed the perks of an owners box, courtside seats, being thought of as a member of the team without having any kind of athletic ability, and, of course, the privilege of accepting the championship trophy from the league commissioner.  Owners didn’t run clubs to make money, and had minimal involvement in the day-to-day operations of the club, usually filling the front office with friends, colleagues, and, um, nice scenery (wink wink nudge nudge). 

But as evidenced by Mets owner Fred Wilpon and COO Jeff Wilpon’s comments yesterday after the dismissal of manager Jerry Manuel and general manager Omay Minaya, that reality has changed.  Owners now bear the direct responsibility for the successes and failures of their teams, forcing them to take on heightened involvement and participation in the club’s day-to-day operations.  When surveying the landscape of professional sports, it’s a general truth that successful clubs have a common element of good ownership, whereas losing clubs usually have bad ownership as a common element.

The comments the Wilpons made floored me:

Jeff Wilpon: “Last year, I said that we’d put together a championship caliber team on the field.  We failed. . .we are all responsible here, ownership is responsible. We’re frustrated and upset like our fans, ownership is accountable”

Fred Wilpon (on that it’s like to watch the Mets the last couple of years): “Painful, very painful. Disappointment is one thing, but it’s really painful, and I live it everyday.  People who know me would understand that I’m anguished when we lose a game” 

SNY’s Kevin Burkhardt: “You think that people realize that. . .that you live and die with every pitch?”

FW: “Perhaps not, and maybe that’s my fault for giving them that perception. . .we’re not any less disappointed than the fans.”

It amazes me how such masters of the universe, who are wealthy beyond belief to be able to own a professional sports franchise in New York, so willingly accept the blame for the teams failures and admit that it is their own doings, and not just those of the people they just fired, that resulted in the team’s shortcomings.  

However, in this age of heightened transparency, where news spreads like wildfire and the more open businesses and entities are the ones that succeed over the closed and secretive ones (reference the BP Oil Spill and ensuing aftermath), such admission of wrong doing is not simply appreciated by leaders, it’s required.  The paying public simply will not give their business and hard earned dollars to organizations and entities that don’t care about their customers and constituents.  

And in this modern era of professional sports, fans simply will not support teams where the ownership is asleep at the wheel, the same way customers will not buy from businesses whose leadership appears to not care.  That’s why it was important for the Wilpons to come clean and make the comments they made yesterday.  

To be an owner of a professional sports team today requires more than an enormous bank account and an ego.  It requires savvy, smarts, desire, and good business sense.  It requires a team of dedicated, knowledgeable, and talented professionals in the front office who are always ahead of the competition, not cronies and bombshells just there to have a job in sports.  And finally, it requires the ability to take responsibility for failure if expectations are not met.

SNY’s interview with Fred Wilpon:


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