How To Grade Your Terrible Sports Ownership Group

As we move along in Spring Training, teams will judge some of their players unworthy of a spot in big league camp and send them to the minor league fields. We may want to judge some of these players. After all, there isn’t a whole lot to do besides watch for amazingly weird catches and worry about injuries. Why not spend the time evaluating owners?

Last month saw several owners get in the news for all the wrong reasons. Ken Kendrick demanded $187 million in public funding to renovate Chase Field. Jeffrey Loria may get a huge profit by selling the Marlins … and become the United States’ ambassador to France! James Dolan reminded New Yorkers that he still runs the Knicks, starting a petty feud with fan favorite Charles Oakley. Somewhere I imagine the Wilpons said “hey what about us?” and now Tim Tebow is getting a minor league start.

I used to teach stats before writing for this site. I’m used to seeing students make mistakes early on, get feedback, and do better on the final exam. All of these owners have had their teams long enough to get feedback from the fans and the media about how they should behave. Has your team’s owner learned enough to pass a final exam in Sports Ownership?

This final exam is going to be worth 100 points. When I taught I always let students duck a question on in class exams, but college courses aren’t worth billions of dollars. Sports owners have to answer every question. I’ll give a grading key so you can play along and grade your “favorite” owner. Then I’ll give you my grade for the Wilpons.

On Field Activity

1) Is the owner spending enough money on the team? (10 pts)

Most fans would be thrilled to root for a team where the owner signs the checks and doesn’t do anything else but make an awkward speech after their team wins a title. Baseball has higher correlation between spending and wins recently. We know spending helps teams win, but we also know that any owner why spends an extra $100 million on payroll may not be able to stay in business long term. That’s why most of us focus on whether an owner is spending “enough.”

Smart fans shouldn’t give much sympathy to an owner who has below expected payroll because they have below expected revenue: that’s like giving a college student extra credit because they were honest about not reading the book.

Grading: Look up the team’s media market rank, from largest to smallest in the league. Then look up the team’s payroll from the last five years.

  • Top-10 markets: Give 2 points each year the team is top-5 in spending, 1 point each year they are sixth through 10th.
  • Other markets: Give 2 points each year the spending rank exceeds the market rank.
  • Loria rule: Deduct 4 points each year team spending is less than what the team gets from revenue sharing. A lot of questions will have penalties like this. Just remember we’re not going to give owners negative points for any question.

2) Is the owner avoiding the temptation to hire and fire managers on a whim? (5 pts)

George Steinbrenner’s Yankees won the 1977 World Series, but fired Billy Martin the next season over a major fight with Reggie Jackson. He went on to have 11 different managers over the next 13 seasons. The team played worse and worse amid the turmoil, eventually spiraling in to the club’s longer streak without making the postseason since Babe Ruth came to town. Jeffrey Loria certainly hasn’t spent like Steinbrenner, but he’s joined the spirit of firing managers on a regular basis. Just ask Joe Girardi and Ozzie Guillen. Then again, Mattingly’s ban on facial hair may do enough to channel Yankees’ tradition to slow down the firings.

Grading: Look up the average tenure for each manager. Is it one year, two years, etc? Give the owner this many points. Deduct two points every time the owner fires a manager over a personal feud.

3) Is the owner avoiding the temptation to hire and fire players on a whim? (15 pts)

The Mets have been relatively successful the last two years in spite of the Wilpons. There’s no Arte Moreno demanding the team spend its entire free agent budget on an aging star then not leaving enough cash to flush out the roster. Jeff Wilpon has yet to pull a Vivek Ranadive, demanding the Brooklyn Cyclones to experiment with a four man outfield or trading away a superstar. Few things make fandom feel more futile than rooting for a team where the owner keeps sabotaging the roster, so I made this worth more points.

Grading: Pick from one of these four levels of ownership meddling. If it takes more than 15 seconds and you’re still stuck between categories, split it down the middle.

  • No meddling. Ownership lets the baseball ops staff do its job. Give the full 15 points.
  • Minor meddling/nepotism. Ownership has made one or two minor interventions (i.e., Jeff Wilpon allegedly pushing for the Mets to deal away Scott Kazmir) or the owner invests the time and energy to become a full time GM. Give 10 points.
  • Moderate meddling. Ownership gets involved with a wide range of front office decisions that hurt the franchise, like when Loria vetoed the callup of Triple-A infielder Chris Valaika. Give 5 points.
  • Severe meddling. Ownership trades away a superstar in a move that even video games reject as too unbalanced. Give 0 points and expect that fan base to mourn until they win a title.

Running a Competent Organization

4) Is the owner hiring the most qualified people for team jobs, or hiring family members? (5 pts)

Most sports teams have a majority owner who made their money elsewhere and then bought a team. If the owner holds the team long enough, their kids may want to go in to the fun family business: sports. Unfortunately, owners’ kids have a pretty spotty record as owners themselves. Most of the Wilpons’ bad decisions can be traced to son Jeff Wilpon, not father Fred. James Dolan got control over the Knicks and Rangers from his father and ran them in to the ground. When it goes wrong, second generation owners tend to have poor impulse control and are extremely sensitive to criticism. Maybe it’s telling that the Steinbrenner sons don’t seem to have these problems, but their father did. Just remember that you actually can fire incompetent family members from the team–Jeanie Buss fired her idiot brother from the Lakers–but now her brothers are trying to get her fired!

Grading: 5 points for no nepotism in key positions, 0 for hiring family.

5) Is the owner running a professional workplace where no one feels harassed? (10* pts)

Both Dolan and Jeff Wilpon have been sued for firing female employees who complained about sexual harassment at the workplace. In 2007, Knicks marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders sued Dolan and MSG over unwanted advances from then coach Isiah Thomas. The jury awarded Browne Sanders $11.6 million, with Dolan personally liable for $3 million. Former Clippers owner Donald Sterling was sued for racial and age discrimination after firing general manager Elgin Baylor. Sterling had already settled Department of Justice lawsuit over discrimination against black renters in his real estate business, so it seemed plausible that Sterling would discriminate in his sports business as well. Baylor eventually dropped the racial claim after a judge ruled certain statements inadmissible, He lost the age discrimination suit too, but this didn’t fully clear Sterling’s name.

Grading: This is an easy yes or no question. Owners should either get full points or no points. An owner who wins at trial but not in the court of public opinion gets 5. If 10 points feels low, just bear in mind that harassment lawsuits almost always lead to getting the next two questions wrong as well.

6) Is the owner avoiding other personal feuds that make the team look bad? (10 pts)

Players leave teams for better opportunities on a regular basis. It’s something every business has to deal with when managing personnel. But some owners take this incredibly personally, like they are going through a bad breakup. When a player leaves Boston, how long will it take before we hear negative rumors about their character? The Dodgers and their television station continue to feud with most of Los Angeles’ cable and satellite providers. Feuds can overlap with meddling, like the case of Loria and Valaika. They can also overlap with lawsuits. We’ll take off points here too.

Knicks owner James Dolan takes feuds to another level. Over a decade ago he refused to renew Marv Albert’s contract, presumably because Marv was too critical of the team. Earlier this month he had Charles Oakley thrown out of the arena, then made wild accusations about Oakley possibly having a drinking problem. Two years ago he got in a feud with a fan emailing to complain, telling the fan “What have you done that anyone would consider positive or nice. I am betting nothing.” Dolan once again suggested someone else may have a drinking problem–psychologists call this projection. Dolan earns a special place in any list of bad owners since he seems to enjoy lashing out at fans and their favorite personalities more than winning.

Grading: Pick one of these three:

  • No feuds: Give the owner 10 points.
  • Some feuds: The owner feuds with a former player or executive. Give 5 points.
  • Many feuds and/or petty feuds: Either the owner has a bunch of feuds, or they have a particularly nasty one. Think of emailing fans, firing fan favorites, or retaliating against a 28-year-old journeyman hoping for one big league paycheck. Give 0 points and remember to drink in moderation since these owners keep digging themselves a new hole.

7) Is the owner avoiding publicity stunts that embarrass the team? (5 pts)

No one does publicity stunts better than the Mets. They are comedic gold just about every time. Why let a little thing like “the Wilpons aren’t trying to be funny” get in our way? Last year had the Tim Tebow signing, which our fearless leader summed up as a PR move with no chance of affecting the major league club. 2013 saw the Mets reach out to Cougar Life–”the cougar dating site for younger hot men to meet sexy older professional women”–to try and stuff the all-star game ballot box for David Wright. (Deadspin got the e-mails.) The only baseball team to get close to a Mets level PR flop is Arte Moreno insisting his team is the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.” Even when things get ugly for the Mets, like their attempt to honor Native American Heritage in a game against the Atlanta Braves it’s more of an embarrassment than actual bad blood.

Grading: This is going to be very subjective. I’d give the full five points for boring, non-existent PR and 0 points if your team is a joke meme. I’d also give 3 points extra credit if the team owner allows players and/or social media coordinators to be funny online. (Yes, I gave pity points if a student didn’t know the answer so they intentionally wrote something funny.)

Taking Our Money

8) Is the owner keeping prices reasonable or trying to squeeze every last dollar out of the fans? (10 pts)

One of the first things Arte Moreno did when buying the Angels was reduce the price of beer. It was a great first impression that earned him years of goodwill. Mets and Yankees fans both recoiled from sticker shock when the new stadiums were built. However, raising the ancillary fees that fit in the total cost of attending a game seems more aggravating. Fred McCourt immediately raised the price of parking while cutting back on security outside Dodger Stadium, and the fans never forgave him. Maybe that’s an LA thing though: people saw $50 in parking for the Rams’ regular season debut as a steal! (Yes, I’m very jealous of the good public transit that connects to ballparks in New York.)

Grading: 10 points if prices haven’t gone up in the last three years. 7 points if they went up once. 4 points if they went up twice or had a single large hike. 0 points for raising prices three straight years or if your prices are the most expensive in the league.

9) Is the owner paying for a new stadium themselves, or are they paying for it with tax dollars? (15 pts)

A few weeks ago MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said “to be a major league-quality stadium,” Chase Field “needs work.” The Arizona Diamondbacks are suing to get out of their lease unless they can get $187 million in improvements to Chase Field. The Dbacks lease clearly says the team is responsible for most of these costs, but ownership and the commissioner are creating a crisis to try and push through new policy. (Sound familiar?)

Billionaires demanding giant bags of money up front to build a new scoreboard get the most attention. However, this isn’t the only way that the public can end up paying for a stadium. One of the perks of being an uber-rich sports owner is the ability to negotiate your way out of taxes, particularly property taxes. Voters don’t notice forsaken revenues the same way they notice direct subsidies, even though both make it harder for governments to provide other basic services like education. Did you know the next dollar of property tax that James Dolan spends on Madison Square Garden will be the first?

Grading: Start with a baseline of 15 points, then take away 1 point for every $25 million in public stadium funding.

Off Field Incidents

10) Is the owner behaving ethically in their other businesses? (15 pts)

While Mets fans were reeling from the Madoff blowback in 2011, one of my friends from college helped put the Wilpons’ involvement in perspective. “At least they’re not Donald Sterling.” The Los Angeles Clippers of that decade were known for two things: losing and racial discrimination lawsuits. Every few years Sterling paid a large settlement to resolve new charges of discriminating against black and Mexican renters. When the Clippers traded for Chris Paul I briefly considered hopping on the Clippers bandwagon–I do live in LA–but there’s no way I could back the team owned by a slumlord. Or the team owned by the head of a predatory mortgage company. Any time an owner is that malicious in their non-sports business, it makes it awfully hard for me to feel good about their sports business … unless they lose! Thankfully baseball lacks this kind of villain at the moment.

Grading: 0 points for being evil, 15 points for not being evil. If the owner is incompetent and/or shady but not really evil, we will handle that on an ad hoc basis. The Madoff case is unique.

Grading the Mets

Now that we have our grading scheme, let’s grade the Wilpons as an example:

1) Spending enough: 0 out of 10. The Mets haven’t had a top-10 payroll in five seasons. The Mets actually had a lower payroll than Kansas City when the teams faced off in the World Series!

2) Firing managers: 5 out of 5. The Wilpons aren’t calling the shots.

3) Player meddling: 10 out of 15. Jeff Wilpon has been suspected of interfering with several decisions over the years but ownership has been fairly hands off for years.

4) Hiring family: 0 out of 5. Jeff Wilpon reminds us why it’s a red flag, even if he’s still the owner’s kid and not the owner.

5) Professional workplace: 0 out of 10. Jeff Wilpon learned the wrong lesson from the Knicks’ fiasco. Instead of learning not to harass employees, he learned to settle the case before it goes to trial. Wilpon was sued for allegedly saying he was “morally opposed” to the team’s vice president of ticket sales having a baby without being married.

6) Feuds: 10 out of 10. The Wilpons don’t really have any.

7) Publicity stunts: 0 out of 5. Are you ready for Tebow time?

8) Squeezing fan budgets: 0 out of 10. Yes, New York is expensive, but Citi Field had baseball’s most expensive hot dogs in 2014. Beer prices went up in 2015. Do I need to go on?

9) Bilking the public: 0 out of 15. You may remember how the Mets took out loans to cover Citi Field construction costs. Fred Wilpon opened 2013 saying the major salary decrease was a short term issue as the team had to pay off debt. However, both the Mets and Yankees got city property and sales tax exemptions on their stadiums, along with federal tax-exemptions on their bonds. In the end Field of Schemes estimates the public will pay around 75 percent of the cost for Citi Field.

10) Off-field ethics: 10 out of 15. There’s only one owner in pro sports that has had to slash payroll because they profited from a Ponzi scheme and had to pay back the losers. At best, Fred Wilpon was too dense to realize his profits from Madoff’s Ponzi scheme were too good to be true. At worst, he lied to himself about the risks, just like anyone saying “oh it’s fine every pitcher comes back 100% from Tommy John surgery.” Yes, Wilpon couldn’t make payroll one year and had to get a loan from his buddy Selig. The double standard in how MLB treated the Wilpons as opposed to Fred McCourt is a serious black mark on Bud Selig’s legacy, but that doesn’t make Wilpon as malicious as Donald Sterling.

Final Wilpon Grade: 35 points. There’s certainly room to be a bigger failure. Without looking at it too closely, I think James Dolan would be worse. But at a certain point, does it really matter? An F is an F!

I know this is a difficult exam. Most owners are demanding enough public stadium funding that it’s going to be impossible for them to get an A. That’s the point. Owning and running a large organization is hard as it is. We expect more out of people who run organizations that double as one of our main forms of amusement and symbols of civic pride. We’re OK if owners profit from the arrangement instead of running the team like a non-profit, break-even venture. It shouldn’t be too much to ask for an owner who doesn’t embarrass their customers or bleed them dry.

Photo Credit: Brad Penner–USA TODAY Sports

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