(Lance Ringhaver, a prominent Tampa Bay businessman and once a member of the Tampa Bay Baseball Group, died in a car accident on Tuesday, April 5, 2016. I profiled him in my 1993 book, Stadium For Rent: Tampa Bay’s Quest for Major League Baseball, and share that excerpt below. You can read more about him in this Tampa Bay Times story. Rest in peace, Lance.)
Truck dealer Lance Ringhaver once told auto dealer Frank Morsani that if the Tampa Bay Baseball Group ever had room for one more person, or if Frank Morsani ever needed another investor, please call.
In 1990, Morsani called.
“He said he had asked several people and he had an opening,” Ringhaver says. “Mark Bostick had been invited and since I knew Mark, maybe I’d join up, too.”
Ringhaver, an enthusiastic sports booster at his alma mater, the University of Florida, was a baseball fan from way back. He first tasted the game as a bat boy on his father’s company ball team and later played in the Pee Wee League. As he grew up, he loved to watch the game.
In 1961, Ringhaver and his father started Ring Power Corp. in St. Augustine, Florida. The company started as the Caterpillar engine franchise for North and Central Florida, growing to cover 44 of Florida’s 67 counties. Lance Ringhaver became president of the heavy equipment company in 1976 and later added the title of chairman of the board. He operates Ringhaver Equipment Co.’s Central Florida companies out of Tampa and his brother Randal oversees North Florida operations of Ring Power in Jacksonville. Annual sales reached $400-million in 1990.
When the potential to own a piece of a major league franchise arose, it sounded too good to be true. “I initially thought it was fairly profitable,” he says. “Reading about George Steinbrenner, the Yankees, his television contract, it was a pretty picture.”
Ringhaver and the Bostick family were friends over two generations. Ringhaver met Morsani almost as soon as the car dealer came to town. Morsani was easy to know in the community. They also shared a love of the soil and engines. Morsani’s career made him one of Tampa Bay’s leading dealers of new cars; Ringhaver was one of the state’s largest sellers of Caterpillar earth-moving vehicles.
“I liked Lance,” Morsani says. “He was a very genuine guy. No big flair—just get the job done.”
The deal Morsani proposed to Ringhaver and Bostick all but cut out his original gang at the TBBG. The new guys would become the majority investors in pursuing an expansion franchise, each taking a 45 percent interest. “They both felt they could handle whatever the figure was. I never got into their finances. I never saw their financial statements,” Morsani says.
“We’d both have gone to the bank,” Ringhaver says of himself and Bostick. “We didn’t have it sitting around. There’s no doubt we’d be pretty well going into hock individually; I’d be going to my pocket, not my company’s.”
The remaining 10 percent would be Morsani’s (less a fraction of the action for the TBBG) as compensation for the time and $2-million he already invested. The remaining $65-million of the expansion fee would be raised by SunBank of Tampa Bay through a limited partnership.
“We always felt that we had to expand the ownership group,” Morsani says.
Morsani says he warned his new partners about the rocky state of his personal finances and that one of his banks might call in a loan. They knew he was in trouble and structured their partnership so that Morsani bore no responsibility for a cash investment. Morsani invited them to the table, knew his way around and possessed a decade of experience with baseball. He was worth a 10 percent stake if the partnership succeeded. Further, Ringhaver and Bostick were prepared to assume the Tampa Bay Baseball Group’s debt if they were awarded a team, greatly reducing the pressure on Morsani.
What mattered most to Ringhaver as an investor was staying in the background. Much as he loved the game, he already ran a demanding company, one that took virtually all of his time and energy, day in and day out. “I never wanted to be a major part of the team but Frank wanted to keep it small. And it was easier to make decisions without a big committee,” Ringhaver says.
The new Morsani group met two or three times a month, sometimes more. Ringhaver’s primary responsibility was to work with Bostick to develop a line of credit for the partnership. Beyond that, Bostick and Morsani handled all the baseball-related responsibilities because they had all the contacts.
(Originally published in Florida Business/Tampa Bay, 1989)
Before her, Cornelia Corbett’s team, the Tampa Bay Rowdies.
Behind her, a few thousand exuberant soccer fans who haven’t given up the dream.
There isn’t much to cheer on this overcast Sunday night at Tampa Stadium except that the rain has stopped. Despite the Rowdies having advanced to this American Soccer League playoff game against the Boston Bolts, only 5,000 people have come out to support the team. Even their loudest screams echo as but a whisper in the cavernous bowl, where 67,000 seats both end zones and the entire north side of the field are empty. Even the concession stands are against the Rowdies tonight; they ran out of hot dogs before halftime.
Still, Cornelia Corbett is unswayed. Watching the entire game in her now familiar position on one end of the bench beside head coach/general manager Rodney Marsh, the owner of the Rowdies concentrates her energies on the field. She winces each time the Bolts score and claps enthusiastically when the Rowdies engineer an elegant pass or steal.
The Rowdies are down two games to none after losing two straight in Boston. This game is their last gasp and before the night is over, they will have choked, 2-1.
Despite all these clouds, there are rays of sunlight for the oft battered Rowdies. Their regular season record was 12 wins and 8 losses, up from 10-10 in 1988. They won their division. An average home attendance of 5,792 was actually tops in the two-season-old American Soccer League. And while the team may lose up to $200,000 for its fiscal year (overhead from the off-season includes a reduced office staff, soccer clinics for youngsters, player tryouts, travel and league work), it actually showed a small profit of $10,000 during the team’s 20-game season.
That’s why Cornelia Corbett is smiling.
“I think we’re making headway,” she says. “Our losses aren’t as bad this year as last. It’s a minute swing: it’s possible we could make $150,000 and it’s possible we could lose $150,000.”
Corbett doesn’t know that the Rowdies ever made money not under founder George Strawbridge in the North American Soccer League (NASL), nor under the ownership troika of Stella Thayer, Bob Blanchard and Cornelia’s husband, Dick Corbett. In the heady years of the NASL, when Marsh was a star player, Gordon Jago was coach and a coterie of international stars electrified the league’s games on national TV, the Rowdies averaged 28,000 fans at Tampa Stadium. There was tremendous overhead associated with that success. But it’s a level Cornelia Corbett would like to reach. “I can’t imagine drawing an average of 28,000 and losing money,” she says.
Sportswoman, socialite, businesswoman, wife, mother of four who is Cornelia Corbett?
“She’s a mover and a shaker in our sport,” says Colin Phipps, owner of the Orlando Lions ASL team. “The average sports enthusiast sometimes gets enamored of the sport and forgets the practicality. She understands both.”
“She understands sports, which is a major plus for any owner,” says Rodney Marsh.
Born in Manhattan in 1946 to a “well-to-do” family (she’ll say only that her father is in “investments,” her mother owns racehorses and Cornelia herself has “private income”), Corbett earned a degree from New York University (Washington Square) in history. As soon as she graduated though, “Cornie” as friends and family call her went west to teach skiing in Aspen. She met Dick there in ’68 and returned with him to New York City. They married two years later.
The honeymoon was exotic and long three months of hiking and wandering through Tibet, Nepal, Kamandu and the Himalayas. “The two of us slept in mud huts with the Nepalese,” remembers Dick. “We traveled with nothing but the clothes on our backs and two sleeping bags. That trip showed she was a great outdoors lady. Leaving Manhattan, she was comfortable sleeping in a mud hut next to a campfire, crawling up and down the Himalayan range. She was a doer and great fun to be with.”
As her husband made his first million in real estate (see sidebar), Cornelia spent three years as a case officer investigating abuse and neglect for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. “It was interesting and pretty gruesome,” she recalls. When their first child was born in ’73, it was time for a career change. “I could no longer be objective,” says Cornelia. “I couldn’t do case work. Every child became my own.”
The Corbetts met on the ski slopes, but Dick himself a former light-weight amateur boxer with a nose broken in six places to prove it introduced Cornelia to golf and, of course, she’s been playing ever since. They take family vacations to hunt or go white-water rafting in Colorado, climbing in the Grand Canyon and camping with Wild Kingdom TV host Jim Fowler (he is godfather to one of their children). The couple is “simpatico,” says Cornelia, very upbeat.
If an impression of Cornelia Corbett as ultimate sportswoman is being formed, it’s not incorrect. “I’ve been a sports nut all my life,” she says. “If I have been consistent in one thing in my life, it’s my love of sports and competition.”
Cornelia and Dick moved to Tampa in 1978. In 1984, when the NASL went under, Dick Corbett’s partners in the Rowdies, Stella Thayer and Bob Blanchard, decided to bow out as well. They didn’t know where soccer was going if anywhere and lacked the spirit and time to continue. Dick and Cornelia toughed it out although the team has nowhere to play in ’85. In ’86, Dick made his wife sole owner.
“As he has done many times in the past,” recalls Cornelia, “he said, ‘Do you want to see what you can do with it?'”
No hesitation; she said yes.
Corbett had worked in the Rowdies front office during the last NASL season, so she knew the makeup of the business. The game itself was close enough to field hockey which she played competitively from grade school through college to assure her of competency in the finer points of soccer gamesmanship. And, most of all, she is not a woman to shirk from a challenge. When Dick needed someone to supervise a brownstone gutting and renovation in New York City back in the early days, he turned to Cornelia to bring in estimates and run roughshod over the crews. When he was in-between general managers at the old Hall of Fame Inn, Cornelia effortlessly handled the job.
“I’ve stepped into gaps for him a lot of times as a caretaker,” she says matter-of-factly.
In the case of the Tampa Bay Rowdies though, what Corbett inherited from her husband was very little. A familiar nickname, one that was once synonymous with having a good time. A somewhat tired Irish melody and phrase “The Rowdies arrrrrreee …. a kick in the grass!” Westshore offices in need of repair and a fresh coat of paint. Those were just the peripherals: the team itself had disintegrated with the league. There were no players, no coach. And no league to play in.
Desperate and choiceless, Corbett entered the Rowdies in the American Indoor Soccer League. The team played indoors at the Bayfront Center Arena. Despite a 21-21 record and a playoff berth, fans knew this was not the old kick-in-the-grass and they stayed away in droves.
The 1987 season was the first to offer promise to soccer fans. Corbett entered the Rowdies in the start-up American Soccer League (ASL) and quickly found herself the Grand Dame of the game, having had as much or more experience than most of the other owners in the 10-team league. She was called upon for opinions and rose immediately to the league’s executive board. The Rowdies’ first season in the ASL was a flat 10-10, but the team led the league in attendance.
Rodney Marsh runs the game side of the Rowdies; Cornelia Corbett handles the business. She says, contrary to public opinion, husband Dick is completely out of the team’s operations.
Finding a woman running a professional sports franchise is still unusual. Marsh says male team owners around the league found they had quite a capable associate in Corbett, however someone who knew their business better than they themselves did.
“There are a lot of ethnic owners in soccer and many of the meetings get personal,” he explains. “She comes in with a very cold, calculated, detail-oriented business concept. They were a little overpowered by that.”
Linda Powell, director of operations for the American Soccer League, says Corbett has earned the respect of her counterparts. “She’s been in the sport longer than most of the owners,” according to Powell. “She is very concerned that the franchises run professionally and that her colleagues also run their franchises professionally.” Corbett was chair of the league’s marketing committee at one point and currently sits on the executive committee.
“Our club is as professional an organization as you can have,” reiterates Marsh. “We are in the lead at everything we do, whether it’s player salaries, medical care, uniforms, stadium and travel arrangements. It’s a real first-class organization.”
A first-class organization maybe, but operating on a shoestring.
Corbett runs a very lean operation. In-season, the Rowdies only have 10 full-time employees. The league has a player salary cap of approximately $75,000 an average of $250 per game, per player which controls costs and quality. Many players have second jobs which sometimes interfere with practices and even games, but in a nickel-and-dime league, the Rowdies cope.
Off-season, players receive no pay and the administrative staff is reduced to a bare bones four. “We’ve got a lot of people who are very loyal,” according to Corbett. “Our receptionist, Pat, has been with the team since 1975. Every August (when the soccer season ends) she says, ‘See you in January.'”
To reduce stadium costs, Corbett has explored playing in a smaller facility. A more intimate, contained facility would also boost morale and give the impression of fewer empty seats. The Florida Suncoast Dome has been discussed, partly because soccer youth leagues and Rowdies fan support has always been greater in Pinellas County than Hillsborough, but the team has objections to the artificial turf planned there.
ASL administrator Powell says none of the teams in the ASL are profitable yet.
“We told people when they came in: Don’t expect a profit in two years,” she says. “One of the goals of the league is to keep losses minimal. This is a growth industry; we are still growing. There is going to need to be an upgrading where we can pay players a living wage and keep them with the teams. Then we can build them up within the community.”
When the Rowdies were a bigger deal to the Tampa Bay sports public, the team began a commitment to building soccer in the community through youth leagues and summer camps. While times are tough now for the professional team, amateur soccer in the Bay area is thriving so the Rowdies have maintained their efforts with teen-agers. By operating clinics for the kids featuring Rowdies players and by offering deeply discounted season tickets to youth soccer league members, the team hopes to develop a new generation of loyal fans who will grow with the Tampa Bay entry in the ASL.
“We’ve instituted a program where, when kids join their league, we offer them a $10 season pass that will allow kids to get in for $1 a game,” says Cornelia Corbett. “We are trying to reach out and give the benefit to the kids who play the game. We’re working closely with all the youth leagues.”
The athlete in Corbett sympathizes with Tampa Bay area youths who need more places to play amateur soccer.
“The need for fields in unbelievable,” she says. “Your senior divisions can rarely find fields to play on. I get discouraged the United States has more soccer players than any other country, more than England, Brazi, Argentina, Germany. And yet the facilities aren’t there. In Tampa Bay alone there’s 20,000 kids playing the game. To me, politically, you multiply that by moms and dads, that’s quite a political force.”
Donna Salzer is administrator of the Florida Suncoast Soccer League and state registrar for senior division soccer players. She thinks Corbett’s vision of a brighter day for soccer in this country is accurate.
“The group born in the ’60s is going to make soccer American,” says Salzer. “When they have children, they will grow up with soccer. I’m close to 50. Our generation didn’t get introduced to soccer until their 30s. My son is 21 he’s played for 15 years. He goes to all the Rowdies games and can relate to it. We have to allow these kids to grow up. Soccer is going to catch on.”
As Corbett and the entire league waits for the next generation of fans to mature, they are faced with other stumbling blocks before the American public can be expected to open its arms to this very European sport. Soccer needs television exposure and knowledgeable, colorful announcers to bring it to life and explain the nuances. A likely merger with the Western Soccer League in 1992 could create new media opportunities. But this is a low-scoring game so fans need to be trained to appreciate the action and defense. And there is nothing like an eclectic, talented player to add a little zing to the field of play. Pele brought it from Brazil and Franz Beckenbauer brought it from Germany to the old NASL. The Rowdies of old had three players Marsh, Tatu and recently retired Steve Wegerle who could charge up a crowd.
None of this is news to Corbett or Marsh, of course.
“It’s a Catch-22,” says the team owner. “Soccer will not succeed without mass media. Media will not get involved until there’s 10,000 people in the stands.
“I also think the quality of the product (was better) in the late ’70s,” she continues. “We had a lot of Europeans coming over. Now you can only play two visa players. I know how fickle the American fan is it would be lovely to have a charismatic hero. I never saw Rodney play but I did see Tatu. Tatu did terrific things and he would score. You can play to the crowd when you can back it up with ability. I just don’t think we have Americans with the personality and confidence to do that.”
“You have no argument from me,” says Marsh. “For any sport to succeed, the quality has to be there. What is quality? Star players.”
Marsh also notes the inconsistency that has developed in fan support between the Rowdies and Tampa Bay Bucanneers football team.
“We had a seven-game winning streak a team record. We ended 12 and 8 and we still had 5,000 people. If the Bucs did that, they’d have 72,000 people in the stands. We need to have a winning season to maintain our crowd. The Bucs need to have an ordinary season to improve their crowd.
“At the end of the day,” concludes a hopeful Marsh, “soccer in this country will be enormous. Staggering. But whether or not that will be in my lifetime, I don’t know.”
There are precious few women in ownership positions with professional sports franchises. Cornelia Corbett is one; Marge Schott of the baseball Cincinnati Reds and Georgia Frontiere of the football Los Angeles Rams are the only others.
You can bet neither Frontiere or Schott is working indefinitely without salary or income from their teams as Corbett does.
Equally as rare in professional sports are owners who watch their teams compete from the players’ bench the way Corbett does. Home or away, her players know she’s going to be seated beside them from the opening buzzer ’til time runs out.
“It is very difficult to be in an owner’s box when family is there and you’re entertaining guests and friends to really be able to watch the game without offending someone,” according to Corbett. “Also, I find for me you’re quite removed when you’re high up. I prefer to be close-up. Corbett arrives at Tampa Stadium for 8 p.m. home games by 6:30 p.m. She’ll check in on the owner’s skybox, the V.I.P. and media boxes. Then she tours the stadium, checks the placement of sponsor banners on the field and visits the entrance gates for a fix on attendance. Last stop is the visiting team’s lockerroom. “If there’s any trouble-shooting or decision-making to be done, I’m available,” she says. “But by ten of eight game time I move down to the field.”
She says that sitting on the bench evolved from road trips with the team. “Where else are you going to sit and totally concentrate?”
It would be every armchair quarterback’s in this case, armchair goalie’s dream to sit on the bench of a favorite team and shout encouragement and advice. Corbett knows she walks a fine line between being a knowledgeable, influential fan and being considered an interfering, know-nothing, rhymes-with-rich.
“You have to restrain yourself,” she says. “I don’t think it’s the owner’s place to be coaching, making comments, or trying to second-guess your coach.”
During the Rowdies-Bolts playoff game, Coach Marsh frequently whispers to Corbett, who sits beside him, describing finer points of the action or simply expressing his frustration. After just a few minutes of observing the two, it becomes obvious that just because he is seated beside his boss and a lady at that, Marsh and his players do not weigh the invectives they sometimes spew at referees and players.
“The players on this team have shown enormous respect by treating her the same way they’d treat anyone else,” says Marsh. “It’s almost like she wasn’t there; they treat it normal. I’m pleased they do that. I’d hate for them to be looking over their shoulders.”
Close quarters during the heat of battle has helped Corbett come up to speed on the game of soccer and given Marsh the full confidence of the boss. The two from all appearances share a mutual trust and working relationship. It’s also a teacher/pupil relationship at times, with Marsh the teacher, Corbett the pupil.
“Over the last three years,” confirms Marsh, “she’s really digested a helluva lot. Her understanding is very complete.”
“I ask Rodney to keep me informed about players, but as general manager, he makes those decisions,” explains Corbett. “We might discuss it so I understand his reasoning, but it’s never to overrule him. It’d be pretty stupid of me to second-guess Rodney Marsh. There’s a very clear delineation. He knows me well enough to know when I ask a question, I’m not questioning him, I’m looking for information. After two seasons, I don’t ask as many questions as I used to. I’ve come to understand how he thinks and the quality a certain player brings.”
There must be less stress-inducing things a bright, active woman like Cornelia Corbett could do besides operating a money-losing, under-attended soccer team, right?
“I love it,” she answers defiantly. “How can you not love it? You’re involved with something you love to do, sports. And steep it with a firm business policy. For two hours on a Saturday or Sunday, I have the passion that sports take. But Monday through Friday, during business hours, it runs as a business.”
How Florida’s Pro Soccer Teams Fare
Team, ’88 home attendance, ’89 home attendance
Tampa Bay Rowdies, 55,130; 57,922*
Ft. Lauderdale Strykers, 53,580; 43,073
Orlando Lions, 27,100; 27,614
Miami Sharks, 11,620; 8,164
* Tampa Bay holds the single-game attendance record, 19,211, on July 4, 1989.
Statistics provided by the American Soccer League.
Dick Corett’s International Dream
Development deals can take a long time to work out. There’s land acquisition, financing, permiting, sales and marketing. Not to mention 95 percent luck.
Even so, Dick Corbett’s International Plaza a 135-acre, mixed-use project planned at the intersection of Westshore Blvd. and Columbus Drive near Tampa International Airport has been a long time coming. First announced in 1983, the property received its DRI in 1985. Corbett has made little visible progress since, except for demolishing the Hall of Fame Inn, which was once on the site.
“It’s moving more slowly than I would like, frankly, because of the softness of the office and hotel market,” he says. “You’d like things to happen tomorrow. Developers would like things to happen today. But the frustrations of the permiting process in the state of Florida requires a lot of patience.
He says the speed of development is about to shift to a higher gear.
“My first step was to build off-site roads,” according to Corbett, who describes the current $4-million widening of Spruce Street/Columbus Drive as a joint effort between the city, state, Metropolitan Insurance and International Plaza. “Patience and prudence has been a good policy in this case because the off-site roads should be completed first so you have good access. This is an example of good planning. Once roads are in place, things will happen quickly.”
Construction will be completed in March; around that time Corbett expects to break ground for interior site work. Build-out is expected to be fully completed by 1997.
Building in Tampa is nothing like what Corbett was used to after two decades in the Manhattan real estate business. “It’s not at all the way it was when I was in New York, where things would happen quickly,” he says. “You would make decisions and have things done within 12 months. There you had tax abatement, tax incentives. The city would offer developers incentives to build. They helped make business happen. It was a strong, pro-business attitude.”
Dick Corbett has had what many would call a charmed life of being in the right place at the right time, meeting the right people and saying the right things.
He was president of his senior class at Notre Dame in 1960, the spring presidential candidates John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, President Dwight Eisenhower and a future pope all spoke to students. Corbett says he was fortunate to meet and introduce all four “it was an incredible year.” Kennedy had the most powerful affect. Corbett changed his career plans, joined JFK’s campaign and was a manager based in Chicago.
Kennedy’s November victory brought a young Corbett into the White House to work in congressional relations. He helped pre-screen other potential political appointments. While this was an education in and of itself, he decided to return to school in 1962 and earned an MBA at Harvard.
With a no doubt impressive Rolodex of contacts and an equally impressive resume, Corbett found a position with Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises in Manhattan. He spent a decade with the Kennedys, buying and selling real estate, making more contacts and setting up lucrative deals for himself on the side. During that time he hit the campaign trail with Robert F. Kennedy; “I was eight feet away from RFK when he was shot,” says Corbett, pausing. “At that point, I left politics.”
Corbett says he left Harvard in ’64 with $5,000 in debt. Six years later, through shrewd real estate deals, his net worth was several million dollars. — Bob Andelman
(UPDATE: This story, originally written in May 2009 and published in the Maddux Business Report in July 2009, became worth posting online for the first time when the Tampa Bay Times reported on August 28, 2015 that Dalian Wanda Group of China paid roughly $900 million to acquire the Tampa-based company.)
Ben Fertic was 14 the first time he ever heard of a triathlon. He and his brother, Cole, who is six years his senior, were watching ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” coverage of the running, biking and swimming event in Hawaii and it changed their lives.
“I was watching Julie Moss cross the finish line and we knew we wanted to do that race,” Fertic says.
Two years later, Cole led the way, running his first triathlon in 1984. Not that it was easy; Ben’s older brother was electrocuted as a teen and lost his right arm and right leg.
“When he did it, which was at that time unheard of, he was like, ‘Why don’t you do one? If I can do one, you should go do one.’” Fertic recalls.
He couldn’t resist the challenge and the CEO of Tampa-based World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) has been racing ever since. He’s also the guy who now negotiates and signs the company’s TV contracts, which includes the Ford Ironman World Championship held every October on Hawaii’s Big Island, plus three additional televised events on NBC and even more on the Vs. cable network. (There is also a live, 18-hour webcast of the Hawaii championship.)
There are more than two-dozen officially sanctioned, qualifying Ironman events held around the world, from Monaco to San Francisco and China to Lake Placid. Every November, Clearwater is host to the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship70.3 (a shortened version of the Hawaii triathlon) and St. Petersburg hosted its first IronKids National Triathlon Series event in June 2009.
The Ironman triathlon’s biggest competition, Fertic says, isn’t other triathlon organizers but televised football, baseball, basketball, hockey, tennis and golf. He’s competing for sponsorships and eyeballs.
• • •
For almost two decades, WTC was part of the Dr. James Gills business empire in Tarpon Springs. Gills first rose to fame and fortune thanks to the revolutionary cataract surgery techniques he pioneered at St. Luke’s Cataract & Laser Institute. With that foundation, he became a land baron in North Pinellas/South Pasco, where he developed the sprawling community known as Trinity. And in 1990, Gills acquired ownership of the original race, which takes its name from three back-to-back endurance events, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and a 26.2-mile run. He named the company the World Triathlon Corporation and created a charitable arm, The Ironman Foundation. If it seems an odd fit, it wasn’t; Gills was a triathlete himself who ran the race many times before buying the company. And once he owned it, the ophthalmologist became the world’s biggest promoter of the nascent competition.
In the mid-90s, Gills’ son, Pit, was in medical school, on his path to eventually working alongside his dad at St. Luke’s. His wife Joy met Dara Fertic at the retail store where they both worked. The Fertics often entertained Joy when Pit was at school or studying. Ben—a University of Florida trained engineer—and Pit discovered a shared love of triathlon and began training together with both racing in the 1996 Ironman. It was the start of a friendship that endures to this day.
The business relationship began when the Gills were unhappy with the results of outsourcing the IT and website work for the triathlon company. “I told everyone, ‘I have this friend, a really sharp guy.’ He revamped our web site and it was the beginning of the site really growing.”
Fertic’s performance on that assignment grew into a new one: design an ambitious new business plan for WTC.
“He did a nice job,” Pit Gills says, “and we promoted him to president. Ben has got an engineer’s mind, so whenever he has a problem, whatever it is, he’s going to find a solution to fix it. That’s the way he’ll be till the day he dies. Ben’s engineer personality combined with his love of triathlon makes a perfect match.”
Last year, the Gills gave Fertic permission to find a buyer and ultimately negotiate the sale of WTC to a private investment firm, Providence Equity of Rhode Island.
“Selling the company was a little rough but it was the right thing to do for the company and for us,” Pit Gills says. “They’ll be able to grow it more than we could. We had it for 20 years and grew it quite a bit. I think the group that has it now will do a good job with it. It was hard to let go. But it was the right timing and it will be the best thing for the company as a whole to go to the next level.
“Ben lives two blocks down from my wife and I,” Pit adds. “Our kids are close friends and he’s one of the guys on my speed dial. I joke with him that this will be a lot easier on our friendship. I was upstairs almost everyday, managing.”
The changes in the business’s size and complexity have already been dramatic. In Tarpon Springs, as part of the Gills empire, WTC occupied 3,500 square feet and had 27 employees. (Five years ago, it had six fulltime employees.) Now operating from the scenic top floor of the Island Center building on Rocky Point, the company leases 10,000 square feet and employs 40 on site and 100 worldwide.
“Within the next few years, it wouldn’t surprise me if we hit 150 worldwide,” Fertic says.
Clearly, WTC has already benefited from the sale.
“There are always certain times in your business where you just have to sit down and say, ‘Are we going to invest the money to get it to the next level?’ That always involves risk,” Fertic says. “Providence Equity is one of the largest funds in the world. They were willing to take the bull by the horns and take it to the next level. As much as Dr. Gills and his family loved Ironman, it’s one of those things where, if you love it so much, you have to set it free.”
The Gills were not actively looking to sell WTC, which had been profitable for the last 10 years.
“In the last two years, equity companies were just continually calling because Ironman was becoming much better known and it was privately held by family,” Fertic says. “That’s kind of a fishing ground for private equity firms. They go looking for that opportunity and we were on a lot of people’s radar as a potential opportunity. My thesis was, let’s form a group that can bring products to market with our brand name, and we’ll build this as a separate entity. That’s the road we were heading down to get the dialogue started. It wasn’t necessarily about selling the company. Providence was the right partner and we put together a proposal for how to grow it, and the Gills liked it.”
The sale price was not disclosed and neither the Gills family or Providence Equity will disclose WTC’s annual sales.
“Dr. Jim Gills absolutely created the market,” Fertic says. “I think that it takes somebody that’s passionate, even when it’s not a profitable entity, and he was willing to take the risk. It shows an amazing amount of commitment, and it took somebody special to do that. Because certainly when he bought the company, it was not profitable. Its value increased over time, but there was a lot of heartache there and a lot of work.”
• • •
The World Triathlon Corporation is best known for its “Ironman” events and brand. It’s largest revenue streams come from sponsorships (Ford, Timex, Foster Grant, PowerBar and Gatorade, to name a few) and from products and product licensing fees (an Ironman Timex watch, Ironman sunglasses, IronKids Gummies multivitamins), endorsements and media and broadcast revenues.
Event entry fees—and there are 120,000 worldwide participants in the three branded Ironman competitions: Ironman, Iron Girl and the newly acquired from Sara Lee Corporation IronKids—make up a portion of revenues, but not the largest by any means. There are only so many people out there who will do an Ironman, but there are so many more that will watch.
And even those who watch will buy merchandise with the Ironman name. One of the growth strategies Fertic engineered with the financial strength of WTC’s new owner is more Ironman products but many now produced and sold directly by WTC, rather than middlemen.
Two years ago, WTC licensed all of its merchandise sold at all of its venues. Not any more. “We took over all of our own merchandise,” Fertic says. “We do all of our own designs. And we’re taking over all the risk, too. I wouldn’t say it’s that much more profitable, but I know that our level of service and the quality of the product are ten times what it was. We are able to provide a much higher quality product and still maintain our margin from the event. Our athletes are getting something that’s of so much greater value. We’ve focused on that. People look forward to coming to the merchandising stand to buy stuff that they could either train in or that looked really good and they knew the stitching wasn’t going to fall out of it two weeks later. And that was the other thing about our brand–we didn’t want anything to associate with our brand that was going to fall apart in three months.”
There are exceptions. Timex still licenses the rights to produce its Ironman watches. The arrangement is acceptable to WTC because Timex, despite its lower price points, is known for making “indestructible” products, according to Fertic.
“That’s why they are such a great partner for our brand; it’s an endurance product that fits us perfectly.”
Another development in WTC’s evolution under Providence Equity was its purchase, on Jan. 1, of a Boulder, Colorado, licensee that previously fulfilled product orders and operated some Ironman events independently for WTC. Providence bought the company and made it the headquarters for WTC’s new merchandising group.
• • •
The Boulder acquisition brought up a natural issue to Fertic from WTC’s new owners: You’re no longer tied to Florida; where should the company be located? Tarpon Springs? Boulder? New York? Somewhere else?
“I could have literally, from a strategic business perspective, picked any place, and we would have moved,” says Fertic, who has been married to his wife Dara (herself a triathlete and marathon runner) for 14 years and is raising three children in Clearwater. “But we built roots within the community, from our professional lives and obviously our personal lives. I’ve lived internationally, and I’ve lived all throughout the U.S. and a lot in the Southeast. This is an amazing place. From the cost of living and a lot of other things, it’s got a tremendous amount of strategic advantages from that perspective.”
Among those is the time zone convenience that Florida offers.
“We do a lot of business in Europe, it’s one of our biggest markets, so an East Coast location is probably the best because of all the time changes we have to deal with. Germany is six hours ahead of us, so all those calls basically have to happen at 6:00 in the morning, which is noon in Germany.
“Combine that,” he continues, “with the saltwater and the incredible convenience of the airport and everything else, and this is just a complete natural fit.”
• • •
The IronKids program is deviously brilliant in its simplicity and likely to explode the sport around the globe for generations to come. Just as watching the Ironman competition on television 27 years ago piqued the interest of young Ben Fertic, it continues to inspire athletic boys and girls.
There are age-appropriate IronKid distances, for example, a 25- or 50-yard swim, a 3-mile bike, and a one- to two-mile run. The events are completely tailored for 6- to 15-year-old.
“Our Ironman events are 18 and up, so we never really reached into the kid market,” Fertic says. “We knew through our television and media that we were having an influence on kids in triathlon as far as them aspiring to be an Ironman or to compete in that event, so it’s a natural fit for us to go into the market.”
Think of the opportunity! IronKids workout gear! IronKids bikes! IronKids swimsuits! IronKids Timex watches!
That’s not cynicism. Marketers are always selling to kids. Would you rather see them buy into physical activity or stationary videogames and computer programming?
“We pick up the paper every other day and see the obesity epidemic and the obesity trends in the United States and what percentage of the kids are obese,” Fertic says. “We have this healthy lifestyle platform, and we can make an impact, we can make a difference. Ours is a lifestyle that you can do forever.”
WTC isn’t going to just rely on word of mouth, either; Fertic foresees IronKids programs breaking out in schools and recreation programs around the world much like soccer programs, Little League baseball and Pop Warner football. And unlike those three, the IronKids program feeds into adult events that participants can run into their 80s.
“A lot of kids play football, but when they hit 21, unless they go to college or the pros, they’re done,” Fertic says. Triathlon is something you grow up with. That’s what our team and I started to focus on. I have three very young girls, and they play softball and soccer, and they also race triathlon, and they are sports enthusiasts. Our goal is that when somebody is in eighth grade and saying, ‘I want to be on a team,’ one day triathlon will be somewhere in that mix.”
He expects IronKids to be a big factor for the company and young participants in three to four years because that’s how long it took the Iron Girl events to take wing. There could be as many as 10 official IronKids events this year.
There are a couple schools in the country that have triathlon teams, but you could probably count them on one hand. Back when Fertic was a University of Florida engineering student in the late 1980s, he was part of the school’s triathlon team. Him and two other guys.
Is it any wonder that Provident Equity bought Fertic’s vision?
Currently, the average age for Ironman participants is 41—an age considered over the hill in every major sport with the possible exception of baseball pitchers—and that number is skewed because WTC doesn’t allow anybody under 18 to enter. But the true development of this sport will come from the youth and exposing people to the brand and the lifestyle.
• • •
Boos Development Group of Clearwater has been a sponsor of the 70.3 Half Ironman event in Clearwater for the last three years and company president, COO and triathlete Rob Boos calls Fertic a close friend.
“Ben can drill down into the details and still fly at 30,000 feet,” according to Boos. “He’s done a great job leading the company to growth over the last five or six years he’s been in charge. His ability to have balance in his life is incredible. His intensity in work is the same as the intensity of how important his family to him.”
Like Jim Gills, the man who hired him, Fertic, 40, is in it for the passion. Getting well compensated is just the gravy.
“There’s a saying that goes, ‘If you love what you do, then you’ll never work a day in your life.’ And this is a passion for me. There are a couple of things in my life that have been passions. One of them is racing triathlons. When you have something that you’re really passionate about and you get to work in that space, you just feel incredibly blessed and lucky that that happens. I’ve surrounded myself with people that are equally passionate. We’re kind of all rowing in the same direction, and we love the sport. We love Ironman, we love the sport of triathlon.”
Mom and Dad must wonder what happened to the UF engineering degree in which they invested, right?
“This is the question that people ask me all the time,” Fertic says. “Even to me, it’s hard to understand. My first four or five years out of college, I worked for a Fortune 100 company in engineering, McDermott International. I was in the power generation group.
“I was the lead engineer, building projects and running large-scale projects. I lived in Venezuela for a year. I lived in Thailand. I traveled all over. There were two skill sets that I learned that McDermott taught me. One was running large-scale projects with a lot of vendors on tight time schedules, which is what we do here. And the other thing is the international aspect, because we’re very international. I’ve had three calls today, one to Switzerland and two to Germany with German clients, and you have to appreciate how other cultures approach business, how they react to contracts and what their methodologies are. We have a race in Malaysia. We have sponsors in Malaysia. Somebody from Malaysia is going to approach something very, very differently than someone from New Zealand or someone from Germany. I lived in these other cultures. My eyes were opened to the fact that not everyone conducts business the way that business is conducted here in the States.
“Yeah, my parents wonder what happened to me, absolutely. They still don’t understand it. To this day, they are like, ‘What do you do?’ But engineers, ultimately, are problem-solvers, and that’s really what business is about.”
And Fertic still races in Ironman events.
“I’ll do them past 80,” he says. “It’s the fountain of youth.”
(This interview with Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman was recorded in March 1991 for the Maddux Report.)
Sandy Freedman’s fingerprints are all over her city. In typical big city fashion, nothing of any significance happens in Tampa these days without the mayor’s nod of approval or hands-on contribution. It’s evident in the Tampa Convention Center — for which she had final approval of details down to the color scheme — and the arrival of the Tampa Bay Lightning hockey franchise, which she personally rallied the National Hockey League Board of Governors to award. She participated in the city’s successful efforts to lure Salomon Brothers to Tampa and pushed the coming Florida Aquarium from dream to reality.
The mayor — who won re-election in February with the support of a crushing 73 percent of the electorate — made a reputation for herself during his first term as what she calls a “facilitator,” someone with a knack for bringing parties to the table to work out their differences. It was her influence that broke down years of mistrust between Tampa and St. Petersburg and set the stage for such infant trans-bay organizations as the Tampa Bay Partnership and the Tampa Bay Congress of Chambers of Commerce. She went to St. Petersburg to meet with the National League Expansion Committee in February and express the entire Tampa Bay area’s support for a baseball franchise in the Florida Suncoast Dome.
She says her early days in the office were awkward as city staff and business leaders struggled to adapt to not just Tampa’s first woman chief executive but to a mayor decidedly different in style and execution from her predecessor, Bob Martinez.
Still, however, she is a lioness searching for a voice, as her quiet asmidst the racial storm of the cancelled Gasparilla invasion and parade demonstrated. It was the perfect episode for the mayor of harmony to take a stand and be heard, yet she was largely silent, preferring to stay in the background.
Freedman talked with the Maddux Report for an hour in her city hall office in April, the day after she was sworn in for her second term.
MADDUX REPORT: You were re-elected by a landslide, probably making you the most powerful woman in Florida …
SANDY FREEDMAN: I never think about that. I hope I’m a good role-model for women. That’s the only way that comes into mind. It does say that women can be in executive positions, not just legislative position, that woman can lead and do well and have the support of the public as they’re doing it.
MR: What does it mean for Tampa that you did so well, that you established clearly that you are the mayor of all of Tampa?
SF: What it says is that people like the direction the city is in now, the direction we’ve taken these last four years and they want to continue along that course.
MR: What message did your victory sent to the citizens of Tampa and the city council in terms of your mandate and your ability to govern.
SF: One of the things I was interested in was winning big. Because there were an awful lot of things that I started and I wanted to continue. I think the margin lets everybody know that the public is supportive of those things and they want to keep ’em going, whether it’s the housing program or economic development. I hope they’re going to remember that as we move into new areas and that the public widely supported me. I might REMIND ’em on occasion. (She laughs.)
MR: You’re widely thought to be someone who’s low-key, a behind the scenes person, not a grab-’em-by-the-lapels mayor — almost a contradiction in a ‘strong mayor’ form of government.
SF: When you’re my size you can’t grab people by the lapels. (She laughs.) Kick ’em in the shins, maybe.
MR: What tops your agenda for the next four years?
SF: We will contine working on reducing crime in creative ways. It’s not just hiring more cops. The housing programs, which, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of them. They’re really helping people. We’re going to continue them and fine-tune. We’re doing one pilot project, rebuilding and revitalizing, in effect, an entire neighborhood. If we make that one work, we’ll be able to take that model to other neighborhoods. I’m confident we’re going to get a convention hotel, but on terms the city can afford and handle, as opposed to someone else’s terms.
Hopefully some of the things that are the hardest to do — race relations, the arts — will be in better shape.
MR: How would you describe your style of governing?
SF: It’s a different style than this community is used to. And I think that’s why it’s was hard early on for some people to understand, even for some of the staff members. It was very different from the way Bob Martinez dealt.
I work in a very open way. People are in and out all day. It’s not a closed, inner circle and then another circle, as might have been the case in the past. Everybody has access to this office. It’s a very democratic kind of thing. Everybody shares their ideas, free-for-all. We don’t sit around a conference table; I’m not comfortable there. We kick around ideas and then I say okay, this is the way we’re going to do it. And everybody gets behind it.
I think it works. The people who work with me — I don’t think they’re scared out of me. They know I can be tough and I can be a taskmaster, but I don’t ask of them anything I don’t ask of myself.
It’s low-key, behind-the-scenes much of the time, non-traditional, maybe. There’s a lot of team building. We do some things out of the office, we socialize together. We spend more time together than we do with our families so we better like each other. There’s a lot of humor, a lot of laughter, a lot of kidding. There’s a great deal of camaraderie.
I get around a lot to the departments. If I need information, instead of asking them to come here, I go there. It helps for people to see me, to know I care about what they do. I probably know more people by name than any other mayor ever has. I like people. Maybe that’s the difference.
MR: You have been given credit for a number of things that have happened during the last four years — hockey, Salomon Brothers, the convention center, the Florida Aquarium. What do you think your contribution to these things has been?
SF: Often times I’m a facilitator. I take pride and some degree of credit in getting the convention center done on time and on budget. Every Wednesday morning I got a report on progress from the moment that project began to insure it came in on time and on budget. My credibility and the fortune of the city was at stake and I wasn’t going to let it get away from me.
Hockey, that was one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of things. I’ve been given a lot of credit, but I think I just said, ‘Let’s pick up the pieces. You get the private financing and I’ll go down (to the NHL Board of Governors meetings at The Breakers in Palm Beach) and make the pitch for you.’ But I think they wanted to give Phil Esposito a franchise. There was an electricity when he walked in the room that is a very rare thing to see.
MR: There was a great picture of you holding a hockey stick over your head after the team was awarded …
SF: I hated that picture. Everybody else loved it. I guess it was because it was very different for me.
Women who started in politics a long time ago came along at a time when there were very few women involved in politics, when we really had to be smarter, be better, do more homework. At least we thought we did. We were held up to a microscope, much more so than the men who were elected. As a result of that, a lot of us developed what appears to be a level of intensity, much more thoughtful, less humorous, less frivolous. That has kind of carried over with me. That’s why it’s still hard for me to see myself with a hockey stick.
MR: What did Salomon Brothers ask of the city that the city could — and could not — deliver?
SF: They asked very little, quite honestly.
I think they knew the answers but in the early stages had to have discussions as to whether they could have tax incentives, tax abatements, the normal questions that everybody asks. I think they had well-researched this area and knew what the Florida Constitution allowed and also what it prohibited. They really didn’t ask much. They were very receptive to the few offers we made — the partnership school concept, which I took to them very late. They were very very enamored with the concept and they are going to be implementing it in conjunction with the Hillsborough County school system. We certainly offered to help facilitiate the process through permitting. Not to give them anything, but to help make sure that things move as quickly as possible. We’ve done that for others and will continue to do that.
I think they were most especially interested in the feel for the community, the receptivity to the top people who came down. They were interested in housing, the arts.
MR: Was there anything Salomon Brothers wanted that you just couldn’t give them?
SF: I don’t recall anything that ever came up that they said, ‘We have to have this,’ and we had to say no, we can’t provide it for you.
MR: You have maintained a very strong hand in negotiations for a convention center hotel, turning back some well-known, would-be developers. What were they asking for that the city can’t or won’t deliver?
SF: They’re asking more than we’re able to deliver or even want to deliver. I don’t think the city of Tampa — as interested as we are in getting a convention hotel in close proximity to the facility — should be in the convention hotel business. And some of the requests made of us have been to, in effect, own a piece of the rock. Not to own it, but we would have to put so much in, that in effect, we would be kinda partners even though we wouldn’t own it. I don’t want to do that, I don’t think the public wants that. There are certain things we can work with and they’ve been widely reported, from the parking situation — we’ve got a couple little parcels down there that might be part of the deal — and there’s a little bit of tax increment financing money, maybe some help with the meeting rooms. But owning half a hotel, in effect, is not what we’re going to do.
MR: Is there anything in particular holding up the process right now?
SF: I think the economy certainly hasn’t been in our favor. Land prices down there have been very, very high, although they seem to be coming down a little bit, which may help facilitate the deal.
I’m pretty confident that in the not too distant future we’re going to see something happen down there. I don’t have anything to announce — but there’s more interest in the last couple months than there was in the six months prior to that.
MR: You have made a mini-career of bringing together disparate groups and telling them to meet, talk among themselves and work together.
SF: I’m glad that I’ve been able to fill the facilitator’s role. It will mean more to me if those things become long-lasting. That’s one of the reasons why the way I operate is different. Some people say I should stand here, pound the desk and say, ‘THIS IS THE WAY IT’S GONNA BE!’ I don’t view that behavior as being for long-term progress. I think the community has to come together. I see my role as bringing those forces together for the long-term interest.
MR: Will Bob Ulrich’s decision to step aside as mayor of St. Petersburg interrupt the mood of cooperation across the bay?
SF: No. I think it’ll continue. David Fischer and his wife were at my swearing-in ceremony. Bob Ulrich was also there. That never would have happened four or five years ago.
I don’t know David Fischer at all, but I know of him and I’m real comfortable with him.
MR: Would you favor a Tampa BAY Sports Authority if a Major League Baseball team is awarded to St. Petersburg? What about a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts?
SF: I’m not sure I favor a Tampa Bay Sports Authority or a Tampa Bay United Way for the arts.
As much as I support regionalism, there are always going to be times — and there should be times — when we maintain our separate identities. Yes, we should work together on sports, but no, I don’t think we ought to have a Tampa Bay Sports Authority.
MR: How would you describe your relationship with the business community?
SF: I think I have a good relationship with the business community. There were times early on that maybe it wasn’t as good as it is now, but I think that was because I was somewhat unknown to them as a chief executive. My style is very different. I don’t just call a half-dozen people for advice. I call a LOT of people. And so I think there might have been some people who thought they were cut off.
I’m very supportive of good, sound economic development.
MR: Do you consider yourself and your administration pro-business?
SF: I think we’ve demonstrated that we are.
MR: What do you think of the Hillsborough County Commission’s proposal to establish its own economic development commission?
SF: I think it’s a mistake.
Government does some things very well and some things we don’t do very well. I think we need to acknowledge that. I don’t think this is an area government could do really well. We can help facilitate economic development, clearly, by our actions as well as our resources. But I think the Committee of One Hundred has done quite well; I think they can do better. There’s been a fragmentation of economic development with the proliferation of University North, the Parkway Association, Ybor City, downtown, Westshore — which hasn’t necessarily accrued to the benefit of the overall economic picture.
Personally I would hope there would be some pulling in of all of those in more of an umbrella effort, so that those resources that are expended in all of those areas might be more efficiently administered. But I don’t think it ought to be done by government.
MR: So you don’t favor the creation of another EDC.
SF: Absolutely not.
One of the frustrations (of the county commission) — and I have felt it myself — is as a public official you’re expected to know everything. And yet there’s an arena in which you can’t know everything. There’s a confidentiality when you’re dealing with corpprate relocations. Even as the mayor, I don’t know all the people or groups that we’re wooing. And I shouldn’t.
MR: There was probably one election issue that no one was happy with you about and that was your handling of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla. You were uncharacteristically silent about the Krewe’s unwillingness to take in blacks, women and minorities, seemingly unwilling to take sides, unwilling to alienate the black coalition or the white power brokers who make up the Krewe. In the meantime, as the sports world prepared to come to town for Super Bowl XXV, Tampa’s national image took a beating in the press. Was it a mistake to not be more outspoken?
SF: I don’t know that I was silent. I said the city wouldn’t participate any longer (in the Gasparilla parade) with our services, the policemen, clean-up and everything else.
I’ve thought that one through dozens, hundreds of times probably by now. What could I have done differently, what would have been better? And I haven’t figured it out yet. I worked from day one behind the scenes, trying to bring the parties together, trying to get the Krewe to integrate, trying to make order rise from chaos and (Tampa received) a black eye, a nationwide black eye. But I don’t know what could have done differently.
MR: Did you not get a sense that people on both sides were waiting for you to come out on one side or the other?
SF: Yeah, yeah. But either way was a losing proposition. I think it was handled poorly all the way around from a public relations standpoint. I tried very hard to get that moderation between all the folks that were involved. I’m not sure that I could have handled it any better; perhaps if others had reduced the rhetoric and maybe belayed their actions … It was a painful thing. But sometimes, no pain, no gain. We’re gonna be a stronger community as a result of it.
MR: Will Gasparilla return to the city?
SF: We’ll have to wait and see.
MR: And if it does, will the city be involved with the Krewe?
SF: If the Krewe wants to put on a parade with the support of the city, then it’s going to have to be an inclusive organization.
MR: Cecil Edge said your fingerprints are on every downtown building built in the last four years and every building that will rise for the next four years. (The mayor laughs.) Do you have a clear vision for downtown?
SF: I think I have a pretty good vision for downtown. We put together the downtown plan to help articulate that vision. That’s to give everybody guidelines, to put everybody on a level playing field.
I have a vision. I’d like to see the waterfront very people-oriented. I would not like to see it walled-in with high-rise buildings where you couldn’t see the water or there was no green space. I think we have had the last of our buildings that is going to be concrete and steel, sidewalk to sidewalk. I hope we have. I think there’s going to be public art in downtown. I hope we will attract more retail and housing. Those are tricky, very tough. I hope the architecture will be architecture people will view in and of itself. Good architecture doesn’t cost more money.
MR: What will drive the Tampa Bay market in the next decade?
SF: I think we’re learning that we’ve got to have more homegrown. The SRI study proves that to be a reality. There aren’t that many corporate relocations out there. The real value-added is going to come from within and it should. We ought to have an environment that can nurture that.
MR: Your predecessor used this office to leap first into the governor’s mansion and now the president’s cabinet. What’s ahead for you?
SF: I get asked that question at least once a day. I don’t know what’s ahead. My schooling, my degree, was in local government. I get a great deal of reward and personal satisfaction from what I do. It’s probably a good thing that I can only serve two terms. But who knows? Maybe if there wasn’t a charter revision, maybe I’d want to keep on going. There’s a lot to do in this community and a lot I’d like to be involved with.
(Originally published in Gallery Magazine, Spring 1994)
Vince Lombardi never met a sports agent he liked. Or one with whom he’d negotiate a deal.
According to legend, when a popular Green Bay Packers player showed up in Lombardi’s office with an agent to renegotiate his contract, the coach looked the outsider up and down. “Who’s this?” he asked.
“My agent,” said the player.
Lombardi disappeared into an adjacent room and was gone for about 30 minutes. When he returned, the puzzled player and his agent said they were ready to get started.
“We have nothing to talk about,” Lombardi said. “You’ve been traded to Washington.”
Agents and players in all four major team sports have changed dramatically since Lombardi’s day. The collapse of the reserve clause and rise of television, unions, collective bargaining agreements, collusion, salary arbitration and free agency have forever changed the leverage of athletes dealing with management.
Prior to free agency and salary arbitration, there were no real agents in baseball except for a superstar using a manager for his speaking engagement or endorsements. The reserve clause in baseball bound a player in perpetuity to a club. If an agent said he wanted $80,000 instead of $30,000, management said, “He can shovel coal! I control his destiny.” But when free agency and arbitration came into the picture, players needed somebody to prepare their case and negotiate. Free agency became a cumbersome process for players. They’d have to call around, make appointments, play one team against each other. Agents came on the scene and intervened almost overnight.
In the National Football League, it wasn’t until the collective bargaining agreement of 1975 that the right of representation was guaranteed.
“Up until then,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg, “it was the Wild, Wild West.”
Steinberg, who represents more NFL quarterbacks – 23 – than anyone else and who negotiated five football deals in 1993 alone worth $80 million, leads the life other agents dream about. For one thing, he’s made quite a handsome living by consistently signing the best pigskin talent straight out of college. For another, he’s almost as famous as some of his players.
He’s not the only agent whose reputation made him a recognized name in sports household. Others include David Falk (Michael Jordan’s man), Jim Neader (Dwight Gooden) and the late Bob Woolf (Larry Bird). But despite their renown and success, there’s debate over the impact they’ve had on the games themselves, good or bad.
“I think they’ve had an enormous effect,” says Orlando Magic General Manager Pat Williams. “Over the last 20 years, they became the comparable businessmen to the owners on the other side of the table. It’s not the players – the agents control everything that happens on the other side of the table. Their job is to drive the toughest bargain they can.”
NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw steered his players union through the legal morass of the reserve system during the late ’80s and into the promised land of free agency. But he doesn’t rank agents on his list of the high and mighty in sports.
“Their power and influence is in their clients,” Upshaw says. “And they can’t operate unless we say so. No agent ever obtained free agency. The union did. And no agent can make a player better than he is.”
Early on, the agent field was full of unaccredited shysters, eager to scam a few thousand bucks off unsuspecting, uneducated, athletically gifted youngsters. Today, player representation is a higher art, characterized by stable, recognizable faces and typically controlled and certified by the player unions. In the NFL, in fact, clubs are restricted by the new collective bargaining agreement from negotiating with any agent who has not been certified by the NFL Players Association.
Of the four major leagues – NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball – only the latter has yet to require agent certification. No doubt it’s coming.
“I am not anti-agent,” Pat Williams says. “The good ones are good for the game. They know what they’re doing, they know the industry. They’re doing what they have to do. Could the player do it alone? No.”
o o o
Twenty years ago, average player salaries in sports were stuck in the low five figures. The concept of New England Patriots QB Drew Bledsoe signing a $4.5 million bonus the day he joined the Patriots didn’t exist. The dynamics were different. And agents were luxuries.
Now sports dollars are so big, the contracts so complicated, agents have become necessities. “Dealing with the type of money we’re dealing with today, you definitely need one,” says Upshaw, who never had an agent during his playing days. Today, in fact, most general managers would rather negotiate with an agent than a player. Athletes who represent themselves get emotionally involved in the process, which can be disruptive for all concerned. It’s not the best thing for a player’s ego to hear he’s not the best at his position anymore or that the team doesn’t need him anymore.
“I have not dealt with a player in 25 years and I’m grateful,” Williams says. “They wouldn’t know what to do. You couldn’t get a deal done. They’ve got to have a rep. And after a player signs, they need someone to help with taxes and finances. That’s very important. If their finances are messed up, their head is messed up. If the player has someone taking care of that, it’s a plus.”
In the early 1960s Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale decided to negotiate as a team, demanding $120,000 each under the direction of agent Bill Hayes. They want comparable pay, which the Dodgers didn’t like. Drysdale was great, but Koufax was greater, and the greater attraction; he was the one who put asses in the stands. In the end, Koufax got more than Drysdale, but they both earned more than Los Angeles would have paid otherwise.
Hayes was the first agent taken seriously by baseball. “It was the first union in baseball, but it was only two players,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions.
Koufax and Drysdale’s strategy worked well for their day, but imagine them, or Mantle, Mays, Ruth, Tittle, Cousy, Russell or Howe with proper representation under modern free agency. Those guys were little more than chattel under the old system and were paid as such. They were owned in perpetuity by their teams. Fans today complain about players hop scotching from team to team, lacking franchise loyalty, but barely two generations ago, athletes had little to no control over their career destinies. If they played the game, they danced the owners’ tune.
Why do players make so much money now?
“The agents facilitated it but you have to give a lot of credit to the player associations,” says St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader. “Before them, the owners had the leverage. They could pay you or not pay you. It’s like the Ralph Kiner thing. He hit 50 home runs and the Pirates wanted him to take a pay cut because they could finish last with or without him.”
Free agency has meant the gradual control of player destinies shifting from teams to the athletes themselves. And that, in turn, has increased competition for their services, creating opportunities for the agents to answer the question: How high is up?
“We wondered how high was up when we heard of the first $1 million contracts,” says CBS-TV college basketball analyst Billy Packer. “Now there are $20 million contracts. Now we have a rookie in the NBA signing for $70 million.”
Television dollars pushed those figures into the stratosphere. NFL teams, for example, jumped from earning $2 million annually, each, on national TV contracts, to $19 million each in 1989 and $40 million each in 1993, according to Steinberg. “That’s an expansion of 20 times in 20 years,” he says. “The percentage of the gross dollars in football that the players get – in 1982, it was 55 percent. To trigger the salary cap this year, the figure was 67 percent. That changes the whole face of what goes on.”
Agents negotiate bigger and better deals, taking approximately 5 percent off the top for their trouble. They also safeguard their guys, insulating them from the negative posturing management sometimes takes. Oral agreements still happen; high-tech negotiations via telephone, fax, pager, modem and satellite are becoming rote. “We finished (Dallas Cowboys QB) Troy Aikman’s first negotiation with Jerry Jones over a big-screen television set with them on a link-up in Dallas,” Steinberg says.
Many factors influence the success of an agent in getting the highest salary, signing bonus and incentives for a client. Two of the most significant are the unions’ relatively recent ability to disclose player salaries and the creeping impact of salary caps.
Salary caps changed the game just as things starting getting out of hand. Instead of simply seeking the separation of the owner from his wallet, players are finding themselves competing with teammates for a finite piece of a juicy pie. To sign a new impact player, general managers are asking current players for givebacks and concessions so as not to exceed the cap. They pose this question: Do you want to win or just get rich? In the ultra-competitive world of sports, there can be only one answer. It may not be what the players union had in mind, but it’s definitely happening.
“The cap is an artificial formula. It’s just a way of valuing contracts,” Steinberg says. “I put three ‘disappearing years’ in Drew Bledsoe’s contract. He signed a 6-year contract and got a $4.5 million bonus to sign. The Patriots only had so much room under the cap. In order for Drew to get $4.5 million, we need enough years for the ‘vision’ of it to be $7 million. If, at the end of three years, he’s played 50 percent of the plays, the last three years go away. We used the salary cap to give him the advantage of a huge bonus plus the advantage of getting out of his contract early. That’s because bonuses count differently against the salary cap than salary does. Under the cap, he gets $750,000 a year.”
Confused? Get in line.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the caps,” Pat Williams says. “We spend a lot of time on education, explaining what can and can’t be done.”
o o o
Pat Williams has negotiated contracts with two of the NBA’s biggest stars, Shaquille O’Neal (Orlando Magic) and Julius “Dr. J” Erving (Philadelphia 76ers). The situations – and the agents – were generations apart.
Dr. J’s agent, Irwin Weiner, a colorful, flamboyant, archetypal agent thrived in the old smoke-filled rooms of yore. And when the 76ers acquired Erving from the New Jersey Nets, Weiner had his tiger by the tail.
“We bought Julius from the Nets for $3 million,” Williams recalls. “Part of the deal was that we had to get him signed.
“The numbers were huge,” he says. “That was the biggest deal cut to that point: $3 million to buy him, $3 million to sign him, $500,000 a year for six years. It was unprecedented.”
Fitz Eugene Dixon, Jr. had just purchased the 76ers and was not yet well versed in the sport, according to Williams, then the team’s general manager. Here’s the conversation they had about Dr. J:
WILLIAMS: “Fitz, Julius Erving is available.”
DIXON: “Who’s he?”
“He’s the Babe Ruth of baseball.”
“How much will it cost to get him?”
“Six million dollars.”
“Pat, are you recommending this deal?”
Williams gulped hard.
“Yes sir, I am.”
“Then go get it done.”
Fast-forward to 1992. The Orlando Magic won first pick in the draft and opted for Louisiana State University center The Shaq, clearly the man of the moment, a player who could transform the expansion franchise into a playoff contender.
“We knew it was going to be a tough signing. And it was,” Williams says. “Fortunately, his people were perceptive to know of our cap situation. But that was a very tough, intense signing.”
Leonard Armato represented Shaq. It was the first time he ever did business with Williams, but not the last. A year later, when the Magic miraculously won the top pick for the second consecutive year and chose Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, he was represented by Armato.
o o o
Over a 16-year NFL career spanning three careers, Gene Upshaw’s timing always seemed slightly off. He was drafted in 1967 (first round, 16th overall), just after the merger of the NFL and the old AFL. There was no competition left for his services following the draft; he could either take the Oakland Raiders offer or leave it.
“Then, the year the WFL came along, I was already under contract,” he says. “And by the time the USFL came along, I was too old.”
But Upshaw, whose fame as a player has been eclipsed by his legendary stubbornness and success as executive director of the NFL Players Association, isn’t really griping about his compensation as a player. Upshaw felt that for the time, Raiders owner Al Davis treated him and his teammates fairly.
“I would negotiate my contract and Art Shell’s contract at the same time. I always figured whatever I was making, he should make,” Upshaw says. “Al Davis never let you get to the end of a contract anyway. He’d always bring you in and pay you more money. He believed in seniority. When I got there, nobody was going to make more money than Jim Otto. Later, no one made more money than me and Shell. And if Davis drafted somebody he had to pay more money to, he’d bring us up.”
When the opportunity to sign Ted Hendricks presented itself, Davis went to his players and warned that landing Hendricks would upset the team’s salary scale. “If that will improve the team, go ahead,” the players told the owner.
Another mark of how things change: Davis would only negotiate a player’s base salary. Upshaw says the man didn’t believe in incentive clauses.
“He said, ‘I expect you to do well. I expect you to go to the Pro Bowl. That’s what I’m paying you for,'” Upshaw recalls.
END, PART ONE
Part Two: War Stories
No two sports agents have exactly the same relationship with their clients. Some do straight contract negotiations and nothing more. Some handle client investments, everything from stocks, bonds and insurance to opening eponymous restaurants and sports bars. Some develop endorsement deals and give ongoing career advice. And some become more like family.
“Sitting with Troy Aikman the night of the San Francisco playoff game, when he’s been knocked senseless and doesn’t know where he is, doesn’t fit in any of these categories,” says Berkeley, Ca.-based agent Leigh Steinberg.
Another Steinberg QB snapshot from the 1993-94 NFL season: Jeff George’s tempestuous holdout from the Indianapolis Colts.
“Publicly, I had to defend my client,” Steinberg says. “Privately, I don’t ever think that sitting out a contract that’s already been negotiated is ever a good decision in a short career. In conflict resolution, my least favorite decision is having a player sit out of camp. When Jeff didn’t report to camp, the team said, ‘We don’t know where he is.’ That created a Howard Hughes flakiness that wasn’t there. Jeff was in the midst of a 6-year contract, of which he played three years. But it wasn’t about redoing the contract. He wanted to be traded.”
George eventually reported, enjoyed a fair season, and was traded to the Falcons in the post-season.
St. Petersburg, Fl.-based agent Jim Neader also provides a very personal service with no secretaries, no associates, no gophers. “I’m involved in every facet – management, taxes, travel,” he explains. “If the air conditioning unit goes out in my guy’s condo, I make sure it gets fixed. I prefer doing it all myself. I think it’s good for the clients; they only work with one guy.”
When Neader’s most high profile clients, New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden and his nephew, Florida Marlins right fielder Gary Sheffield, scrapped with the law, or during Gooden’s drug treatment, Neader was on the scene, acting as spokesman, protecting his clients’ interests. Damage control is a never-ending job with multi-million-dollar performance and endorsement deals flapping in the breeze. “Everybody has to deal with adversity. Their problems appeared to be worse than they were,” Neader says. “Gary’s weren’t that bad. And Dwight – he’s really an exemplary citizen now.”
o o o
In 1983, the average NFL salary was $100,000. In 1993, it was $750,000. Those numbers draw a lot of wannabes to the agenting business. But it’s very hard making a full-time living as a football agent. Expenses for newcomers are exorbitant; the odds of wooing and winning the rare athlete who will make a roster and survive the minimum three years it takes an agent to turn a profit, remote. It’s a good sideline though, for attorneys, accountants and professional managers, and it’s exciting for anyone lucky enough to score even one pro client.
Agent fees, however, are dropping. The reasons are simple: first, the players unions demand it; and second, competition for players is fierce.
“We urge players to negotiate commissions,” says Michael Duberstein, director of research for the NFL Players Association. “The problem is that they’re recruited by agents. They’re in the mode – recruited by high schools, by colleges – they don’t realize sports after college is a business. They think it’s a privilege to be recruited.”
Unscrupulous agents once pulled up to 12 percent from unwary athletes. In the 1980s, the top rate in the NFL was down to 5 percent; it’s now creeping to an average of 4 percent according to Duberstein and others.
“In basketball,” says Gary Woolf, president of Bob Woolf Associates, “there’s a maximum of 4 percent, and that’s going down. Players are being represented for 2 or 3 percent. There’s a downward spiral. But the money is greater, so there’s a good reason for that.”
“The vast bulk of players just won’t want to spend that 5 percent anymore,” says Andy Zimbalist, Smith College economist and author of Baseball and Billions. “There will be people who will be able to crack the major league level by offer 2 and 3 percent fees. The area of agency is ripe for a lot of competition.”
o o o
The agents whose names every sports fan knows – Steinberg, Neader and David Falk (Michael Jordan) – don’t hang around the schools any more looking for the next phenom. But that doesn’t stop the top talent from finding them: Steinberg alone represented four of the NFL’s No. 1 draft picks from 1989-93 (Aikman, Jeff George, Russell Maryland and Bledsoe).
When the annual college drafts roll around, it’s not just the student-athlete and his father in the hunt for representation. He’s helped by uncles, coaches, lawyers and alumni. “You’re not just meeting Drew Bledsoe,” Steinberg says. “He had a screening process with Oklahoma lawyers who grilled us for hours.”
One of Steinberg’s latest clients, Ohio State defensive lineman Dan Wilkinson, knew enough about the agent process before the draft to call several lawyers and make “who’s who” inquiries with the NFL Players Association – “things that were not the norm when I began,” Steinberg says.
Michael Duberstein’s NFLPA research department takes responsibility for certifying and regulating 800 player agents (only 300 of whom actually have active clients) and reading every NFL contract. His department also meets with college players each year, preparing them for representation by professional agents. He says today’s agents are generally consistent in the quality of work they provide, in part because of the association’s guidelines:
o Agents must be certified to represent NFL players
o Agents must have a college degree or equivalent work experience
o Agents must have a working knowledge of the NFL collective bargaining agreement
o Agents must use a standard contract, provided by the NFLPA, to form agreements with players
“I wish certification were stricter,” Gary Woolf says. “We need a high level of ethics and code. If they can’t meet that, they don’t belong in the industry.”
Agents don’t have to be lawyers – although many are – because the various players unions and/or management typically use standard employment contracts. No agent writes an NFL contract; the league uses the same contract for every player. The agent fills in the annual salary and incentives. Even incentives have been standardized.
“The role of the college player should fall in two areas: finish school and make a pro roster,” Duberstein says. “The agents’ job is to get a contract.”
“We start the process at the combine,” says NFL Players Association Executive Director Gene Upshaw. “From that point on, cradle to grave, we try to help the players any way we can.”
Duberstein stresses that a kid just out of school must be comfortable with his agent and trust his judgment implicitly. Because if a negotiation with a team begins to sour, the team will inevitably try an end run around the agent, warning the family that if their collegiate all-star doesn’t accept the team’s latest offer, he’ll be pumping gas come opening day.
o o o
Some men become athletes. Some know, by their teens, that dream won’t become real, so they turn their love of sports into coaching, management, broadcasting, sports writing – and agenting. The latter may be the least profitable path. Start-up expenses mount and only a small percentage of blue-chippers make it into the pros. For the agents on top of the pyramid, however, it’s champagne and caviar.
Leigh Steinberg celebrated his 20th NFL draft as an agent in 1994. He met his first client, first-round, No. 1 draft pick Steve Bartkowski, as an undergraduate dorm counselor while in law school. The timing couldn’t be better; the nascent World Football League was competing with the NFL, running up salaries for the first time in years.
“We got lucky and Bart got the largest rookie contract in NFL history,” Steinberg says. “It eclipsed Namath and Simpson, $400,000 for six years. His bonus was $250,000. His salary was $40,000.”
o o o
Jim Neader became an agent when his pro hockey career crashed the boards during Minnesota North Stars pre-season camp in 1978. The Stars were staying in the same hotel as the Minnesota Vikings. Of the football players Neader met, he struck up a particularly good rapport with Paul Harris. Neader, holder of a masters degree in business, was already thinking about a new career.
“I could see I wasn’t going to make it,” Neader recalls. “I told (Harris), ‘If I get cut and you need an agent . . . ‘ Three weeks later, he got cut. He hired me and we got him on an NFL team, the Bucs.”
Neader’s stable grew slowly, focusing on football and baseball players close to his home in the Tampa Bay area. His second client was Guy Hoffman, a one-time pitcher for the Chicago White Sox and a Bradley University fraternity brother of Neader’s. Next came Lloyd Moseby, the Toronto Blue Jays No. 1 draft pick in 1978, followed by Neader’s most notable and notorious client, New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden.
“I followed his career at Hillsborough High School,” Neader says. “I didn’t say a word to him until his senior high school season was over. Then I met with him and his dad.” Gooden signed on with Neader in time for the June 1982 draft and they’ve been together ever since. “I believe in him and he believes in me,” Neader says.
Neader hasn’t hung around the schools in more than eight years and he’s very selective about taking on new clients. He almost took on a new football player a few years ago, but the feeding frenzy of would-be agents/sharks ended that deal before it happened.
“There was a prospect my brother knew from high school. Good player, small town setting. I heard the guy was a potential draft pick. My brother talked to him, said, ‘After the season, talk to Jim.’ The season ends and my brother schedules a meeting. The week of the meeting, the guy cancels. He was deluged. Eighty inquiries, 20 visits. Some major agents, from all around the country. Five years ago, it would have been different for him. I don’t think the outcome would have changed. I never met the guy; he never got drafted. Signed a free agent contract; never played in the NFL.”
o o o
The late Bob Woolf may well have been the most successful, best-known and beloved sports agent of all time. His sports clients included Larry Bird, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Montana, Julius Erving and Vinny Testaverde; his entertainment clients included Larry King, Gene Shalit and New Kids on the Block. He negotiated big deals with Donald Trump, Ted Turner, Roone Arledge and Red Auerbach. He even wrote a well-received book on negotiating, Friendly Persuasion (Berkeley).
Woolf’s first client was former Boston Red Sox pitcher Earl Wilson. Wilson wasn’t allowed to bring anyone else into his negotiating sessions, however – not his wife, not his best friend, and certainly not Woolf. If he had a question, he had to excuse himself from the table, walk down the hall and call Woolf from a pay phone.
Times have certainly changed. And while Woolf is gone, his Boston sports management firm, Bob Woolf Associates, continues under the aegis of his son, Gary, 28. Although Gary did his first professional contract more than a decade ago while an undergraduate at Harvard and was perhaps the youngest agent in sports at the time, he hasn’t exactly followed in dad’s footsteps. He’s a behind-the-scenes player at the firm, which also employs his mother and sisters.
“With the passing of my father, people wondered which direction the company would go,” Woolf says. “But we had already been planning a new direction because my father had been planning to step back. In some ways we’ve become a better company. When my father was here, he was the most important person in the company. We don’t have another Bob Woolf. Now we have other agent who have stepped up, agents who are maturing into bigger roles.”
Woolf says representation can be very gratifying.
“In two or three years, a young athlete will make decisions affecting the rest of his life,” he says. “We’re involved in guiding them through every aspect of their career. We’re a main resource for all the life decisions they make. It’s a tremendous opportunity to influence people’s lives and guide them through a rocky transition.”
Imagine these kids coming out of college, many of whom have never touched wealth of any kind, kids whose lives have always been directed by parents, guidance counselors and coach, and who are suddenly transported a thousand miles from home and given a million bucks. They look to agents for help and direction.
Their careers may take off, but when they are injured, when they’re in the hospital, when they go through operations and rehab, agents live through all that with them, according to Randy Vataha, the agent responsible for football at Bob Woolf Associates. “It’s all part of their career, what they look to you for help,” he says. “You have to pump them up.”
Through his father’s eyes, Woolf saw professional athletes rise from modest salaries in the 1960s through the promise of free agency, new leagues and rising salaries in the ’70s. The ’80s brought the specter of salary caps and personal services contracts. And as that decade gave way to this one, athletes gained greater economic savvy and control, first in basketball, then football, and now in baseball.
“The players can appreciate much more for their work,” Woolf says. “Both sides are partners. Management is still making money and the players are also doing well.”
Woolf thinks the trend worth watching in representation involves corporations such as Nike, which now represents athletes in addition to using them for product endorsement purposes. “There’s a lot of integration occurring,” he says. “Corporations are integrating with the agency process, handling the players’ careers. The role of the agent is at an impasse because the players associations are so strong. There’s a tug-o-war. Who represents the client? Is it the players association or the representative?”
o o o
Contract negotiating during the early phases of the sports agent/free agency era wasn’t too complicated other than keeping track of the zeroes. In the old days, the player or his agent said, “I want this,” and the team said, “You can’t have it.”
“Negotiating is a lot of fun. It’s a challenge,” Randy Vataha says. “You don’t just go in and say, ‘My player wants a million,’ management offers $500,000 and you settle at $750,000. There’s all kinds of issues in terms of timing so the contract expires at the best time. Issues to be considered include when collective bargaining expires and when something new might come up. One player went from $450,000 to $2.4 million in one year because we got him in the last year before there was a salary cap.”
Computer runs, in-depth statistics and analysis are the agent’s stock in trade when they face off with management.
Half the ammunition agents use comes from salary comparisons within the athlete’s league. That information is typically provided by the players unions. The NFLPA, for example, began supplying salary data to agents in 1983, in exchange for the agents funneling their latest deals back to the union.
“Until the beginning of 1982, no player in the NFL had any idea what any other player was making,” Michael Duberstein says. “Nor did any agent know what salary trends were or did they have a glimpse at comprehensive salaries.”
Duberstein says that in football, once adequate salary reporting was available on both sides of the negotiating table, salaries accelerated and inequities in player compensation from team to team were eliminated.
“The role of the agent can be two-fold,” Duberstein says. “There can be a very passive role, essentially saying, ‘No, no, no – yes!’ knowing when to say yes. Or they can be a proactive agent, taking that information and coming up with creative ways to bend rules and get a contract.”
The other half of a negotiator’s ammo comes from the ingenious compilation of a player’s on-the-field stats.
“We have a research staff who are given a simple task: go find any statistical pattern that presents our players in a positive light,” Steinberg says. “Their job is to produce the most amazing statistical categories possible to buttress our salary demands.”
Steinberg’s staff produced this gem during a salary arbitration: Wade Wilson was the first quarterback in history to throw 6-plus yards per attempt and make the Pro Bowl in the same season. “That’s a not a statistic published in The Sporting News,” Steinberg says, chuckling.
There are other ways Steinberg uses stats. In negotiating Drew Bledsoe’s deal, he started with the assumption there is always a premium paid the first quarterback picked in the annual college draft, and an even bigger premium when the first player picked overall is a quarterback. Next, he pointed to the impact another client, Troy Aikman, had just had in winning the Super Bowl for Dallas.
For client Thurman Thomas, the Buffalo Bills star running back, he provides analysis of what happens every time Thomas touches the ball, how he consistently makes things happen.
“We put together statistics, bar graphs and colors that jump off the page,” Steinberg says. “At times we’ll make a compelling audio/visual presentation. We can also anticipate the arguments a team will make and refute them. Of course, the methodology has to be sound or the results can be questioned.”
o o o
For all his success in negotiating some of the biggest deals in sports, Leigh Steinberg is worried about the future of his men and the games they play.
Athletes, he says, must understand the fleeting nature of their careers and build other skills toward the day they can no longer throw a long bomb or hit a ball out of the park. “The big mistake for an agent is to simply classify a player as a function of his bank book,” Steinberg says. “The only certainty I have, in every athlete I represent, is that at a young age, he is going to have to transition into another line of work.”
As for fans, he says agents must be reminded that sports is fantasy.
“Sports exist as an entertainment industry,” Steinberg says. “It’s not like putting bread on the table. It’s a discretionary expenditure. To the degree we keep feeding fans stories of free agent salaries, we’re destroying the games. Agents have a responsibility to keep the games affordable.”
END, PART TWO
Part Three: Power Players
Read the sports headlines lately? The scores have been superseded in importance by salaries and free agency. Everyone’s getting rich except the guys footing the bill – the fans.
But read past the headlines. For every college player signing a first pro contract for $70 million, there’s a veteran quietly accepting an equally huge reduction in pay. It’s the first sign of reality hitting the sports salary spiral, indicating there is a ceiling on how high all this madness can go.
Whereas free agency at first seemed a license to steal for athletes and their agents, there’s obviously a price. What increases the fans don’t bear, the players apparently will.
Don’t believe it? Well, if someone who still makes hundreds of thousands of dollars but must accept deep, deep pay cuts can be described as a victim, that’s what the system has turned pitchers Jack Morris and Bobby Thigpen and quarterback Mark Rypien into.
Morris swallowed hard and watched his base salary slip from a career-high $5,425,000 in 1993 to $350,000 in 1994. Thigpen dropped from $3,416,667 to $200,000. At least they found jobs; Rypien was cast adrift after refusing a new contract that would have cut his pay by more than two-thirds, from $3 million in ’93 to $1 million this fall.
This is the side of contract negotiations no agent wants publicity for. It’s a bold slap of reality following years of player successes in gaining ever increasing free agency and a bigger piece of the revenue pie. Agents who spent the 1980s and early ’90s squealing, “Gimmee, gimmee, gimmee!!” without regard for the impact such wanton greed now have some serious explaining to do. Ditto for their unions, and, for that matter, the teams who eagerly made dollar commitments for today without considering the reverberations tomorrow.
All across pro sports, unproven rookies get the keys to the bank and yesterday’s stars are being unceremoniously shown the door. Athletes are being split into three camps: the haves and have-nots are being joined by the hads.
Many NFL stars fell into a black hole unintentionally created by their union’s last collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the league. In an effort to gain greater free agency for players and yet avoid total anarchy, the union compromised with management. In exchange for allowing veteran players with more than five years experience and whose contracts expired beginning in 1993 to become free agents (four years experience as of ’94), the NFLPA agreed that teams could designate “franchise” players who were pre-empted from free agency as long as they were paid accordingly. “Accordingly” meant at least matching the average salary of the top 5 players at the franchise player’s position. The “franchise” tag sticks with the player until their contract expires or they retire. Then the team can tag a new player.
A second layer of top athletes, labeled “transition” players, were created as a bridge between the old system and total free agency. Teams were allowed two “transition” players by guaranteeing them the average salary of the top 10 players at their position.
Players and their agents had no say in accepting or declining the “franchise” or “transition” tag. And once the two transition players’ relationship with their current team ends, the teams don’t get replacements. According to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), about half the NFL’s franchises designated transition players.
It sounds like an equitable system, but agents say it didn’t work. Most rue the day the terms “franchise” and “transition” were adopted.
First of all, the salary numbers were based on the preceding season’s totals, not the current negotiating season. And while other teams could bid on franchise and transition players, the athlete’s current team retain first right of refusal, meaning if it matched an offer, the player stayed put. Finally, teams were given great latitude with franchise or transition players. While player contracts expire annually on February 28, teams knew what it would cost to keep their designated stars months earlier.
“It worked to the detriment of all the transition players,” says Edward Sewell, president of the San-Francisco-based Professional Sports Center. “Having the transition title meant that none of those players – the best in the NFL – ever got any job trips or offers from other teams because the system, or the fraternity, said, ‘You don’t mess with my transition players and I won’t mess with yours.'”
“You use that word,” Sewell says. “I call it a gentlemen’s agreement. You have to prove collusion. It’s a strong word.”
“Any agent who believes that, we have the strongest anti-collusion language of any sport,” counters Michael Duberstein, NFLPA director or research, citing Article 28 of the collective bargaining agreement. “All they have to do is come to us and we will take action. Not one agent has come forward to say the clubs are colluding.”
Sewell hit the transition situation with two different clients: Ricky Reynolds in 1994 and Ronnie Harmon in 1993. A third client, Cris Dishman, was listed by the Houston Oilers as a franchise player. But because of management fraternity, Sewell says, the trio received little or no outside interest.
“Their teams took that to mean, ‘Oh, gee, you’re not that valuable to anybody but us. Therefore, we’re not going to pay you market value, we’re going to pay you whatever the minimum is at your position,” according to Sewell. “Plus they are able to keep these guys out of the marketplace, away from other teams, while they scratch their heads and decide whether they really want to sign him. So they got the best of every world. They lock their best talent in, kept ’em away from the marketplace and they were able to rescind the offer at any time. As long as the title stays with you, odds are you’re going to stay with that team because you don’t get offers to move.
“In Ricky Reynolds’ case,” Sewell says, “the Bucs kept him out of the marketplace starting in February when there were some choice jobs available. There was one in Seattle that Nate Odoms got. Ricky had plane tickets to Seattle but the Seahawks decided they would do the Odoms situation because it didn’t require any kind of match. In other words, when they negotiated the deal with Nate, they had Nate Odoms. Versus negotiating with Ricky Reynolds and waiting a week to see if the Bucs were going to match it. In that week, they would have lost Nate.”
By the time Tampa Bay lifted the transition tag from Reynolds and freed him to negotiate, Sewell says, all the available jobs at Reynolds’ position had vanished and his salary was in freefall. Whereas his transition value was $1.7 million, Sewell’s first offer for his client was a mere $750,000. Fortunately for Reynolds, Ray Perkins, the former Bucs coach who drafted him, had moved on to the rebuilding New England Patriots and still believed in his skills. Perkins persuaded his boss, Bill Parcells, to take a chance on Reynolds, who signed a deal worth in excess of $5 million for three years, including $2.23 million for ’94.
“We went from Diet Pepsi to Dom Perignon,” Sewell says.
Reynolds, of course, did better than his former teammate and co-holder of the Bucs transitional tag, Reggie Cobb. Cobb was entitled to a $2.6 million salary until the Bucs yanked his tag. Forced into the open market, the best he could do was $1.1 million with Green Bay.
“Helluva drop,” Sewell says. “Never get that back.”
Michael Duberstein doesn’t think agents such as Sewell understand the transition label.
“Transition players were imposed in the settlement by the league,” he says. “What they wanted was to protect some of their better players. They would not make a deal, there would be no CBA, without the ‘transition’ and ‘franchise’ system. It was because the owners were so scared they were going to lose all their best players. No one here proposed it or wanted it. The goal of the Players Association has always been total free agency when the player’s contract ended.
“Did it work out the way we anticipated? Most of the clubs didn’t use it. The reason is, they don’t want to guarantee that much money. By the time we hit ’95, very few clubs will be able to designate transition players, anyway,” Duberstein says.
Duberstein thinks the real problem agents have with the transition and franchise tags is it makes agents virtually unnecessary to players.
“I don’t see anything rational about an agent saying “transition” and “franchise” doesn’t work. All it did was guarantee them free money,” he says. “If I was a transition or franchise player who accepted a contract, I wouldn’t give an agent a penny. He didn’t do anything.”
The NFLPA encourages its members to pay their agents. But for transition and franchise players who accept a salary – without negotiation – equal to the top 5 or top 10 players at their position, Duberstein thinks there might be a case for withholding a commission. “In a situation where there was no negotiating, I don’t know what the (union’s) ruling would be,” he says.
The CBA has its positive points, particularly that so many players gained free agency when their current contracts expired. But labor and management wind up trading big salaries for loyalty. That’s a two-way street, however. The players are loyal to whomever pays them the biggest salary. And when a player’s salary gets out of whack with his or the team’s performance, the team’s loyalty to him ends.
“What big salary gets you is loyalty to yourself,” Sewell says. “It pushes you into a selfish mode. Unfortunate, isn’t it? The days that a fellow would always be identified with one team are over.”
Another creation of the latest NFL collective bargaining agreement was the league’s first salary cap.
Ken Staninger, president of the Montana-based Staninger Sports Agency, represents former Washington Redskins quarterback and Super Bowl XXVI MVP Mark Rypien. Rypien found himself on the wrong side of the salary cap this year. Although Rypien, who had taken his team to the playoff in four of six years, wasn’t burdened with either the franchise or transition tag, his agent’s negotiating hand was damaged by several factors. Rypien endured an injury-plagued ’93 season and, when he did play, he didn’t play well. The Redskins had a lousy season overall (4-12), eventually hiring a new head coach, Norv Turner. And the former Super Bowl champs were stocked with aging, over-paid players who tied up resources.
“It was a horrendous situation” for Rypien, Staninger says.
Earning a high draft pick and a shot at either Tennessee QB Heath Shuler or Fresno State QB Trent Dilfer, Rypien became expendable and that’s the way the Redskins handled him. The team offer its former star a 1994 salary offer of two-thirds less than he made in 1993 – and that was their second offer. It lacked any incentives whatsoever, according to Staninger. Rypien declined it and was released. But by then, as in Reynolds’ situation, every other team in the league had settled its starting quarterback position, leaving Rypien high and dry.
“What the Redskins did was a calculated move,” Staninger says. “They had Mark under contract. On February 1 they got a new coaching staff. At that time they were not sure they could draft the quarterback they liked. Then they decided they could. They kept Mark to the last possible date. Mark thought the cut they were asking him to take was unreasonable, that it was time for a complete change. The biggest reason we turned the Redskins down was they would not consider any incentives. We took that to mean we weren’t wanted.”
Staninger and Rypien’s frustration is the flipside of the good timing you hear so much about. Their timing couldn’t have been much better when Staninger insisted on a one-year contract in 1991 and Rypien subsequently took the team to the Super Bowl. “At the time, we were rewarded,” Staninger says. “Now, with Mark coming off his worst year, the timing couldn’t be worse.”
Again, the NFLPA’s Michael Duberstein thinks this is a case of an agent who just doesn’t get it.
“Players who used to get released after camp, just before the season started, and would have to scramble are now getting released in spring,” he says. “Now they have more time to find a place to play. . . The fact players are being asked to take less money is not unique to the salary cap.”
Maybe Rypien just became another overpaid superstar caught in the back-end vortex of outrageous salaries banging head-first into a salary cap. Before there was a salary cap, nobody worried about coming out the other side.
“Now I think some of these big deals are going to turn into nightmares,” Staninger says. “There are few guaranteed contracts. Next year, you’re going to see even more big players who will be released or asked to take huge cuts. The teams, the GMs, don’t like it any more than we do. But their hands are tied. This is not a unique year. You’re going to see it every year.”
+ + + +
Not everyone thinks there’s anything new or particularly worrisome in the expansive disparity between the multi-millionaires on a team and the rest of the guys putting on their uniforms one leg at a time. Don Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, thinks it’s just a matter of separating the regulars from the utility players.
“That’s always been true,” he says.
Salary caps just exacerbate the differences, says the only man who stands between baseball players and the sport’s inevitable push toward a cap. “The biggest problem with a salary cap from a fan’s point-of-view is it inhibits your ability to improve the team. And everybody knows the way to improve a business is to make better investments ahead of time. That’s why basketball (which has a cap) doesn’t have anything like baseball’s balance. The big market teams always win and the salary cap multiplies their advantage.”
Fehr doesn’t see any harm in letting the free market determine player salaries from here to eternity. And pointing out baseball set an all-time attendance record in 1993, he doesn’t interpret that as fans complaining.
“It’s great gossip and people like to pontificate on it,” he says. “But I don’t think (salaries) affect customers.”
H. Irving Grousbeck agrees with Fehr on this point. Now a lecturer in management at Stanford Business School, Grousbeck made a lot of money in cable television and in 1992 toyed with purchasing the San Francisco Giants. But he backed away after studying the team’s books, salary and revenue prospects.
“It’s a very revenue-driven business,” Grousbeck says. “The Houston Astros had a $14 million payroll two years ago; one club today has a $50 million payroll. Some of the teams with $37 million payrolls are making money; some with $29 million payrolls are losing money.
“As a would-be owner,” he continues, “I hate to see the balance of power go to the players. And I hate to see the players grouse, but I don’t think it’s the death-knell for baseball. Am I concerned about player salaries? Not if I’m the Yankees. Not if I’m the Toronto Blue Jays. But the Giants are going to lose money this year because they play in Candlestick. If they played in St. Petersburg or Cleveland, they’d make a lot of money.”
But Grousbeck, a huge fan of the game, doesn’t think fans are being turned off by seeing star players become jillionaires. Would they rather hear less about it? “Sure,” he says. “Does it keeps fans from the ballpark? I don’t think so.”
Money is a part of sports these days. Apparently it’s not a serious depressant. If it were, it would dampen attendance everywhere. And there are plenty of places attendance is up, not down.
+ + + +
Salary inflation hasn’t yet hit the NHL as hard as it has other leagues, but it’s coming, if increased attendance, wildly successful expansion franchises and rising ESPN television ratings are any indication.
“It has been moving up,” says Greg Jamison, chief operating officer of the expansion San Jose Sharks, a team which reached the playoffs in only its third season. “Higher salaries have been paid out in the last two or three seasons.”
All of his players are represented by agents and Jamison thinks that’s for the best.
“I think agents are just one of the players in sports,” he says. “They’re a part of our business, just as players, owners and domed stadiums are. It all works together. I don’t blame agents for where sports is today. There are good agents and bad agents, just as there is good management and bad management. We’re all players and have to take equal responsibility. And equal blame, maybe.”
Jamison hopes hockey can learn from the salary cap stumbles of the NBA and NFL as it moves toward locking up a similar vehicle with its players union. “I think the successful leagues and teams have to work together,” he says. “The players are who people come to see skate and play to the best of their ability. But management, owners and athletes have to be on the same page. There has to be a common goal.”
The NBA cap works for Jamison, but as a football fan, he’s worried about the impact the new NFL cap will have on the San Francisco 49ers. “We’ve heard a lot about the 49ers having to let people go to stay under the cap,” he says, nervously. “Cap management is building stock in your team and being prepared for the future. Sometimes there’s player movement that’s not fully understood (at the time). Why is a player who is popular suddenly moved? Maybe he came out and said, ‘I’m not re-signing with the club.’ Maybe to retain value, they moved the player. I have a lot of respect for GMs in all leagues who have to maintain a mix of veterans and youth and know when to make a move. It’s an art form.”
Where is it all going? There’s no easy answer.
“Where’s the airline industry going?” Jamison retorts. “Every industry has to ask itself that. When I was a kid, a pack of gum was a nickel. What’s the ceiling on gum? I’m not trying to be trite. These questions – sometimes, in a free market, things try to shake themselves out. We try to do long-term planning. We try to anticipate (cost) increases here, revenues there. The league has goals; individual teams have goals. The Sharks’ goals are simple: we want to win every game; we want to sell out every game. We want the best players. We want them happy. And we want the fans happy.”
+ + + +
“The biggest problem I have with agents is the number of holdouts,” says Peter Hayes, managing editor of College & Pro Football Newsweekly. “Guys in their rookie year miss camp, marquee players hold out till the middle of the season. Most of these guys want the best deal possible. They want security. Nobody can begrudge them that. But I think it’s the agents controlling the player, filling his head with nonsensical things. It’s bad for the game. Football isn’t alone in this. All sports is full of this nonsense.
“I think the average fan who supports a team has a hard time understanding,” Hayes says. “It all comes down to performance. Emmitt Smith performs and they still love him. If the players perform on the field, the fans don’t care if they’re making $10 million or 10 cents.”
Hayes blames agents for damaging young players by pushing them into professional drafts too soon, thereby sacrificing their education and full college eligibility. “These guys who come out early – many go late in the draft or they don’t make it at all,” he says. “Where did they get the idea to come out early? Agents.
“I think a lot of good players are getting a lot of bad advice,” Hayes says.
Soon, they may get their advice from a new source: sporting goods manufacturers. Nike hit the industry first, formalizing its informal relationships with Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Alonzo Mourning, Harold Miner and several other superstar athletes last summer into Nike Sports Management. Former CBA commissioner Terdema Ussery is president of the subsidiary.
“Our focus is to work with a select few Nike athletes on everything but their playing contracts,” says public relations director Keith Peters. “We work on everything in their portfolio, from business advice to finding other endorsements. It’s our charge to go out and market them.”
Mourning was represented in his last Charlotte Hornets contract negotiation by agent David Falk, who handles Michael Jordan. But instead of sticking with Falk for the rest of his business, he dribbled over to Nike. “He worked with David Falk on his Hornets contract, paid the going rate,” Peters says. “All the rest of his business and accounting, soup to nuts, is what we do for Alonzo.”
Traditional player reps are dismayed by Nike coveting their turf and predict the company will not get off the ground in its new venture. Too much potential conflict of interest, they say.
“Nike says they’re going into the business. I think that’s a grave mistake,” Ken Staninger says. “Nike may try to cherry-pick the superstars of the future. And it would make sense if Nike is successful that Reebok will follow suit. But if they’re out competing with us, we’re not going to be too excited talking about a Nike contract when we have a superstar. You don’t want to support a company competing with you. And you’re always going to be concerned about client interference.”
“To the degree that a lot of agents do more than just player contracts,” Peters says, “perhaps they feel they’re competing with us. But to date, we have not negotiated a player contract. There may be a misunderstanding about that.”
Nike gets a pretty good deal by avoiding player contracts. No worries about certification, no outside control over its fee schedules and its athletes are already household names. The company also doesn’t waste time and money chasing raw talent or developing it. “We’ve become aggressive in a selective way,” Peters says. “Each year we hope to get one or maybe two baseball, basketball or football players, the kind of athlete it makes sense for us to invest resources in and who has the potential to stand above the crowd and be attractive to other sponsors.”
Peters figures Nike Sports Management’s competition are the full-service sports agencies and agents: IMG, ProServ, Falk and Leigh Steinberg. And he knows Nike won’t be the last manufacturer to go this route. “I wouldn’t be surprised if some of (our competitors) were to do it,” he says.
Staninger doesn’t like it one bit.
“Nike is so big,” he says. “I don’t know why they’d want to get into this aspect of the business.”
+ + + +
What do fans think of all this? Many are pissed. They want their favorite teams well-stocked with top talent, but mostly they want a return of debate over RBIs, shots on goal and free throw percentages, not option years and incentive clauses.
“Most people hear salaries – three years, $5 million; two years, $8 million – we just can’t comprehend them,” says Ken Silverstein, a veteran sports radio talk show host who spent eight years with Houston’s KTRH before joining WFNS in Tampa Bay. “These numbers roll off our tongues like we’re talking about Monopoly money. We see it coming out of our pockets because we see prices going up – tickets, hot dogs, parking. Fans understand that; they don’t like it.”
Rising sports ticket prices in football, basketball and hockey are right on the cusp of forcing the middle class out for good. Instead of season tickets or partial season tickets, the average family of four might spring for one or two games a year as a special outing. “It’s pretty mind-boggling what it costs for a family of four – or two,” Silverstein says. “Sports has become a very white-collar thing. It’s not good, but that’s where it’s going.”
“I have very mixed feelings,” says Dan Gutman, lifelong baseball fan and author of several books including Baseball Babylon (Penguin) and It Ain’t Cheatin’ If You Don’t Get Caught (Penguin). “On one hand, utility second basemen hit .210 and get million-dollar salaries. That’s outlandish. On the other hand, the players were screwed by owners for 100 years. Now it’s their turn to get even.”
In general, Gutman finds the emphasis on salaries a bore.
“I don’t want to read about arbitration and how much this guy is going to get paid. It’s not what sports is all about,” he laments. “I speak to a lot of fans. The overwhelming feeling is that the high salaries have hurt the game. It puts players out of touch. They don’t dive for balls.”
Still, he says, baseball ticket prices haven’t exploded the way they have in other sports, so as long as Gutman can still get a $6 general admission seat at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, he’ll keep his gripes about Darren Daulton’s million-dollar deal to himself.
“Bobby from St. Pete, you’re at bat. Take a swing!”
“Okay! I was at the airport the other day and Phil was there. He’s getting on a plane going to Newark. I said, ‘Hey, Phil! Good luck!’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it!'”
For those who don’t know the players on a first-name basis, Chris Thomas explains to the rest of his listeners that “Phil” is Phil Esposito, president of the vaporware Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I have to think the National Hockey League is losing its patience,” opines Thomas, host of WFLA 970 AM’s “Tampa Bay Sports Line.” “It has been two months.”
“He looked really nervous,” reports Bobby from St. Pete. “I wondered if you have an update?”
“Naah,” says Thomas, waving his hand in disgust as if Bobby from St. Pete could see it. “Because the NHL doesn’t believe in the First Amendment and free speech, the league has a gag order in place.”
Bobby from St. Pete, satisfied, hangs up.
Thomas, 43, looks across the WFLA studio to his engineer in the next room, explaining to him on the air how the name Bob is a palindrome because it is spelled the same way backwards and forwards. Only Thomas can hear Jesse’s response in his headphones, but he tells the engineer, “Jesse, you are not a palindrome, you are a meathead.”
Four nights a week, Tuesday through Friday from 6:30-8 p.m., WFLA-TV Ch. 8 sportscaster Chris Thomas gives up his dinner break to spend 90 minutes talking to listeners on WFLA radio. It’s worth it, both to him and to listeners. There is no more commanding presence and personality in local sportscasting on either TV or radio. Thomas has all the elements, from a voice dripping with sarcasm and bombastic exuberance to an encyclopedic knowledge of sports and a devil-may-care attitude.
Moments before the radio show begins, he and his producer, Kevin, discuss upcoming guests.
“I thought we could get (former Colts quarterback) Earl Morrall,” says Kevin. “Did you ever talk to him in Baltimore?”
“Oh, sure,” says Thomas. “I know Earl.”
“Are you kidding? Guy’s in his 50s, still wears a crewcut!”
When the show starts, Thomas chats up his listeners a bit to warm up. “We’re going to have a special guest whose name escapes me,” he admits, cracking himself up.
During the first commercial break, Thomas confesses his only gripe with Tampa Bay sports fans: they’re too passive.
“They tend to sit back and listen,” he says. “We know they’re there. Sometimes I have to kick ’em in the butt. Sometimes I say, you’re killing me, you’re going to get me fired, my daughter’s not going to be able to go to a good college … Then they call.”
Even when they do call, Thomas says area sports fans don’t have the same fire in their belly found in Boston, New York, Chicago or Baltimore. “You listen to callers in big cities, they’re brutal! Rabid! They’re passive here,” he says. “There’s a latent audience of Bucs fans that want to go berserk, but what’s to go berserk over? It’s the worst team in the league.”
Back on the air.
“Is our guest on the phone yet?” Thomas asks Jesse. “He’s not? Play the music. I have to get my notes.” Turning off his microphone, Thomas thumbs through his bulging briefcase and asks the engineer: “What’s our guest’s name again?”
The man’s name is Cliff Charpentier and he’s just published his eighth book on fantasy football. Thomas knows the game well and makes conversation easily. Despite his bluster, he never hesitates, never takes more than a breath between one solid question and then another.
Charpentier does not light up the phone lines and Thomas grows bored. While the fantasy football expert drones on, Thomas turns off his microphone, coughs, and says, “Guy’s pretty exciting.” He then closes his eyes and his forehead bangs into the microphone, as if the sportscaster has fallen into a deep coma.
The feeling is not held back from his listeners, either. “Thank you for being on the Sports Line, Cliff,” says Thomas, disconnecting Charpentier. “Exciting guy, that Cliff,” he says, laughing. “Not quite in the Hoyt Wilhelm league … ”
Former knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm played Major League Baseball far later in life than most athletes. Thomas interviewed him one night for the show. “It was dreadful,” he recalls. “He kept doing this (clears his throat, with great difficulty) before answering questions. I thought he was going to die. First of all, why did you come on the show if you’re going to die? And if you’re going to die, don’t take me with you.”
Thomas never set out to be in broadcasting. His mind was set on journalism until he accidentally walked into the campus radio station at the University of South Carolina. “I heard this guy doing sports. He was horrible! I turned to this guy and said, ‘He’s horrible! He stinks! You ought to fire him!’ He said, ‘Who are you?'”
But Thomas won an audition and bulldozed his way on the air, working as both DJ and sportscaster. He worked in radio for years, in South Carolina and Baltimore, adding TV later on. This isn’t the first time he’s worked both media, either.
Back to the phones.
The blue computer screen to Thomas’s left indicates the name of each caller, their sex, topic of interest and how long they’ve been waiting. Cellular car phone callers usually get through quickest.
Mike from Clearwater: “I think you and Tedd Webb should get off Ray Perkins’ back.”
Thomas: “Hey, I haven’t mentioned his name in two days!”
Some callers are better than others, of course. They require the host’s full attention. That’s when Thomas puts down his latest Marlboro, his eyes narrow and focus on a point beyond the microphone, talking to it like the caller is actually in the room.
Thomas, like other talk show hosts at WFLA, has his regular callers. Kerry is distinguished by his horse laugh. Bill has a very distinctive voice. And Bill is a retiree from Detroit. Thomas prefers “open phones” to interviewing authors and minor celebs, which makes the job seem more like work.
Physically, Thomas is different than you’d expect from seeing him on TV. Instead of the de rigeour jacket and tie, he shows up at the radio studio in his golfing clothes, yellow shorts and multi-colored polo shirt. And where TV makes him look pudgy, he’s not. Thomas is tall, thin, tanned and taut. The camera, she lies.
Six calls later – and discussion of Arena football, Hugh Culverhouse, the Seattle Mariners behind him – it’s 7:55:01 p.m., time for the Fat Lady to sing.
“This is a marvelous country, ladies and gentlemen,” says Thomas as Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America” comes up behind him. “It’s a land that I love … Stand beside her, and guide her … From the mountains, to the prairies … ”
A year ago, a listener sent him a tape of Kate Smith singing “God Bless America.” Thomas used it to close the show for a week or two as a gag. When he stopped, listeners demanded her return. Now WFLA promotes Chris Thomas and Kate Smith as “America’s Sweethearts.”
“Everybody needs a signature,” says Thomas with a shrug. “Not only that – it shortens the show by three minutes!”
By Bob Andelman (Originally published in Maddux Report, 1989)
Some might say that jingle writing isn’t an art, it’s just advertising.Maybe. But there is a certain melodical, redundant appeal to a well-done jingle that is at once irrepressible and unrelenting, two qualities usually assigned to our finest pop arts.
Bay area jingle writers concentrate on regional and local businesses. Sometimes their stuff becomes ingrained, as Mary Lind Jorn’s words did in Tampa Electric Company (TECO)’s commercials for the heat pump. Jorn got the heat pump assignment a couple years ago from the Bozell/Ellis, Diaz advertising agency. Searching for inspiration, she heard the music from a Polar Beer spot the agency prepared but never used. Jorn re-wrote the lyrics and wound up with two seasonal versions:
HEAT PUMPS WARM YOU UP
WHEN THE COLD WINDS BLOW;
YOU CAN STAY WARM
WITHOUT SPENDING MUCH DOUGH.
HEAT PUMPS COOL YOU DOWN
WHEN THE DAYS ARE SO HOT;
YOU CAN STAY COOL
WITHOUT SPENDING A LOT.
As anyone who listens to the radio knows, the jingle has gotten a lot of use with TECO. “The client liked it; it seemed to be effective,” according to Bill Diaz, who handles the TECO account for Bozell/Ellis, Diaz. “We’re entering the fourth campaign cycle using that jingle. It’s still got plenty of life in it.”
“With the heat pump,” says Jorn, “we had a simple message. We wrote a simple lyric that expressed that.”
Jeff Arthur, Tampa Bay’s “King of Jingles,” has written words and music for AMC Theaters, Anheuser-Busch, Eastern Airlines, Sun Bank, (“THUMBS UP, THE SUN IS SHINING, BRIGHTER EVERYDAY … SUN BANK, THE BRIGHT WAY TO BANK”) the ST. PETERSBURG TIMES, Wendy’s and many shopping malls in the Tampa Bay area. He has done crematories (“NECRON CREMATION DOES OUR PART, BY LEAVING LASTING MEMORIES IN YOUR HEART … WHEN CREMATION IS THE CHOICE YOU NEED, NECRON TRIBUTE ™ HANDLES IT TENDERLY .. IT’S BEST TO PLAN AHEAD YOU’LL SEE, MAKE THINGS EASY ON YOUR FAMILY”) and passed on escort services. But Mary’s Bonding Service, now there is a dilly of a ditty.
“Mary gets bail bonds for people who get in trouble,” explains Jeff Arthur, one-time national recording artist turned jingle writer. “She has a really good reputation as a grandmotherly person when you get in trouble.”
So this is what he came up with a few weeks ago for the Pinellas Park business, sung in the mellow, folksy style of James Taylor:
SOMETIMES THINGS DON’T GO AS PLANNED;
THAT’S WHY MARY’S THERE.
MARY’S GOT A WAY OF BONDING
THAT SHOWS HOW MUCH SHE CARES.
SO WHEN YOU NEED A LITTLE HELP,
CALL YOUR OLD FRIEND MARY.
MARY’S BONDING AGENCY, 571-H-E-L-P.
As the tape of Mary’s jingle plays, Arthur bounces around Studio B, laughing at the humor he hears in his own lyrics. He describes the ideal scenario of effectiveness for this commercial: “Can you imagine a cop, driving with a guy handcuffed in the back of his car, and the cop is singing, ‘Call your old friend Mary, 571-H-E-L-P.’?”
Arthur is laughing … all the way to the bank.
Don’t get the wrong idea: production of jingles is not a major industry on Florida’s west coast. It is, however, a clever, often hysterically funny medium requiring highly specialized talents. Not every copywriter in an ad agency can write a good jingle. That’s why most echo from Jeff Arthur Productions in Clearwater and a small but growing coterie of independent writers working at home or in studios no larger than a broom closet.
“I think Jeff Arthur does more straight jingle work than anyone else,” says Tom Morris, studio manager of Morrisound Studios in Tampa. “Jeff is kind of the jingle king around here.”
Jingles are 60-second musical dervishes that attempt to sell products and services with catchy lyrics, some rhyming, some funny. “It’s a little epic, only 60 seconds long,” says writer Howard Kleinfeld. “You have to make your point and get out.”
“People have a tendency to think of jingles as cute little things,” says Arthur. “Music is the soul of your advertising copy.”
JEFF ARTHUR audio excerpt: “Whenever I call a client and read lyrics, I say you have to understand, it’s not going to be the same without music. When you put your words to music, they becomes 400 times more memorable than the spoken word.”
Work done locally is typically assigned by out-of-town clients and advertising agencies. Jingle work that originates here is commonly farmed out to Atlanta, Miami, Orlando and New York, which accounts for the narrow marketplace.
“In advertising, there seems to be this mindset that, ‘We can’t do this in our hometown,’” says Morris. Morrisound is one of many Bay area studios doing technical jingle production; it is also home to two independent jingle writers, Kent Smith and Lex Macar.
When the Tampa-based advertising agency of Bozell/Ellis, Diaz needs a jingle, it sends the business out of town.
“I guess there’s not enough people doing it here,” says agency president Bill Diaz. “It’s a very competitive business. Maybe the reason we feel more comfortable going out of market is (the work) is not as mature here. There’s people doing good work, but it’s not that mature.” Diaz adds that with multi-million-dollar accounts, he can’t afford to take chances on untested talent. “I think Jeff Arthur does a pretty good job. (He is) probably the best here. He seems to have a style about him that is recognizable; therefore you have to see if his style will suit what you’re trying to get.”
Arthur, noting that only 20 percent of his company’s work is derived from local sources, believes Diaz and others simply don’t appreciate the creative and technical talent available to them in the Bay area.
“People here have not yet taken full advantage of local broadcast production quality,” he says. “There’s a great selection of quality (radio and television) stations but what they’re running on those stations is not given the thought it should be. They are buying radio and television and, because the costs are high for broadcast time, they are taking it away from their production quality. I say, run less time with a creative, professional piece, rather than more time with something of less quality.”
Jingles are meant to be sung. The words alone aren’t as emotional and jarring in print advertising unless the music has been working for a long time. With an established jingle — such as Chevrolet’s “Heartbeat of America” — when it’s tag line is printed, it should trigger the reader’s memory to the sound of the jingle.
Reading jingles here, in print, for example, cannot possibly convey the bubbly, infectious elements found in the best jingles. It’s not the message in jingles as much as it is the way the message is delivered: putting a sales pitch to music is a kinder, gentler way of reaching an audience.
“If music didn’t work,” says Arthur, “you wouldn’t have 97 percent of all major advertisers using it. I guarantee you, McDonalds and Coke know what the hell they’re doing.”
“The jingles you hear that are bad have everything thrown in,” says Jorn. “They’re print copy that people sing. You just can’t set everything to music and figure that’s going to do it. A jingle has to catch the essence of your message. You use phrases you wouldn’t use in print.”
What would “Oh, What a Feeling! Toyota” or “Welcome to Miller Time” be without music? asks Arthur. “Whenever I call a client and read lyrics, I say you have to understand, it’s not going to be the same without music. When you put your words to music, they becomes 400 times more memorable than the spoken word.”
And if anyone could speak authoritatively on that subject, it’s Jeff Arthur. At 37, his name is synonymous with jingles after seven years in Tampa Bay, 18 years in advertising and a few more in a recording group, Arthur, Hurley & Gottlieb. His lobby walls are covered with awards; there are two Clio Award statuettes in his private office. Between the Clearwater facility and a new office in Raleigh, N.C., he keeps very busy.
“I went to Raleigh last week and I got nine jingle (assignments). I’ve already got 25 running there,” he says.
Jeff Arthur Productions is the largest producer of music for shopping malls (“I’M FEELING TYRONE TERRIFIC, BUT TO BE MUCH MORE SPECIFIC, YOU’LL FEEL TERRIFIC, TYRONE SQUARE MALL”) in the country, owing to a longtime association with the DeBartolo Corp. “That’s a huge source of our income,” according to Arthur. His company also does a lot of business with furniture stores. Arthur’s company created the familiar music used nationwide by AMC Theaters (“THERE IS A DIFFERENCE YOU CAN SEE / THERE IS A DIFFERENCE WITH AMC”) and the theme songs for Super Bowl XVIII, “Be a Super Host” (“IF THEY LOVE US WHEN THEY LEAVE US, THEY’LL BE BACK”), and the Tampa Bay Bucanneers (“HEY, HEY, HEY, WE’RE THE BUCANNEERS”).
After several years spent establishing himself in Tampa Bay, Arthur says he’s just now starting to see a payoff.
“People don’t understand the incredible expense it takes to do all the commercials and keep a studio open seven days a week,” he says. “You spend 95 percent of your time selling the product and five percent creating it.”
Most recently, Arthur was commissioned by the Defrain Stemm advertising agency to write music for Larry’s Olde Fashioned Ice Cream Parlours.
“We wrote the copy,” says Vivek Rao, director of production for Defrain Stemm. “But he made enough changes that it almost became a Jeff Arthur original. It was just beautiful. I was so happy I’m going back to him with another commercial.”
Arthur often lifts a style from a familiar pop artist, according to former employees. “He used to put on the top of every spot ‘a la Wendy’s’ or ‘a la Coke,’” says one. Not that he denies it. A mall in Texas wanted its jingle to sound like Paula Abdul, a singer who is currently selling a lot of dance-oriented records. Arthur reproduced the rhythm track from one of her songs and gave it a new but similar melody to satisfy his client.
“Jingle writers aren’t ripping off pop performers,” he says, bristling. “Because everything that’s been done has been done before. It’s how well you do it. It’s having an attitude in your music that’s contemporary with the feeling you want to achieve.”
Mary Lind Jorn, 36, works as a freelancer out of her home in Hyde Park and maintains a loose partnership with Rayna Lancaster in Two Writers/No Waiting. The former SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE reporter coined the phrase “the un-newspaper” for SUNRISE, the CLEARWATER SUN’s twice-weekly entertainment tabloid. It was a situation when a jingle was desired by the client but was not the best way to sell the product.
“The agency called me because they liked the heat pump (jingle),” says Jorn. “I re-lyriced ‘Surfin’ Safari.’ But I had a problem because I could not figure how we were going to sing ‘The Un-newspaper.’”
In the search for schtick, Jorn received a funny message on her telephone answering machine and the offbeat, topical answering machine relationship of Rollo the Nerd and Jasmine the Yuppie was born. “A lot of people say, ‘I want a jingle.’ Sometimes it’s just not the right thing for them,” says Jorn. “You really can’t sell a very complicated product with a jingle. Jingles are reserved for products where people already know what they are.”
One of Jorn’s favorite gimmicks is to rewrite the lyrics of once-popular songs to make a connection with a product. That’s why she initially tried to fit SUNRISE to “Surfin’ Safari.” “I’ll go through old music books looking for a lyric, something that triggers memory banks,” she says. “I like ‘Surfin’ Safari’ because of the familiarity of the era. (It) takes you back to when you were 18, cruising down the road.”
Writers have to be cautious in balancing the best way to sell a product with demonstrating how clever they are or how wide-ranging their vocabulary is.
“You’re not writing literature; it’s business,” she says. “If you’re just doing puns and plays on words, you’re taking the easy way out. If you can find a cliche and it works for you, that’s the best way.”
Don Poole, an engineer at Ron Rose Studios in Tampa, moonlights as a jingle writer and composer. The 27-year-old relies heavily on the memory of a Macintosh computer to give him the power of a studio orchestra.
“Musicians hate guys like me, who uses computers,” says the author of jingles for WFLA Radio, Cellular One, Charter Hospital, the New York Daily News and 3M. “A lot ofjingle writers are using it. I can use a trumpet as a lead instrument; if a client doesn’t like it, I can change with the push of a button.”
The best-known of Poole’s work is probably what he wrote for WTSP TV-10:
WATCH THE NEWS EVERY DAY
BECAUSE WE’RE IN TOUCH WITH TAMPA BAY.
WHEN YOU THINK OF NEWS,
THINK OF 10.
“It’s sort of repetitious,” concedes Poole, “but that punchline — ‘Think of 10′ — that hits home.”
If Jeff Arthur rules the Bay area’s jingle fiefdom, Howard Kleinfeld and Kent Smith are his rock ‘n’ roll princes. Both are graduates of the Arthur jingle mill, grateful for the experience but anxious to make their own marks.
Kleinfeld, 31, grudgingly relinquished a career as a rocker to pursue a lucrative, rising reputation as a different kind of jingle writer.
“I try to make my jingles sound like songs,” says the director of On The Air Productions in St. Petersburg. “Jeff played a tape for me about how a jingle evolves. It was really well done. But that’s not the way I work. I sit down and play like a real rock ‘n’ roll guy. I play loud — REAL loud.”
A jingle by Howard Kleinfeld sounds completely different than a Jeff Arthur jingle.
For a frenetic, high-energy track created for Orlando-based Ron Jon Surf Shops (“WE’RE NOT ONE OF MANY / WE’RE ONE OF A KIND”), Kleinfeld took his inspiration from new wave British rocker Thomas Dolby. “I wanted to match the flavor of their billboards (which feature cartoon images illustrated with bright, neon colors) with the sound.” The music is so convincing, the writer plans to use a longer version in a song. “It doesn’t sound like a jingle,” he says. “When we present something like this, they’re blown away.”
The first jingle Kleinfeld wrote was for Thoroughbred Music in Tampa. Many of his clients come from the Orlando area, including a nightclub called Hollywood Nights (“THESE ARE THE NIGHTS TO REMEMBER”); Central Florida Magazine; Luigi B.G. Pizza Factory; Shoppes at Olympia Place; and St. Luke’s Cataract and Intraocular Lens Institute in Tarpon Springs.
For Luigi B.G., Kleinfeld created the kind of schticky, Italian tune he might have written under Arthur’s aegis:
COME IN TO EAT
A PIZZA TREAT …
HERE’S WHAT WE GOT
FOR NOT A LOT.
“That’s a REAL jingle,” says Kleinfeld. “I like doing that. It’s a real challenge because I’m not familiar with Italian folk music.”
Kleinfeld has found himself in the position of having to redirect clients, as he did with the Sea Market, a seafood restaurant. “They said, ‘Make it sound like a Red Lobster commercial.’ I said, ‘Why? You want people to think of Red Lobster when they hear your ad?’ It takes time to build a good rep. And you’ve got to be aggressive.”
Kleinfeld is learning to be more aggressive in selling his own product; he’ll mount his first direct mail campaign this summer.
Kent Smith, proprietor of SoundSmith Productions in Tampa, began composing music at the age of seven. He has spent time in bands, but never saw where his talents would take him until Jeff Arthur was a guest speaker in one of his classes at USF in 1980.
“He said, ‘Not everybody can write jingles,’” recalls Smith. “I said, ‘I can.’ I started working for him a week later.”
After two years in Arthur’s employ, Smith moved to North Carolina for a time. He advertised nationally and attracted a loyal stable of clients who have stuck with him over the years. He does or has done work for: Flama Cola (a Puerto Rican version of Pepsi, only spicier); Carolina Circle Mall in N.C.; Four Seasons Realty in St. Paul, Mn.; Fresh Market in North Carolina; and Belk Lindsey.
One of his most amusing aural jingles, for Sheraton Hotels’ Charlie Goodnight Restaurants, won an Addy Award:
ROUND UP YOUR HEARTIEST APPETITE
AT (Sound of a whip cracking) CHARLIE GOODNIGHT.
BEST OF THE WEST
COOKED DAY AND NIGHT
CHUCK WAGON FOOD IS DYNAMITE (SOUND OF AN EXPLOSION).
Smith, 31, says his greatest thrill came this spring when a promotional ditty he wrote for WTVT TV-13 aired during a commercial break in the Grammy Awards. “I thought — ‘My music made it to the Grammys!’”
Despite recognition and plaudits for their work, neither Smith nor Kleinfeld are gaining new business or recognition as fast as they would like for their jingle work.
“To be a successful jingle writer you have to have a sales force,” says Smith, who works alone and relies on word-of-mouth and referrals. “That’s something Jeff has done well. That, and getting his name out.”
Perhaps the most striking contrast between Arthur and his graduates is their studios. Arthur has a large, traditional recording facility with a baby grand piano, soundproof glass, two production studios and a full staff. Smith runs SoundSmith Productions from a room the size of a closet with keyboards and recording equipment stacked from floor to ceiling; Kleinfeld operates On The Air Productions in a spare room of his home. Smith and Kleinfeld are one-man-bands, writing, producing and even performing their own work. (Kleinfeld does have a partner in Orlando, Tim Coons, who acts as salesman and helps polish the finish product.) Another difference: personal computers. Smith has stored thousand of digitized instrument sounds, from synthesized strings to saxophones, on a Macintosh Plus.
“The Mac is librarian for everything I do,” he says. “When I first started out people said, ‘Those are strings?’”
Smith’s computer didn’t come easy. It wasn’t just a case of saving up to buy it or taking out a loan. He earned it through his work. It seems that sometimes, jingle writing requires more than just a fertile imagination; occasionally it calls for a mathematical sense of meter. At least that’s what it took Smith to write his Addy award-winning theme for “Carolina Biological Supply Computer Store”:
IF COMPUTERS ARE YOUR GAME
AND YOU’RE LOOKING FOR THE NAME
OF THE BEST DEAL AROUND FOR SURE,
TRY CAROLINA BIOLOGICAL SUPPLY COMPUTER STORE.
“They wouldn’t let me shorten the name or anything,” says Smith, still amazed he accomplished the job. “That’s how I got my computer. They figured anybody that could sell a name that long deserved it.”
By Bob Andelman
Maddux Business Report
Put yourself in Jay Feaster’s shoes.
Year in and year out, your team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, is a playoff contender. That would be good enough in most cities, but this franchise actually won the Stanley Cup in 2004, forever changing expectations.
Since then, the Lightning has been good – but not great. There have been moments of brilliance on the ice, but a fair number of times, the team’s play in key games has made grown men ball like little babies.
It all comes back to the office of the general manager, Jay Feaster.
When Lightning players look for a few more talented teammates, they look to Feaster. When head coach John Tortorella is desperate for a speedier, more athletic star that can score more goals, he turns to Feaster. When the team owner wants to know why his team isn’t winning more games, he puts the pressure on Feaster.
And when the out-of-town owner sells the team without warning – as happened in early August, after this interview was conducted – the media, the fans and everyone else turns to Feaster for answers he can’t provide. In fact, he declined to answers additional questions at deadline because he didn’t know anymore about the new owners, Absolute Hockey, and the team’s future – or his own – than you do.
On the other hand, maybe you don’t want to be in Jay Feaster’s shoes after all.
MADDUX BUSINESS REPORT: Jay, no pressure, but how’s your team gonna look this year?
JAY FEASTER: We’re excited about the things that we’ve done this off-season. We’ve already locked up the big key main free agents that would be out there on the market if we hadn’t taken the steps to keep them in Tampa. We have four of the very best players in the National Hockey League that skate on our ice at the St. Pete Times Forum, as it is every game, in Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and Danny Boyle. So we start from the fact we have a very good core to build around, and it really is a matter of trying to fit in the pieces.
MR: With St. Louis, Lecavalier, Richards, and Boyle, the Lightning has something that maybe some other teams in town don’t have at the moment, and that is real star-power.
FEASTER: There’s no question. When I first arrived in Tampa as an assistant general manager in 1998, if we had said to the fan base at that time, “We’re gonna win more than 40 games every year for four straight years, we’re gonna make the playoffs every year for four straight years, some years we’ll go out in the first round, some years we may win a round, sometime in that time frame, we might even challenge for a Stanley Cup,” people would have said, “Where do I sign up?”