Offensive Lines: How Bad Is Your NFL Team's Owner?
Federal investigations, millions in political donations, brain trauma denial? All in a day's work for football's money men.
Some were born in the red zone, inheriting teams from their wealthy families. Some are lifetime businessmen who bought a franchise as a midlife vanity project. One is married to a Walmart heiress. Yet on the whole, NFL owners have one thing in common: their relative anonymity.
That's because, for years, they've had a hired hand to do their dirty work: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has kept busy negotiating a contract that reduces players' cut of the pie, locking out unionized referees, and fighting the fallout of a $765 million concussion lawsuit. The owners who pay Goodell's $29-million-plus salary were rewarded last year with $9.5 billion in revenue.
Here's your chance to take your eyes off Goodell for a sec, and look at the public-financing hogs and brain-trauma deniers occupying luxury suites across America. In the vein of Major League Assholes, we took a stab at matrix-ifying NFL owners based on their political giving and their relative assholery. Look down below the chart to get the skinny on all the owners you love to hate.
Baltimore Ravens: According to the Washington Post, Steve Bisciotti "is, in many ways, a regular guy who happens to be very rich." Like $1.8 billion rich. He sits courtside at University of Maryland basketball games and flies in his buddies on his private jet to join him. Bisciotti made his fortune by founding the country's largest staffing company, Aerotek (now the Allegis Group), which in 2009 settled a class action suit with more than 1,000 former employees who claimed the company didn't pay them for accrued leave time. (Aerotek paid out $1.2 million.)
When Baltimore made the Super Bowl last year, former Ravens coach Brian Billick had this to say of his old boss: "He's a man's man. He'll go drink for drink, cigar for cigar." And, apparently, arm caress for arm caress:
Buffalo Bills: When Ralph Wilson bought an AFL franchise in 1959, he finally settled on Buffalo, New York, after meeting with a local newspaper editor who promised to cover the new team every single day. Known as much for his outspoken views on revenue sharing as he is for whisking players from practice for a midday tuna melt, Wilson has come to rely on this sort of local support: In December, Erie County and the state agreed to pony up a combined $226 million of the $271 million in future renovations to Ralph Wilson Stadium. (In return, the Bills promised not to leave Buffalo for Los Angeles or Toronto or wherever else they could possibly go for seven years.) Shortly thereafter, Wilson gave up his title as team president—at 94.
Cincinnati Bengals: The late Paul Brown was one of modern football's major innovators, helping popularize things like the forward pass and sideline play calling. His son, current Bengals owner Mike Brown, has innovated in his own, small way. In the mid-1990s he used the old "I might move the team to Baltimore" line to put Hamilton County, Ohio, on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in financing for a new stadium—which he named after dear old dad. (As one county official told the Wall Street Journal, "It's the monster that ate the public sector.") That Brown would ask taxpayers to pick up the tab is no surprise; for years he ran what Sports Illustrated called "the leanest mom-and-pop shop in the league," a nice way of saying that he didn't employ as many scouts as other teams did. More recently, he's been on the cutting edge of making loud-mouthed, uninformed comments about the long-term neurological effects of concussions—even after one of his ex-players, Chris Henry, was found to have degenerative brain damage after his death in a December 2009 car accident.
Cleveland Browns: Truck stop magnate Jimmy Haslam once told a reporter that he'd been approached by the TV show Undercover Boss but had to turn the producers down: Everyone at his multibillion-dollar company, Pilot Flying J, knew the hands-on CEO too well for the premise to work. NFL fans were just starting to know Haslam, who last year gave up his stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers to purchase the Browns for $1 billion, when Pilot Flying J came under federal investigation for allegedly defrauding its customers. Worse, a confidential informant told the FBI that Haslam knew (PDF) it was happening. It wasn't the first time Pilot Flying J had come under legal scrutiny. From the New York Times:
In 2005, the United States Department of Labor announced an agreement in which the company would pay 110 assistant managers $720,000 in back wages and damages to resolve violations of the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to The News Sentinel. And the company settled price-gouging allegations in three states by paying fines in the wake of Hurricane Ike in 2008.
Oh, and did we mention the company is allegedly $4 billion in debt?
Denver Broncos: Despite his shrinking role with the Broncos, owner Pat Bowlen still makes a point to reach out to fans—last month, he actually said his team belongs to them. Back in January, he sent season ticket holders apologetic emails following Denver's last-second playoff exit. Whether or not that excuses his greatest sin depends on your point of view.
Houston Texans: According to a 2011 story in ESPN the Magazine, Bob McNair's "game-day mornings probably aren't too different from yours." Right, because you, too, leave your 12,000-plus-square-foot home each day, and head over to your 3,620-square-foot owner's suite at the local stadium. McNair, the NFL's biggest political donor (he's given $4.2 million since 2008, including $2 million last fall to the pro-Mitt Romney super-PAC Restore Our Future and $1 million to Karl Rove's American Crossroads), cleaned up by selling his Cogen Technologies to Enron in 1999—not long before Ken Lay & Co. imploded. Maybe it's that kind of timing that led Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to once call McNair the best owner in football. Meanwhile, his heir apparent, son Cal, enjoys big-game hunting—lions, elephants, leopards, including one he's got stuffed and mounted in his office. The Texans are still hunting for their own big game: They've never made it to the conference championships, let alone the Super Bowl, in their 12-year history.
Indianapolis Colts: We enjoy Twitter. But Jim Irsay—billionaire Colts owner, son of Baltimore-crushing Robert Irsay, recovering addict, guitar aficionado, and Kerouac scroll owner—adores Twitter. Here's one of his first tweets, from 2010:
The charity of this night will find the distinguished ones. Those igniting sandcandles of compassion and forged mettle of understanding.— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) December 2, 2010
Here's another, lamenting a poor preseason performance:
Many starters played briefly or were nursing little injuries,but it was a crap performance,my apologies/My commanders got n earful from me!— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) August 12, 2013
And this one, on ticket pricing:
U pay a lump sum n reality for 10 Season Tics ..your Bronco tics r 400% under-prized,ur pre-season tics over-priced,it balances out in end— Jim Irsay (@JimIrsay) August 14, 2013
Don't let Irsay's Twitter antics fool you, though: He's a killer at the negotiating table, as evidenced by Indianapolis' heavily subsidized Lucas Oil Stadium. And he can be quite coherent in person, like when he was asked about Rush Limbaugh's reported bid for the St. Louis Rams: "There are certain privileges for certain things in life that you might want to pursue that may not be appropriate. I myself couldn't be in favor of voting for him." With a few of Irsay's punctuation tweaks, that would easily fit within 140 characters.
Jacksonville Jaguars: In 2011, Shad Khan bought the Jaguars for $770 million, making him the NFL's first ethnic minority owner. The Pakistani-born, Muslim billionaire with the epic facial hair (60 Minutes: "His rakish mustache has become a must-have accessory for any self-respecting Jags fan") wasn't the first choice of some racist Jacksonville fans, but his approval rating reached nearly 80 percent a year and a half ago. Khan got rich as owner of Flex-N-Gate, which manufactures bumpers for Toyota but was cited for nine serious OSHA violations and fined $57,000 in 2012 "for failing to monitor workers' exposure to nickel, chromium, and [hydrochloric] and sulfuric acid." (No word on whether star running back Maurice Jones-Drew is considering his own occupational hazard suit after years of carrying an anemic offense.)
Miami Dolphins: Even though Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria detonated the Miami-Dade budget and turned South Florida against publicly funded stadiums with the debtapalooza known as Marlins Park, Dolphins frontman Stephen Ross didn't let that stop him from trying to get some public dollars of his own. After the cancellation of a special election involving $350 million in proposed stadium renovations, Ross went on the offensive, creating a PAC called Florida Jobs First to campaign against the politicians he believed sunk the project. (One attack ad featured frowning men in hardhats.) But don't worry about Ross: He recently found $200 million to donate to his alma mater, the University of Michigan. In true form, he stipulated that it could only be spent on the athletic department or UM's Stephen M. Ross School of Business.
New England Patriots: Robert Kraft has long been the suited, pocket-squared business face of the so-called Patriot Way. But he slipped back in July, when he insisted that Russian President Vladimir Putin stole his $25,000 Super Bowl ring from 2005—a charge a Kremlin spokesman called "weird." Since then, Kraft has said that the ring was, in fact, a present, and invited Putin to a Patriots home game so the Russian president could present him with a ring Putin was supposedly making for Kraft. That the Patriots owner might bend the truth is no surprise to folks in Hartford, Connecticut, where Kraft had a handshake deal to move the franchise in 1998; turns out it was just a ploy to extract concessions from Massachusetts taxpayers. Even former Connecticut Gov. John Rowland, who was convicted for corruption, got in a dig after the move fell through: "I am a New York Jets fan, now and possibly forever."
New York Jets: Robert Wood Johnson IV, known to all as Woody, is the 66-year-old heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. A veteran GOP money man who earned Ranger fundraiser status in the George W. Bush days, he reportedly helped raise $7 million for John McCain in a single night in 2008. Johnson gave in the high five figures during the 2012 cycle—an election he called more important than a Jets winning season. All the while, he has tried to keep a low profile—even in the face of his socialite daughter's 2010 death at age 30. According to "many of Johnson's famous friends," Adam Sternbergh wrote in a New York magazine profile, "he's long been a private wild man…
Jann Wenner might tell you about the time they took a cross-country motorcycle trip with a bunch of dudes (including Michael Douglas), from the Tavern on the Green to the Golden Gate Bridge, and Johnson wore a helmet with fake black hair streaming out the back. Or Mitt Romney might relate the story of how Johnson visited his estate and, when no one else would test a rope-swing into a swimming hole, grabbed the rope and hurtled himself into the drink.
Dunno. Maybe Tim Tebow would consider that stuff wild.
Oakland Raiders: Ranking the NFL's worst owners without Al Davis is like trying to celebrate Christmas without Santa Claus. Al's son, Mark Davis, has been looked to as a breath of fresh air for the franchise, though earlier this year he fired the team's PR director over an article he found unflattering. He has also threatened to move the Raiders to Los Angeles (again) as the team hunts for a new stadium. His latest proposal: Tear down the current stadium and build a new one on the exact same site.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Rooney family has been involved with the NFL since 1933, when Art Rooney bought the newly minted Pittsburgh Pirates franchise for $2,500—he renamed it the Steelers in 1940. Dan Rooney, Art's oldest son and the current team president, is best known for two things: serving as America's ambassador to Ireland from 2009-2012 and being the driving force behind what's known as the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview a minority candidate for every head coach and general manager opening. (Not that it did much good this past offseason: Despite 15 open positions, no black candidates were hired.)
San Diego Chargers: Alex Spanos is a Republican heavy hitter—he hosted a Mitt Romney fundraiser in March 2012, and Rush Limbaugh wrote the foreword to his autobiography (which was titled, oddly enough, Spreading the Wealth). The biggest black mark on his reign is probably keeping team doctor David Chao around for 15 years despite dozens of accusations of malpractice, negligence, personal injury, and fraud—though Spanos' company also had to pay a big settlement after the government sued it for not making apartments accessible to the disabled.
Tennessee Titans: Oilman Bud Adams moved his Houston Oilers into the publicly funded Astrodome in 1965. After 22 years, Adams decided that the ballyhooed stadium wasn't all that wondrous anymore and asked Houston for $67 million in upgrades. When the city balked, he threatened a move to Jacksonville, Florida, which was enough to get him his renovations. Six years later, Adams started kicking the tires on a new dome. Houston rebuffed him, so Adams took his team north to Nashville, whose officials were happy to give him what he wanted. (Eventually, a shiny new stadium was built for an expansion team in Houston—with plenty of public funding.)
Arizona Cardinals: No team has gone longer without a championship than Bill Bidwill's Cardinals; they last won in 1947 when the team shared Chicago with the Bears. And last year, the hapless Cardinals became the first NFL team to lose 700 games all told. Bidwill became known as "Dollar Bill" for his cheapness, amid rumors that he made players buy their own cleats and deducted lunch from their paychecks. Despite his fondness for screaming, Bill's son, team president Michael Bidwill, is viewed more a bit more favorably.
Atlanta Falcons: Home Depot cofounder Arthur Blank (not to be confused with fellow cofounder and GOP megadonor Ken Langone, who was profiled by Andy Kroll in our March/April 2012 issue) has finally seen things turn around in Atlanta. Years after the Michael Vick and Bobby Petrino fiascoes, Blank has a winning team, a complimentary general manager, and a new stadium on the way—a futuristic looking thing that Deadspin's Barry Petchesky dubbed "The Sphincter." All it took was moving a couple of churches off of the proposed construction site—at a cost of $19.5 million for one and $14.5 million for the other.
Carolina Panthers: When Jerry Richardson met with his fellow owners during NFL labor negotiations in 2010, he was emphatic about getting a more favorable revenue split with players. According to one witness, Richardson told the other NFL execs, "We signed a [expletive] deal last time, and we're going to stick together and take back our league and [expletive] do something about it." His main argument for holding the line was the unsustainability of it all—an argument Deadspin blew out of the water when it learned that Richardson's Panthers turned a $112 million profit in 2010 and 2011. This year, the tattoo-hating Richardson asked taxpayers to cover about two-thirds of the cost of a proposed stadium renovation. The city of Charlotte decided to kick in some money, but the state refused.
Chicago Bears: Virginia Halas McCaskey and her kin have been taken to task for their poor business acumen. (The Bears are worth only $1.19 billion). McCaskey only ever wanted to be the team's board secretary—a title she still retains—but ended up running the show after her brother died of a heart attack, setting off a public battle over the estate.
Dallas Cowboys: Long lambasted for favoring the Cowboys' brand and massive stadium over the quality of the team (Dallas is .500 since 1997), Jerral "Jerry" Jones is one of the league's most reviled owners, and not just outside of Texas: Last November, fans actually petitioned President Obama to oust the Cowboys' "controlling, delusional, oppressive dictator." If the self-appointed GM can't field a winning team, the least he can do is make sure his gaudy scoreboard doesn't cost Dallas any more touchdowns.
Detroit Lions: Since William Clay Ford bought the Lions in 1963, the team has won only one playoff game. Detroit capped off with the league's first ever 0-16 season in 2008, after which Forbes declared Ford the worst owner in the NFL. His son, at least, thinks things are looking up. They won their first game this season, in any case.
Green Bay Packers: Green Bay is the country's only major publicly owned nonprofit professional sports team. CEO Mark Murphy, a former union rep and safety for Washington once deemed a communist by then-[Redacted] owner Jack Kent Cooke, recently returned the favor by acknowledging that Washington's nickname is "very derogatory to a lot of people." The Packers' only blemish? The $250-per-share stock it sold to raise money for a Lambeau Field expansion. Sorry Cheeseheads—those certificates are worthless.
Minnesota Vikings: Zygi Wilf was found guilty of racketeering this year after a New Jersey judge found that he and family members cheated business partners out of millions in revenue from an apartment complex. In the meantime, the Vikings owner has threatened to move the team in a squabble over a planned billion-dollar stadium—even though he rejected an offer in which state and local governments would pick up more than 60 percent of the tab. He claims that making his net worth public would hurt the team in those negotiations.
New Orleans Saints: How you feel about billionaire car salesman/investor/Saints owner Tom Benson basically depends on how you feel about an owner using a natural disaster (Hurricane Katrina) to flirt with moving to another city (San Antonio). Eventually, in 2006, he decided to stay in NOLA, a decision that was rewarded three years later by a Super Bowl, state approval of $85 million in Superdome upgrades, and a pretty sweet lease agreement.
In any case, people sure did love the way Benson second-lined on the sidelines…
New York Giants: Called "the first family of football," the Maras have earned plenty of recent goodwill from two Giants Super Bowl wins in the past decade. On the social front, John Mara publicly admitted that the league has forsaken players with brain injuries and other game-related health problems. And in 2001, co-owner Steve Tisch cut a video supporting marriage equality in New York.
Philadelphia Eagles: The Eagles' Jeff Lurie retrofitted Philly's Lincoln Financial Field with 80 wind turbines, 2,500 solar panels, and a 7.6-megawatt biodiesel power plant in a greening effort that drew praise from President Obama. Now he just needs to work on his high fives—for the sake of his wife.
St. Louis Rams: Sports Illustrated has called Stan Kroenke "the most powerful man in sports." The Missouri real estate tycoon, who is married to Walmart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke, owns the Rams, the English Premier League's Arsenal, and five other major sports teams with a combined valued of around $4 billion. While the notoriously tight-lipped Kroenke tends to avoid the spotlight, that may become harder to do as the team negotiates a deal for a new stadium. (The Rams' first request, a $700 million monstrosity, was summarily rejected.) Let's hope whatever deal they reach is up to Kroenke's standards—after buying a vineyard, he once dumped $3.3 million worth of cabernet down the drain, deciding it was low-grade.
San Francisco 49ers: Jed York, the Niners' youthful owner, is riding high on goodwill after the team’s recent resurgence. York is generally low-key (or as low-key as you can be surrounded by confetti at the groundbreaking of your billion-dollar stadium). While York supposedly sewed jerseys and wrapped ankles when he officially joined the team in 2005, he didn't exactly come from humble beginnings—he spent plenty of time in the owner's box as a kid back when his grandfather ran the team—and mom owned pro hockey's Pittsburgh Penguins.
Seattle Seahawks: In addition to the Seahawks, Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen runs basketball's Portland Trail Blazers, and part of Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders—at least when he's not busy sniffing out tech investments or taking credit for most of Microsoft's breakthroughs. He's also the NFL's richest owner, valued at $15 billion—which is $10 billion more than the second-richest owner, Stan Kroenke. It can be nice to have an owner whose personal bottom line doesn't hinge on reining in the team's costs. No stranger to vanity projects, Allen donated $1.6 million last year to pass a ballot initiative allowing public charter schools in Washington state.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Longtime corporate raider Malcolm Glazer bought the Buccaneers in 1995. Shortly thereafter, the team was winning games and playing for packed crowds at a brand-new, taxpayer-subsidized stadium—one that includes a $3 million fake pirate ship. What kind of fan wouldn't want that? A British soccer fan, that's who. Glazer's 2005 takeover of Manchester United sent shock waves through the Premier League, but mostly because of the highly leveraged way he went about doing it.
Washington [Redacted]: In 2010, Washington City Paper published an entire A to Z guide of reasons to hate Dan Snyder. He sued the alt-weekly without even reading it. He also sued a 72-year-old season ticket holder who couldn't afford the payments on her seats, and banned signs from the stadium during a particularly rough 2009 season. But Snyder's worst move yet? His steadfast defense of his team's racist nickname. (Don't worry, a fake "American Inuit chief" says it's okay.)
This article has been revised.
Photoillustration by Matt Connolly. Jones and Richardson: Jeff Siner/ZUMA; Snyder: Ron Sachs/ZUMA; Money: Shutterstock