Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Another economic development scam falls apart

When times are tough and you have millions in grant money sitting around for economic development, it’s easy to fall for the lure of the economic development con man.

He rolls into town and promises everything to everybody.

Want jobs? You’ll have them.

Need a tenant? I’ll sign a long-term lease.

Got cash to give to me? I’ll take a check.

I don’t seem to have enough cash to get started? Fear not, I have investors in Minnesota, oh, I mean, investors in Singapore, or maybe it’s Albania?, whose identity I can’t disclose who’ll lend me $20 million.

You insist that I meet your requirements before you disburse the money? Oh, if you want to be “that way” about it, I’ll still do the deal.

I think the word is getting out about the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation, and it’s that they’re the biggest bunch of suckers since that lollipop truck overturned on I-75.

Sharon Hillstrom, CEO of the EDC, gushed like mad over the wonders that Major League Football would bring to the area. As I mentioned before, and before, and before, this bankrupt pseudo-football league is run by people who are adept at making economic development jumps to different parts of the country, making wild and vague promises, and then walking away, leaving vendors and lenders in a pinch and seeking legal relief.

It was hardly a surprise when the league, after holding tryouts, canceled its inaugural season and then announced that it was all part of the big strategy, and then this past week it was revealed that the league has been living “on the arm” at Lakewood Ranch, and the landlord decided to make a move and file eviction papers.

(You can follow the story at the newspaper where I work, the Bradenton Herald.)

The Bradenton EDC managed to avoid being taken in the Sanborn Studios scam, but remember that they fell for the Gulf Coast Swords hockey team deal, the rowing competition and now Major League Football.

What’s next? Cat racing?

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June 25, 2016 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Major League Football’s field of dreams is just crazy

I have always heard that when you go to the movies, you should suspend disbelief. Sometimes you just need to get away from it all, and I have found that movies like “Interstellar” were great escapes. Maybe the physics wasn’t exactly right, but hey, it was a story. I haven’t seen “Jurassic World” yet, but plan on doing so. I don’t expect exactitude, just a rollicking good time.

But when local governments are spending taxpayer dollars on local businesses, you have to have both feet planted firmly on the ground, and evaluate whether the things that are being promised in exchange for that dough are real or just jawbone.

I see darkened crotches in the pants of a lot of our local economic development officials over this “thing” called “Major League Football.”

I’ve commented on it before, and noted that Manatee County’s commissioners have pledged $147,000 to the organization to – as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune noted on June 16 – “…relocate to Southwest Florida and create 49 jobs at its corporate headquarters within the next five years.”

Commenters at the bottom of the story – unusually – had nothing to say about Benghazi or Obamacare, but one astute observer noted as I did that this was “From the city that brought you one wall of a hockey arena and a suspect movie production studio. Strike 3.”

Not wanting to be left out, the H-T said, “Bradenton and Sarasota sports commissions have since committed a combined $35,000 in tourist tax dollars to offset Major League Football’s rent in its inaugural season — the company will chip in $10,000 for the use of Premier Sports Campus next spring from Feb. 15 to March 20.”

The reason for this is that, and I know this sounds hard to believe, next year at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch, there will be a spring training camp for 1,000 players and coaches.

Running on empty
If Major League Football was a running back prospect, he’d be cut after the 50-yard dash. As of Jan. 31, again according to the H-T, the company “has $5,000 in cash, a working deficit of $1 million and thousands in unpaid income taxes to the state of Delaware.”

Wow. I’m really worried that I might have been wrong about this outfit.

Seriously, folks, based on past stories, does anyone really believe that there is a horde of investors out there waiting to lose money on this?

League executive vice president Frank Murtha claims that this is all part of some grand plan. “We’re not just winging it,” he told the Herald-Tribune.

Well, sheeze, with $5,000 in cash, you can buy a lot of Playstations and copies of “Madden 15,” and there’s your league.

The history of Major League Football makes you wonder, as the H-T drops names that have some associations with the NFL, as if that makes them credible:

“Last December, MLF emerged as a publicly traded company with a plan to launch a spring football league in cities without National Football League or Major League Baseball teams. The company has since announced “tentative” teams in Orlando; Little Rock, Arkansas; Norfolk, Virginia; Birmingham, Alabama; Oklahoma City and Eugene, Oregon. The company has several former NFL players behind it, including Ivory Sully, formerly of the Los Angeles Rams, and Wesley Chandler, the former Gator who played for the New Orleans Saints, the San Diego Chargers and the San Francisco 49ers. CEO Jerry Vainisi is the former vice president of the Chicago Bears and led football operations for the World League of American Football, later known as NFL Europe. That league disbanded in 2007.”

The deluded Bradenton EDC

The head of the Bradenton Economic Development Corporation, Sharon Hillstrom, is still as deluded as ever, insisting that any corporate headquarters is good. So I guess if the company is busted and incapable of doing anything, that’s as good as there not being a company there.

“Any time you can land a corporate headquarters, that’s great,” Hillstrom, the Bradenton EDC president, said. “Typically that’s going to be positions that have a higher wage. And a company gives us that much more credibility as a viable location for sports performance events.”

Unless, of course, the company never pays promised wages. I doubt that $5,000 will last long.

But not to worry.

“At a press conference held earlier this month, a finance officer with MLF told the Herald-Tribune that it would take roughly $100 million to cover the costs of a league that aims to fill a gap in professional football by playing in the spring and summer seasons. Reached Monday, Murtha discredited that number, but declined to provide a more realistic figure. Before MLF announced that it would move to Lakewood Ranch, the company filed paperwork that states that it has raised $470,000 out of a planned $3 million.”

Oh, OK.

“When it came to picking a headquarters, MLF reportedly looked at setting up shop in Daytona, on Florida’s east coast, and in San Antonio, Texas, and Casa Grande, Arizona. The Premier Sports Campus, as well as the incentive package from Manatee County, helped officials decide on Lakewood Ranch, Murtha said.”

So in other words, the other places weren’t big enough suckers for their pitch. They found just what they were looking for here. Lovely.

And, of course, just as the Florida Marine Raiders insisted they would do well in Lakeland, Murtha claims Major League Football will do well here.

“Murtha said that open tryouts for Major League Football will be held this summer, when the company expects to announce the remaining cities in the league. What fuels his confidence is the idea that Major League Football can help the NFL by becoming a development league, providing options for talented players who are cut from the NFL or looking to make it there. He said Monday that he expected recruiting players to be ‘easy,’ since there is a ‘surplus of good players and the lack of (alternative) places to play.’ [Especially since the X-League seems to be falling apart.] He maintains that his company will not be like other sports leagues — such as the United Football League, which was unable to attract enough fans to stay in business after four fall seasons.
As for continuing to secure funds for coaches and players’ salaries, team expenses and other costs — that may rely on the public’s interest in the new league.
‘We have the ability to raise funds in the public market at the appropriate time,’ Murtha said. ‘The bulk of our expenses don’t begin until next spring.’”
I refuse to suspend disbelief when it comes to this.

June 18, 2015 Posted by | Life lessons, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Airport and sports games enthrall municipalities

It was hardly a surprise when the news came that Major League Football, the bankrupt entity that has not produced one single down of professional football in several years of operation, has found a new home in Lakewood Ranch.

The rumors that it would settle here made several economic development officials in Manatee County nearly wet in the pants, as sports is a big deal to them and is a good way to spread excess government money in the name of creating jobs that somehow never get created.

The league is promised more than $200,000 if it creates a certain number of jobs that pay a certain salary. Given the track record of its personnel, we can bet that money might never get paid because most of what I read in the excellent articles in the Bradenton Herald and Sarasota Herald-Tribune was basically corporate jawbone. There was a lot of talk about talks about deals with various entities, but all – according to the mouthpiece for the league – are in varying stages.

Quite often, organizations that are financially bereft will try to buffalo the media with this kind of chatter in an effort to conjure up “discussions.” These discussions rarely go anywhere and usually there is a point where the entity closes up shop and leaves town, often leaving rent and salaries unpaid.

The brass talk of “moving in a new direction,” which means finding new municipal suckers to promise them money to relocate their headquarters. And the cycle begins anew.

I will note that the EDC in Manatee County isn’t totally oblivious. As I mentioned in my last post, Sarasota County’s Economic Development Corporation got lit up in the Sanborn Studios disaster because it handed over money upfront. If you at least force a company to do what it promises to do before it gets the government money, well, you’ve accomplished something.

Manatee learned what Palm Beach County learned years ago about funding companies that move to your area: make them wait to see if they’re viable before you start handing out the cash.

Come fly with me
A few months ago, Lakeland was all agog at the possibility of airline service at the airport.

Like many Florida cities, Lakeland has a municipal airport with plenty of private airplanes and businesses, some of them aviation-related, and a terminal but no commercial airline service, though it can handle some pretty big airplanes.

The trouble is that airline service to these mid-size cities is just not a profitable proposition. In addition to the higher cost, there is the lack of direct flights to anyplace like Washington, D.C., New York City, Chicago or Los Angeles – which you can get at a major airport – and the airline might have the name of a major like Delta or American but the flight might be operated by a hidden subsidiary.

Lakeland was like a lot of cities that fell for Falcon Air’s pitch. As usual, when the initial announcement was made there was a lot of talk about “talks” that still had to take place, and the city of course had to pony up some cash, but even though Falcon Air had a reputation that stank to the high heavens it looked like a done deal.

The trouble is that while these airlines might fly some leased jets of the MD-83 class instead of twin turboprops, they also are using underpaid flight crews and the maintenance might not be up to snuff. Bear in mind, too, that Florida is especially susceptible in the afternoons of summer to some pretty frightening weather, and that can affect arrival times.

Customers often complain when these airlines come to town, and many folks simply factor in the fact that they’ll have to drive to Tampa International or Miami International to get the flights they want.

Falcon Air came with a lot of baggage. One of its planes was repossessed at the Lakeland airport, and there were stories about unpaid wages, sexual harassment and corporate executives with criminal records.

It was hardly a shock to me on a recent night when the news came in that its deal with Lakeland was off. I’ve seen cities like Gainesville and Ocala go to unbelievable lengths to get and keep airline service, so I know it’s not easy.

Often, such service is accompanied by threats that if enough people don’t fly on the route, the service will end. Sometimes, people have found themselves stranded as an airline goes out of business in the middle of their trip. Believe me, it’s happened to Gainesville.

Deals with marginal entities might make a county or city economic development group look like it’s doing big things, but the hit to their reputation is massive when things fail. I wish our elected officials and the EDC officials could see that.

June 10, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Manatee County taxpayers to get clotheslined again with new football league

One of the advantages of living in one media market and working in another is that you get to see several different local governments play the economic development game.

The good part about the game is that the taxpayers always lose, and anyone unfortunate enough to be hired by the companies that relocate to the area for the tax breaks ends up back on unemployment soon enough.

For those seeking to play one county against another in Florida, it’s a fun game because the people in one county rarely read the newspapers or websites in another county, and may be oblivious to what’s happening elsewhere in the state.

I live in Ellenton, Fla., a suburban area just off I-75 and U.S. 301 near Bradenton. Bradenton is in Manatee County, which is north of Sarasota County and its county seat, the city of Sarasota. Just north of us is the Tampa-St. Petersburg metroplex.

I work, however, in Polk County, which features the cities of Lakeland and Winter Haven. It’s about a 40-mile drive north on I-75 and then about 20 miles east on I-4 for me to get the 63.5 miles to my job at the Lakeland Ledger. It’s also a privilege to see two very different areas of Florida, and watch the counties get screwed over by economic development schemes, especially those involving sports.

Sarasota County has the legendary Sanborn Studios mess, which is still plowing through the courts, but Manatee County has shown that it likes being screwed, too.

Recently, Manatee’s Economic Development Corporation offered a financially busted entity called “Major League Football” more than $200,000 to place its headquarters in Lakewood Ranch. The promise is that the league would succeed where the U.S.F.L. and the XFL failed, and make great profits in football outside the regular NFL season.

Of course, many promises fail to get kept, and the fact that the U.S.F.L. and XFL now exist as Wikipedia entries shows that taking on the NFL is not a winning proposition.

According to the Bradenton Herald, on Friday, June 5, a press conference will announce the league’s location decision.

According to the very seriously deluded Sharon Hillstrom, president and CEO of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., as quoted in a May 23 piece in the Bradenton Herald:

“While MLFB has not officially announced it will locate its headquarters and training facilities in Lakewood Ranch, the anticipation is building, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

“‘We would obviously be thrilled to have Major League Football here in Manatee County,’ she said. ‘Just goes to give further credibility of the sports performance industry as an important sector in the economy.’

“This speaks volumes in terms of sports performance as a driver for the local economy, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is a big deal,’ she said.

“Manatee County and the region are set apart from other areas with its sports performance industry focus, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘I don’t know other areas that have sport performance as a targeted industry sector,’ she said.”

“When companies locate to the area, there is typically a multiplier effect as employees will buy houses and go to restaurants, Hillstrom said.

“ ‘This is all good stuff, she said.’ ‘The other thing is the Major League Football will be bringing events here. …I don’t see a downside.’”

Lakeland vs. Lakewood Ranch

There was similar hyperbole up in Lakeland, when a nearly defunct X-League arena football team called the Lakeland Raiders, which had been playing at The Lakeland Center – across the street from The Ledger – managed to persuade Polk County that its economic future was in some form of indoor football.

The Raiders tried all sorts of gizmos and tricks, including turning nonprofit and inventing a military tie-in – very popular in sports today – by renaming the team the Lakeland Marine Raiders. Recently, according to my paper, the Ledger, the team canceled its final game at The Lakeland Center amid an issue about rent payments.

A May 31 story in the Bradenton Herald on Major League Football noted that the league was financially in pretty bad disarray, including an accumulated deficiency of $12.8 million and cases pending over nonpayments to other entities.

The person running the league made much of negotiations underway for team locations and TV deals, but as usual nothing has been finalized yet.

Remember the Lakewood Ranch hockey arena?

Local government officials tend to get wet over the prospect of minor league sports in their communities, and will open the government’s checkbook – or do so through an economic development corporation – to get the league or a franchise of a league to sign up.

I like to tell the story of the great Lakewood Ranch hockey arena, and how the plans for a minor league hockey team in that area fell apart.

The astoundingly rich founder of the AFLAC insurance company pitched the idea of a hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch. Indeed, one of the roads in the development was called “Center Ice Parkway.”

Work began on the arena but stopped when contractors stopped being paid. At the end, there were three walls that had been built, and they were dubbed “Stonehenge.” They stood for years as various maneuvers were made to try to get construction restarted, and finally the three walls were razed, and the road was given a new name. Today, the idea that there would be an ice hockey arena in Lakewood Ranch has been forgotten for the most part.

So I guess that’s why the area is prime territory for a new pro football league: No one remembers what happened last time pro sports was pitched in the area.

Stadium game redux

I have always been critical of governments getting into the sports funding business. While minor league baseball is a little more on the level than these independent football leagues that seem to crop up like wildflowers on the highway, we have to remember that cities in Florida have been screwed in the stadium game. Vero Beach got a royal screwing from the Dodgers before the team packed up for Arizona. Decades of tradition are no protection against a fast departure, and when a municipality buys a stadium from a team and then leases it back to the team, it’s a sure sign that the team is getting ready to leave town.

No one remembers, I’m sure, that there was a minor league basketball league called the Continental Basketball Association (CBA), and there was a franchise in West Palm Beach called the BeachDogs. The latter didn’t last very long.

Sports is simply a bad bet for economic development. I guess that’s the gist of what I’m saying. I doubt if this new football league will ever attain anything beyond being a footnote in a Wikipedia entry. But so long as elected officials keep buying into the schemes, I suppose we taxpayers will have to keep funding them.

June 5, 2015 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from SI.com: The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.

 

 

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Frank Cashen turned the Mets from weepers to winners

It was with a heavy heart that I read on July 1 that legendary New York Mets general manager Frank Cashen had died.

One of the quotes in story about Cashen was from Mets great Keith Hernandez, who said that Cashen never swung a bat for his teams or played the field, but did so much to make them winners.

Truer words were hardly ever spoken.

We who loved the Mets always enjoy talking about the late mid to 1970s, when the Miracle Mets of 1969 and the improbable NL champs of 1973 became the Mediocre Mets. The real decline began in 1975, when Tom Seaver was traded to the hated Cincinnati Reds. Memories of the 1973 NLCS and the fighting that broke out at Shea were still strong.

I can still remember that Seaver was part of the delegation that went out to left field and appealed to fans in the stands to stop throwing things at Pete Rose because the Mets would forfeit the game if they didn’t stop.

Some might say that the heart went out of the franchise after the Mets lost the 1973 World Series to the Oakland A’s in seven games, but the death of Joan Payson really was the beginning of the “down years” for the Mets. Sure, she was a hard-nosed businesswoman who made tough decisions, but she loved the team and you knew that no one was going to put one over on her.

As a kid, I read incredulously the stories in the papers about how Payson’s daughters, who had inherited the team, knew nothing about baseball, but were learning every day, under the tutelage of M. Donald Grant, the chairman of the board. Under Chairman Grant, Shea Stadium became a house of baseball horrors. Players who wouldn’t have made it in A or AA found themselves wearing the blue and white, and doing things in the game that barely can be mentioned in mixed company.

There was a guy who used to bring a collection of signs. When he brought in and showed one that said, “Welcome to Grant’s tomb,” he was summarily ejected from the park. Many people preferred to do it themselves, and countless games of something that was dubbed “Mets’ baseball” were played to empty seats.

The team resorted to ad campaigns with idiotic slogans – “Catch a Rising Star,” “This Summer, the Mets Are Turning to a New Source of Power,” “I’m a Stubborn Mets Fan” (with a braying donkey on a T-shirt), “The New New York Mets, the Peoples’ Team” and more.

Look, people, a loser is a loser, and no one wants to be associated with a loser. Across town, George Steinbrenner’s Yankees were attracting attention with a colorful and aggressive manager (Billy Martin) and free agents that could play, even if they despised each other. My father would declare, after another Mets loss, “Why don’t they go out and buy themselves a ballteam?”

Through the late 1970s, the Mets limped along. High hopes in spring training and another rookie starting pitcher (the next Tom Seaver, we’d hear) usually turned into dismay before May. By the early 1980s, shell-shocked Mets fans had seen it all, and when the team was finally sold to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon in January 1980, Mets fans were ready for more seasons of ineptitude in the front office and on the field.

But Doubleday and Wilpon hired Cashen and he began with the basics, so his brilliance was not recognized right away. The farm system was rebuilt and began turning out real stars like Hubie Brooks, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, and many more.

Strategic trades brought established stars like Gary Carter and the real key to the whole operation, Keith Hernandez, to the team. Keith had quite a reputation for the Mets’ rival Cardinals, and there were stories about cocaine use, but Hernandez was a leader. Even more important, he was a first base artist. First base was where you stuck outfielders who couldn’t run anymore and catchers whose knees were shot, and so many first basemen suffered from “bad hands,” but Hernandez was the maestro of first base. You remembered his errors in throwing and fielding because they were so rare.

And he was a dangerous lefthanded power hitter who could make baseballs fly and batted in front of Strawberry. I always say that Hernandez was the real key to the Mets in those years. Pitchers who would laugh about throwing to Mets hitters suddenly found themselves shaking in their cleats as they faced men who could put baseballs away. No more of this “warning-track power” B.S. These guys were the real deal.

And it was Frank Cashen who put it all together and made it work. He got a manager, Davey Johnson, who knew how to bring aggressive players together and get them focused on the cause, and all that talk in the 1970s and early 1980s about how awful Shea Stadium was went away. You put a great team into a stadium, and people won’t care if the place is falling apart and the hot dogs put you in the hospital. They want a winner, not a spinner.

Of course, the good times couldn’t last. No one’s perfect in assessing baseball talent and even great players burn out eventually. The Mets never repeated their 1986 glory but came close, and the failures of recent years are, of course, not Cashen’s fault.

He provided the players who gave Mets’ fans some thrills and awesome memories. For that, I am grateful, and wish his family the best in this sad time.

July 2, 2014 Posted by | Life lessons, The business of sports | Leave a comment

Don’t judge Florida Atlantic by its football stadium’s name

I don’t get all teary-eyed about my alma mater, Florida Atlantic University, but sometimes I think I should.

The thing is, I was in my early 30s when I went to FAU as a junior after finishing the first two “years” of my college degree in community college. I didn’t live on campus, never went to sports events and my only extracurricular activity was the student newspaper.

Still, I found my future there in many ways. While my Postal Service job was the deadest of dead ends, I could see a bright future ahead after receiving my diploma. Those dreams came true thanks to very, very dedicated professors and some amazing fellow students.

To me, that more than makes up for the embarrassment of the school selling the naming rights to its stadium to a prison company, the GEO Group. Like others, I was frustrated on hearing the news but now have decided that it may not be the most ideal situation, but I’ll have to live with it. And so will everyone else.

I have learned that in life, there are times when things are just not going to go the way you’d like them to. I have found that you can spend all your time, treasure and effort fighting things that won’t change and decisions that won’t be reversed or just go on with your life.

FAU should never have had a football team in the first place, and the stadium is just another wasteful extravagance, so my solution to the whole mess has been to act as if they don’t exist. My diploma and my degree exist, and that’s good enough for me.

February 25, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment

Penn State and other colleges must clean house after the Sandusky report

Job One: End Penn State’s football program.

Completely. Finis. Done. Gone.

Next: Make it clear to football team-universities that the era of multimillion-dollar coaches and million-dollar assistant coaches is over. Coaches are paid $250,000 a year plus health benefits and retirement. Assistants get $125,000 plus health benefits and a 401k. No exceptions.

Don’t like the deal? Leave the game. Go to the pros.

Athletic departments need to experience hard austerity, and I would recommend that universities start pricing boxes for the sports bureaucracies’ employees to take out their personal belongings. The days of wine and roses are over. Other university departments that offer a lot more have taken brutal cuts. Now it’s the turn of the sports departments.

These massive reductions are not mass punishment for Jerry Sandusky’s disgusting and sick crimes, but they have to happen. The public simply doesn’t want to spend the money on a college sports program that is little more than the equivalent of a man waving his tool in the air, shouting, “Mine is bigger than yours!”

In university administration, every single job from top to bottom must be evaluated and justified, and pay and benefit adjustments downward need to be made. Anyone who won’t work for the money must be escorted off the campus and advised to never return.

Every nickel must be squeezed until it howls. The party’s over for administrators and boards of trustees. Now comes the reality the 99 percent have had to live with. We don’t get paid six figures for honorary degrees and attending meetings once a month or less. We don’t get our asses kissed by others.

The focus must be on education, not winning in sports. Anyone who is against that, exit stage right.

July 13, 2012 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Sandusky case and college football

When the Jerry Sandusky case exploded onto the national media scene, I was still working at the Gainesville Sun as a copy editor.

Being at a newspaper in a college town, where football is viewed more as an article of faith than a game, and University of Florida football is an obsession, I felt like I had a front-row seat to what college football is and what it can become when perspective goes by the boards.

It reminded me of the Harold Lloyd silent movie from the late 1920s, “The Freshman,” where a young man becomes a college student and tries to impress a girl by being on the football team. The joke was that the college was a football team that had a small college attached to it. Not much has changed in 80 years.

I didn’t work on the sports desk, but I could see both in the newsroom and in the city itself what a Gators’ football game did to the city. Hotels – even the very bad ones – had no rooms available. Fans would park outside the stadium and “tailgate.” On my walks on gameday, I’d see the giant pickup trucks, tents and satellite dishes, receivers and big-screen TVs set up blocks from the stadium. These people were crazy about their Gators.

Tickets inside the stadium were sold out long in advance, except near the end of the season when it became clear the Gators were not going to the national championship. A significant proportion of the law enforcement personnel of the region would be at the game to provide security, and the three most famous words in the sports lexicon, “Security is tight,” got a workout in the media.

I was stunned to learn that people could get arrested at “The Swamp,” aka Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, for such harmless actions as standing on their seats, being seated in the wrong seat and being in the wrong section of the stadium. When there was talk of not using so many law enforcement personnel as stadium security on game day, a howl erupted, claiming that al-Qaida might see this as an opportunity to strike. Who wanted a terrorist attack? Especially if the Gators were ahead late in the third quarter.

On Saturday night, after the game was over and the stories were written, we’d get the police report on the number of fan arrests and ejections at the game. It was noted during the most recent season that the number was going down, mainly because attendance was dropping. As the Gators were not setting the world on fire, fans were becoming apathetic, the police said, and not running wild and committing arrestable offenses like standing on their seats, drinking underage, etc.

(Forget that fan is short for fanatic, and the notion of an apathetic fanatic makes no sense. In college football, you can’t blame the players’ poor performance for a team losing, so you blame apathetic fans. Or the coach. But never god. Stay with me, it’s brilliant.)

Behold, the approach of Coach
At every college with a football program, there is a pecking order of people who are the most important people on campus. At the top of the pyramid is the coach of the football team.

The coach of the football team, often known just as Coach, is godlike in all his powers and functions. In him resides the power of victory and loss, pride and dismay, and his team’s performance determines if a university’s name is spoken with fear or derision by alums and current students, as well as competitors, especially the presidents of other universities.

In Division I football, Coach can tell his alleged bosses, the athletic director and the university president, where to go and what to do when they arrive there. He also makes vastly more money than they or nearly anyone else in the community makes, into eight figures for multi-year contracts, so he is assumed to be brilliant and knowledgeable on every subject under the sun besides football.

In contrast, the coaches of the other sports teams hardly matter and cannot command the epic salaries a head football coach can demand.

Coach is not only a secular leader, he is also a religious leader. He can be of any Christian denomination he wishes, so long as it is fundamentalist, and has to be “active” in the church, and sometimes will give the Sunday sermon about how god wants his team to win. In fact, Coach and his wife and kids at a church can turn a little “strip-mall and folding chairs storefront church” into a megachurch, especially if he a) keeps winning, b) resists the urge to go somewhere else to coach for much more money and c) doesn’t fool around with a woman not his wife.

Coach is portrayed as the savior of young men who otherwise would be bad people, and it often seems that the worse a young man was, the more credit Coach gets for turning him around. It warms the little hearts of the fans to hear about Joe Doaks, who used to point guns at and rob or beat up women at Subway, but now he’s sacking QBs and making “straight-As” in college. Forget that he’s “taking” classes like “Skills and Practices in Football” and “The College Experience” for credit. Forget that his most recent girlfriend keeps “walking into doors.” He’s in college, he’s helping the team win, Coach turned him around and that’s all that matters.

I read in a book about a college out west that the entire football team was making straight-As in the Swahili language, but when a professor of Swahili from another college tried to engage them in conversation, he found that they knew only a few simple phrases, and not much else. It turns out that the Swahili professor had been “turned” and was giving take-home tests and allowing players to miss class for football practice and games.

It’s not uncommon for pressure to be put on professors to give athletes, especially football players, a “break” on classes, and raise grades so eligibility is maintained.

The legend of JoPa
At Penn State, Joe Paterno was Coach. Look, at how many universities would students riot if a well-liked journalism professor was fired? Very few, and it would be put down with live ammunition.

After Paterno resigned by force amid the revelations of his inaction after being informed of Jerry Sandusky’s activity, students went on a destructive rampage. I understand about sports fandom being an effort to bask in reflected glory, but setbacks should not lead to violence.

I remember a friend saying that Paterno ran the cleanest program in college football. In a sport where dirty programs were winning programs, and a place like the University of Miami that had for years a football program that celebrated what one writer at the Gainesville Sun called “thug culture,” a clean program is like a breath of fresh air.

But this one had a dirty, dirty secret.

Coach attracts many hangers-on, and some get assistant coaching jobs. Jerry Sandusky was someone who had that status, and may have been considered to replace Paterno after his retirement. Assistant coaching jobs serve a couple of purposes, though everyone knows who gets the credit when the team wins: Coach, and no one else.

Assistant coaches take on the details of football coaching, like linebackers or quarterbacks or running backs, and today are greatly compensated, even by colleges in dire financial distress, out of fear that the assistants might move on and become the head coaches of other football teams, making life hell for Coach. So it is that some assistants are paid seven-figure salaries.

Go team go!
The college town is expected to be totally for the team when it plays at home, and there are very few businesses in Gainesville, for example, that are not “Gator” this or “Gator” that. On game day, in addition to “security” at the stadium, there is the officer who guards Coach, especially when he walks onto the field at the end of the game to accept the congratulations of the other coach. Officers fight hard for those jobs, and to be in the picture on TV and in the newspapers. Forever after, the officer can say that he protected Coach during the championship season, and that can be used for promotion, to get a new job or during disciplinary hearings as a point in favor of the officer.

In fact, the relationship between law enforcement and the football program at many universities is seldom explored, mainly because journalism students don’t want to find their cars towed. At the University of Florida, it was known that a prominent UF alum and attorney was on call any hour of the day or night if a football player had a “misunderstanding” with law enforcement ranging from being drunk in public to smacking his girlfriend around to shoplifting.

Law enforcement officers can make hefty overtime working football games, and the concern about loss of lucrative off-duty assignments may lead to offenses by both coaches and players being overlooked.

To be fair, however, it is important to note that before the Sandusky affair exploded, there was an very serious incident involving a radio personality who broadcast UF’s football games, and he was investigated, caught and punished severely. He now is doing time in state prison. So the system can work.

In the local community, Coach and his holy acolytes, the assistants, also are expected to be active in local charities and sit on the boards of the nonprofits. They are expected to help raise money and get their pictures taken with the unfortunate. This is to highlight their “softer” side, and some may even have personal charities – as Sandusky did – to take all the credit for any help given.

Their involvement may be limited to lending their name and posing for a few photographs, with professional nonprofit executives leading and volunteers doing the real work, or they may be more hands-on. Maybe it’s best for the nonprofit to just have the name on the letterhead, as we’ve seen in the Sandusky case.

Limiting the damage
When I was a boy, there were plenty of activities where there were adult male leaders trying to guide a bunch of rambunctious young boys. Maybe it was a more innocent time, but I think my peers and I had a good idea that there were boundaries, and that if an adult superior made a move on you that you thought was not allowed, it was best to retreat before anything happened.

Nothing untoward ever happened to me, but I also did not attend sleep-away camp, go on camping trips or have long-term contact with strange adults. The parents of my friends were always friendly and in charge, and it would have been terrible if one of them had violated the rules of behavior. None ever did.

The problem with a lot of private nonprofits is that they are dealing with underprivileged boys from backgrounds where their male parent is unstable or absent, very much unlike my own life. It’s easy for a man like Jerry Sandusky to move in and become a “substitute father” to those boys, and then take the next step and violate their trust.

I have no sympathy for Sandusky or his family, but I pity the boys. They learned that no one could be trusted, not even their benefactors. I’m sure that the stories began to go around that Sandusky was “creepy” and – the way boys talk – that you had to be careful not to be alone in the shower or any other compromising position with him.

But these boys were hungry for guidance and love from a father figure, and when they couldn’t get it at home they had to turn to a non-relative. Now, we know that fathers or uncles may molest their sons or nephews, and the law provides the same penalties as for strangers, but it takes a very sick and demented man to take advantage of a fatherless boy who is seeking guidance.

And while the boy may have the will to resist, the fear of the man – who is powerful and known in the community, both socially and economically – may break down that will.

The Penn State cover-up
Not many people in the community want to take on Coach or his assistants, and the accusations against Sandusky were very serious matters. It’s obvious that the accusations went to the very top – to football coach Joe Paterno – and to lesser lights, like the president of the university and two officials, but the action taken was geared toward protecting the university and Sandusky.

Had Sandusky been an assistant baseball or tennis coach, there is little doubt that he would have been exposed and fired. But football, that’s a different matter. When your university is so closely defined with the football team, any infraction is a very serious reflection on the team and its culture. Having an assistant coach just accused of something like molesting young boys can throw the whole football program into disarray, and bring the wrong kind of publicity down onto everyone.

A cover-up seemed the logical approach, with Sandusky having limited access to the university after the accusations. But the thing is that the moral thing to do would have been to report the infractions to the police, and let them deal with Sandusky, the victims and the witness(es), and decide if more investigation was needed.

But in universities, the first priority is to protect the football program, not the victims. That was the downfall of JoPa and those “under” him in the hierarchy. For in these tight times, the football program is always under attack. There often are claims that the program returns significant sums of money to the university in the form of TV deals worth billions, but the money that doesn’t cover the sports department’s expenses just gets dumped into a general hopper or goes to a university foundation that then doles it out.

It’s odd to me that a “football” college doesn’t simply use the leftover cash – if it has any – from lucrative contracts to simply give scholarships to deserving non-athletes, bypassing the foundation bureaucracy and helping those in need, but hardly surprising. Those who run the foundations are economic elites, and they “know” better what the money should be used for.

(For an example of the wonderful things university foundations can buy for the right people, check this out. It’s about my alma mater. Here’s another story about it. And another.)

Ultimately, protecting the football program became the priority here, and fears about what might happen to donations and the university’s reputation spurred the effort to cover up what Sandusky did to those boys.

Time for the last kickoff?
It is considered the ultimate blasphemy to suggest that perhaps the solution is to eliminate college football, especially at certain universities. It has happened, mainly for cost reasons.

Even the NCAA will not invoke the “death penalty” on a college football program, no matter how bad the behavior of a couple of players or the corruption in the program. Sports has always been a big deal in American life, and to be fair football is not the only sport where there has been controversy over sexual misconduct or cheating – academic or otherwise.

The problem is that Penn State’s program was held up as a model for other colleges to follow. Joe Paterno was more than just Coach in many people’s eyes. He was the ideal coach who saw to it that his players succeeded as more than just jocks. Other coaches might claim to aspire to those goals; Paterno lived them.

It’s tragic that one mistake – and it was a whopper – destroyed his career. I mourned his death, too. Can one mistake undo all the good a man has done?

Paterno had a chance to show real character, and failed that test. That doesn’t make him a bad person. But if Sandusky had been caught early and punished the reputation of Penn State’s football program would have been sullied, but then when it was seen that the program and the people who ran it were willing to obey a higher law, it would have been vindicated, JoPa would have been a hero and Jerry Sandusky would be a footnote in the history of college sports.

June 27, 2012 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Goodbye, Gary Carter

Whitney Houston dies. Big deal.

Gary Carter dies. Now, that’s a big deal.

I read the news after my afternoon nap. “The Kid” is gone. It’s a tragedy.

He would have been a great major league manager. Maybe someday, he might have been an “old perfesser” like Casey Stengel, guiding some Mets team of the future to greatness, but his future was stolen from him. Gary Carter deserved better. Lots better.

Here’s his New York Times obit.

Those of us who loved the Mets back then remember his arrival in a Mets uniform. On Opening Day, April 9, 1985, Shea Stadium, Flushing, N.Y., he hit a pitch from Neil Allen into the left-field bullpen. See that great and famous home run here.

It barely made it over the wall, and the way people cheered you would have thought it landed in the parking lot, but it still counted, and the Mets won the game.

They won a lot of games in 1985, and in 1986, and Gary Carter was in the thick of it.

More important than being a great player, he was a great man. He shared his knowledge and skills, as best he could. Had cancer not taken him, he could have done much more.

But he did plenty. It’s a small comfort to his loving family, who are bereft right now, but they need to know this: Many, many, many people are mourning Mr. Carter tonight, and sending you their best wishes and hopes that our love comforts you in the days to come. The tributes will pour in from all over, for the man you let us have for a time, and for what he accomplished.

Thank you, Carter family.

And thank you, Gary.

You will be missed, and your great moments always treasured.

February 17, 2012 Posted by | Living in the modern age, The business of sports | , , , , | Leave a comment