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Sunday, January 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Sonics

Buying the dream: Today's team owners young and impatient

Seattle Times staff reporter

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It began with a belt buckle. A magic belt buckle, in the mind of young Daniel Snyder, and he wore it diligently on the football Sundays of his childhood, always believing the brass insignia of the Washington Redskins that held up his pants would bring luck to his favorite football team.

The boy grew up to run a business, and the business grew to be worth a billion dollars. Suddenly, he didn't need a magic belt buckle to make Washington win. He could buy the team and make it happen himself. A few investors and $800 million later, he owned the whole franchise - players, coaches, stadium and even the rights to a new generation of lucky dime-store belt buckles.

This is the new face of professional-sports ownership: young, eager and impatient. As athletes become icons, and player salaries soar, so also have the men who buy into the game changed. The days of the family-owned franchise - such as the Maras' New York Giants, who play today for a berth in the Super Bowl - are on the wane, heading the way of the O'Malleys, who owned the Dodgers for a half-century and moved baseball to the West Coast before selling three years ago to Rupert Murdoch's media empire.

Today's owner is a superfan in his 30s or 40s, dripping with the new wealth and hungry for a piece of the show.

'Close to being God'

Many are like Snyder - fans since childhood. Others, like the new Sonic owner, Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, are longtime season-ticket holders who could afford to own a bit more prestige than just a courtside seat.

"It's about as close to being God as you are going to get," says Art Taylor, director of urban youth-sports programs at Northeastern University's Center for Study of Sport in Society.

"All these years as a fan, you've been complaining about the moves the team made," he says. "And now you can do something about it. It gives you power."

It's the ultimate transfer of adolescent dreams, Taylor says, a way for a multimillionaire to have a piece of the big leagues 20 years after the lights went out on his last high-school game.

For Schultz, once a high-school football star in Brooklyn, the dream was forged in the old blue seats of New York's Madison Square Garden, where he used to watch basketball games, and in the grandstands of Yankee Stadium, where he attended both Mickey Mantle tribute days.

For others, like dot-com tycoon Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who owns the Seahawks and Portland Trail Blazers, the bonds were formed in the arenas in the cities where they made their fortunes.

Their involvement can be all-consuming. Snyder sold his marketing business soon after buying the Redskins. He moved into an office at the team's practice facility, built a landing site for his helicopter and began firing everybody he believed had kept the franchise from the Super Bowl the past several seasons.

And one steamy Washington day last summer, as the scorn of the Maras and the traditional football establishment rained down around him, Snyder threw up his hands and asked with a pained expression: "What's wrong with a fan who's passionate wanting to buy a team? I guess you're supposed to be some person who bought it for an investment."

'A new toy'

Need seems to drive them here. A need to be a part of the decision-making process in sports. A need to be in the spotlight. A need to find something to do with all that money piling up in the bank.

"It's them saying 'I have loads of money' in the way that Oprah flies to Paris to get her hair done when you or I go around the corner," says Allen Sanderson, an economist at the University of Chicago. "When you have that much money, it takes a lot of the day to spend it."

And they are rich enough to indulge their passions. Paul Allen splurges on sports teams much the way his fellow Microsoft founder Bill Gates pours a fortune into art and his personal San Simeon.

"There are all these people who over the last 15 to 20 years are making money that boggles the mind," Sanderson says. "They sort of have to gravitate to a new toy, whether it's a sports team or a Shangri-La house."

Paying crazy prices

Even as the costs of running a sports team soar and fans grumble about inflated ticket prices, major-league franchises remain an enticing investment gamble. Cuban is considered the most outrageous of the new NBA owners, amassing hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for blasting referees. He shrugs off skeptics who scoffed when he paid a reported $280 million for the Mavericks last year - $100 million more than industry analysts say the franchise was worth.

"The NBA is so strong right now, and in such a great place to grow, that I have no doubt the value will appreciate," he says. "Though I could never see a time that I would sell it."

Schultz, in announcing his purchase of the Sonics last week, seems to feel the same way, despite hints that he and his partners, who dropped $200 million on the Sonics and its WNBA partner, the Storm, may also have overpaid. Longtime owner Barry Ackerley bought the team for just $22 million in 1982.

Many owners plead financial peril during salary negotiations or to leverage new stadium subsidies. At the same time, estimates say the woeful Golden State Warriors have increased $40 million in value in the past six years. The Houston Rockets have more than doubled in value over the same time.

Anonymity to notoriety

But money really isn't the issue for sports owners. Gratification is - whether it be power, fame or fun.

"These really are small businesses in terms of total revenues and employment," Sanderson says. "I'm sure in Chicago or Seattle, there isn't one person in 1,000 who knows who owns a successful pet-store chain, but everybody knows who owns the Chicago White Sox or Chicago Bulls. You get invited to parties that the owner of the pet-store chain doesn't."

All sports, all the time. The games are everywhere now - in the headlines, on 24-hour cable networks, all over talk radio. An anonymous businessman in a suit can instantly become the most famous fan in the stands, schmoozing politicians, hugging supermodels. Richard Lapchick, director of the sports study center at Northeastern, says his son recently gave him a book-on-tape version of Schultz's autobiography, "Pour Your Heart Into It." Until then, he had never heard the name Howard Schultz. He figures he's far from alone.

"If (the stories) don't say, 'He's the Starbucks guy,' I'm not sure anybody's going to know who he is," Lapchick says, noting that Schultz's name recognition will change because of his Sonic ownership.

Schultz himself is keenly aware of this - so much so that he held long talks with his family before the purchase, deliberating whether he really wanted to expose them to the notoriety that will come with the deal.

Business advantages

But the attention can be like an addictive drug. With sports comes fame and with fame comes money, usually followed by more money.

"It's a lot more high-profile, and I think it helps you in your other businesses," says Joe Maloof, who, with his brother Gavin, owns the NBA's Sacramento Kings as well as a beer distributorship and a casino The brothers have also invested in Wells Fargo Bank, a venture Joe Maloof is certain would never have come along had he not owned the basketball team.

"Dick Kovacevich (the bank's CEO) knows we're owners of the Kings," Maloof says. "So he had a meeting with us. If we only ran a beer distributorship or a casino, we might not have had that meeting."

But the business seems a sidelight. Ultimately, owning a sports team is about prestige and passion.

"You know," Maloof says, "it's a heck of a lot more fun beating the Lakers than selling 5,000 cases of Coors beer."

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