What Makes a Good Owner?
Here in Cleveland, we want to classify the owners of the local sports teams with neat little labels.
The Dolans are “cheap.”
Randy Lerner “doesn’t care.”
Dan Gilbert is “a winner.”
Those are easy tags for the hoople heads to latch on to, and there’s something to be said for that. But are the labels accurate?
If winning championships is the only criteria, then every Cleveland owner since 1964 has failed. But is that fair? George Steinbrenner was hailed as a great owner by Yankee apologists because he was willing to do “whatever it took” to win. That overlooks the fact that in 2009 the Yankees had $441 million in revenue – $173 million more than the second-place team! Having that much of an advantage makes it a lot easier to do “whatever it takes.”
If you look deeper into the numbers, however, you find something interesting: in 2009 the Yankees spent 54 percent of their revenue on player salaries ($240 million on $441 million in revenue), while the Indians spent 53.5 percent of their revenue on salaries ($91 million on $170 million in revenue).
It appears that the Dolans may not be unwilling to spend to make the Indians a winner, but rather they are unable to spend to compete under the current system.
So does that make them cheap or bad owners? I don’t think so. It’s more that they, like other mid-market owners in Major League Baseball, are caught in a cycle that makes it next to impossible to compete.
What about Randy Lerner?
The Browns have been a mess since they returned in 1999 and Lerner has been the one constant. That’s certainly a huge negative against Lerner. Many wrongly believe because Lerner is in England on Saturday watching Aston Villa play, rather than sitting behind a desk in Berea, he’s indifferent about the Browns.
If we were still in the 1930s, when a trans-Atlantic crossing took weeks on a ship, that may be true. But when you can make a flight from London to Cleveland in 7-8 hours, there’s no reason Lerner can’t have a presence at both team’s games.
Many fans want Lerner to be more “hands on” to prove he is “passionate” about the Browns. Because he lets people do the job that they are hired for, without constantly interfering, he’s labeled as being apathetic about the team. But if you look around the NFL, hands-on owners are not what you necessarily want.
Consider Dan Snyder of the Redskins, for example. Snyder has been overly involved with the team since buying them in 1999. Since then, the Redskins have been to the playoffs only three times. The team has had six different head coaches, has spent a disproportionate amount of money on expensive free agents and has traded away draft picks to acquire stars, many of whom have fizzled in Washington. He’s also sued season-ticket holders who’ve lost their jobs.
How about Al Davis? He’s as hands-on as they come. Or Jerry Jones, who’s led the Cowboys to one more playoff win than the Browns since 1999? Are those the type of owner Browns fans want Lerner to be?
It seems extremely unlikely that Lerner doesn’t care about the Browns. The problem is more that he’s made some mistakes in his hiring.
That brings us to Gilbert, an owner who’s benefited the most from a perfect storm of circumstances.
Gilbert has spent money and that was made easier by the presence of LeBron James, having the smallest roster size of the three major sports and the ability to pad the bottom line with all the extra playoff games the Cavs have been in since he bought the team.
But that has to be balanced with the fact that he let LeBron essentially run the team, which as we’re learning this summer, wasn’t the best idea. That “all-in” mentality cost the team a GM and a coach this off-season and it still wasn’t enough to keep James in town.
It would appear that Gilbert is as much an opportunistic owner as a winning owner.
So what does this all mean? Just as there’s no one way to define what a “good” coach is, there’s no one true blueprint for finding the best owner. As fans, all we can ask is for our owners to spend money to try and keep the team competitive, hire the best people they can find for the job and stay out of the way.
And remember that perception isn’t reality.