Introductory news conferences involving sports executives rarely dive below the surface and produce truth-serum revelations. That forum tends to elicit stock answers more than anything.
Paul Fenton gave an answer at his official welcome this past week that deserved an ‘A’ for honesty. Asked what appealed to him when seeking to become the Wild’s new general manager, Fenton said money. Specifically, team owner Craig Leipold’s willingness to spend right up to the salary cap.
“We have the opportunity to put pieces in place and not have to worry about it,” Fenton said.
That candid assessment came one day after Twins owner Jim Pohlad of the “cheap Pohlad” clan agreed to eat $22 million in salary to get rid of an ineffective pitcher, Phil Hughes, because he was taking up a roster spot.
At one time, sports owners in this market were regarded as cheapskates, men who seemed to care more about counting nickels than investing in their operation. Carl Pohlad, Red McCombs, Norm Green all carried that unflattering reputation.
The present collection of owners aren’t operating in the mold of tightwads. This is how it should be.
None of the five pro teams is rebuilding. (Not including United in this discussion since the MLS franchise is still in its infancy.) Every team has a modern stadium or renovated arena that serves as a cash cow. TV revenue is more lucrative for teams. Ticket prices and cost of concessions have soared for fans. Owners should feel compelled to conduct business with a reciprocal financial commitment.
One high-ranking team executive in town offered another reason. Teams face fierce competition for ticket buyers and corporate sponsorships within the market so owners feel pressure to spend to stay relevant.
Championships aren’t won strictly by money, of course. Spending money as if handing out candy on Halloween guarantees nothing in return. Spending wisely is more important than spending wildly. But it’s nice to see owners willing to step up financially with the intent of improving their team.
The Wild carries one of the NHL’s highest payrolls. The Twins have their highest payroll in team history. Zygi Wilf gave his blessing in making Kirk Cousins the highest-paid player in the NFL with a fully guaranteed $84 million contract. Glen Taylor (who also owns the Star Tribune) signed off on a max contract for Andrew Wiggins last summer and hopes to add two more megadeals this summer with Karl-Anthony Towns and Jimmy Butler.
In the Wild’s case, constant sellouts all but mandate that Leipold spends aggressively, which he has done since signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter for $196 million combined in 2012.
“I do believe owners should spend/invest when the window is open to make a playoff run,” Leipold said. “We’re all in sports for the same reason, and that’s to win the championship.”
Here are my top three ideal qualities in an owner:
1. Hire good people.
2. Spend money.
3. Don’t meddle in personnel decisions to the extent that the owner is calling shots instead of people hired to make those decisions.
Nothing trumps No. 1 on that list, because without decisionmakers who excel at their jobs, an organization is doomed to fail. But owners who sit on the sideline financially while rivals show they’re serious about winning can inflict as much damage.
Those exhausting Stadium Wars promised this premise — build immaculate venues, revenue will multiply, reinvest in the operation. Past owners grew frustrated by their stadium fight losses over the years and conducted business accordingly. Their cheapness became legendary.
Spending is about more than just stadiums though. It’s a mind-set, a willingness to go for it when the situation screams for it.
Jim Pohlad, in particular, has altered his image. He allowed his new management regime to modernize the organization’s infrastructure by hiring dozens of new employees while also adding free agents that pushed the payroll to $130 million.
The Twins have long disputed Pohlad’s reputation as a penny-pincher, noting that it was former GM Terry Ryan who dictated a belt-tightening approach. In any case, agreeing to pay a pitcher $22 million to not pitch sure feels like a philosophical shift.
Spending money won’t solve all problems. But at least it shows owners are willing to try.