Monday, July 19, 2010

The Boss' Legacy - Jordan Kobritz

It was typical of “The Boss” to be at the center of the baseball universe as he passed into eternity.

When George Steinbrenner passed away on Tuesday morning, he upstaged MLB’s All-Star Game.  But no one should be surprised.  Steinbrenner was typically the center of attention regardless of where he was.  No one commanded the spotlight – indeed, sought it – like George did.

Much of the commentary on Steinbrenner’s accomplishments has focused on the Yankees’ on-field success, 11 American League Championships and seven World Series titles during Steinbrenner’s 37-year reign as the longest serving and most bombastic owner in sports during that period.  But the Yankees have experienced an even greater rate of success during the course of their history.  In fact, during one 29-year period, between 1936 and 1964, the Yankees won 22 AL pennants and 16 World Series titles, a record unlikely to be matched in professional sports.


An argument can be made that the team’s success under Steinbrenner’s ownership was more impressive, coming as it did during the era of free-agency when players - released from the shackles of baseball’s reserve clause - could sign with any team.  But that argument can be used to minimize the Yankees’ success over the past three-plus decades.  Under free agency, the greater a team’s financial resources, the easier it is to acquire talent.  And the Yankees have always had the most resources of any team in baseball.

What is oftentimes forgotten or ignored is the team’s 15-year title drought between 1981 and 1995, due in large part to Steinbrenner’s micromanaging and impatience.  It says here that Steinbrenner has received too much credit for the Yankees’ success on the field.

But Steinbrenner’s achievements shouldn’t be measured by the number of pennants flying over Yankee Stadium.  Rather, his greatest contribution to the game is in what he accomplished for the Yankees, and indeed all of baseball, off the field.  He transformed the operation of a sports franchise from a part-time activity for “sportsmen” into a business, one more similar to General Electric and IBM than a membership organization for the privileged (see Tom Yawkey).

Steinbrenner parlayed an $8.7 million purchase, all but 2% of it OPM, other people’s money, into a team estimated by Forbes to be worth $1.6 billion, the third highest value of any sports franchise in the world, behind only the Manchester Union and the Dallas Cowboys.  Throw in the YES TV network he founded in 2002, worth perhaps as much as the Yankees themselves, and we’re talking about a ROI that is the envy of any businessman.  And forget the estimates.  If the Yankees ever went on the market, and were sold to the highest bidder, they could fetch double that amount, even in these unpredictable economic times.

The Boss was an enigma.  He was loyal, supportive, compassionate and charitable.  He could also be impulsive, demanding, over-bearing, controlling and petty.  Not surprisingly, he was both loved and loathed, mostly the latter by his fellow owners.  Some were envious of his team’s success on the field; others were envious of his financial resources, which were due in part to his business acumen and in part to his team’s market.  Even Steinbrenner admitted he couldn’t have duplicated his success in his home town of Cleveland.

Steinbrenner should be a lock for election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.  It’s a crime that he wasn’t voted in during his lifetime, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise.  The election system, which culminates in a vote by the Veterans Committee, is weighted heavily against those who rock the boat.  The voting system most resembles a high school popularity contest rather than a vote based on accomplishments.  How else to explain next month’s induction of former commissioner Bowie Kuhn, while the voters whiffed on his chief antagonist, former executive director of the players’ association, Marvin Miller, not once, but twice?

Few men in history have had the impact on baseball and the business of sports that George Steinbrenner had.  The next time the Veterans Committee convenes in December of 2011, The Boss should be unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame.  If the voters get it right, Steinbrenner will once again be the center of the baseball universe during the Hall’s induction ceremony in 2012.

Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Maine Guides team owner. He is an Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Eastern New Mexico University, teaches the Business of Sports at the University of Wyoming, and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at jkobritz@mindspring.com.

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