The University Record, October 1, 1997

Campaign for Michigan - Over the Top at 1,371,837,199!

Tisch and friends talk about sports team ownership


By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

In 1945, irritated U-M student Bob Tisch and a friend complained in the Michigan Daily that students would never be enthusiastic until they got better seats. "In the last few years, Michigan football has meant Big Business to the University. . . The students sit in the worst seats in the stadium while the 50-yard-line seats and other choice spots are sold to the public. . . .Undoubtedly the students could cheer more conscientiously if they could tell just what action is taking place on the field rather than having to take a portable radio along in order to prevent serious eyestrain."

Last Friday, as a part of the Campaign for Michigan celebration, Preston Robert Tisch, co-owner of the New York Giants and the contributor whose name now graces Tisch Hall and the Tisch Tennis Building, was presented with a framed copy of the 1945 letter. Then he and a few of his friends held a public conversation about sports management issues, this time from the owners' point of view.

"We've got a lot of problems and a lot of good things in pro sports," Tisch said. "I'm sure we all could make a lot more money doing other things than sports. But the reason we are here is because we all love sports."

Robert E. Nederlander, a limited partner in the New York Yankee Partnership; Fred Wilpon, co-owner of the New York Mets; James R. Lites, president of the Dallas Stars Hockey Club; and Denise Ilitch-Lites, vice chairman of Little Caesar Enterprises Inc., and president of Olympia Development, joined Tisch and WDIV-TV sportscaster Bernie Smilovitz in the discussion. Ilitch-Lites' father, Mike, owns the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers.

When asked about pro sports' greatest competition, Nederlander said, rather unexpectedly, "Like theatrical plays on Broadway, pro sports' biggest competition is eating out. Rather than spend money on a team that is not winning or on a Broadway play that is not a hit, people would rather just eat out. There also is overexposure on TV. People won't sit in row four of the end zone any more."

Tisch said that the greatest threat to pro sports is free agency. "Free agency hurts sports terribly. Players can leave after four years. It hurts the owners and teams, and it is bad for the fans," who don't have enough time to get to know the players.

Stadiums--who owns them, why they have to get bigger and better, who pays for them and how to make them profitable, were a major point of discussion. Ilitch-Lites noted that "E-zones" or Entertainment Zones may be the wave of the futureświth pools in stadiums, and nearby casinos, cafes and theaters as draws for the public.

Lites added that he has "watched the cities and the suburbs play off of each other, when it comes to building new stadiums. People don't realize that rebuilding in an urban area is much more costly than building in a suburban cornfield. You need significant government involvement if you just want to break even in urban areas."

Virtually all the owners agreed that cities would have to collaborate with team owners if urban stadiums were to succeed. Cities benefit indirectly from stadiums in terms of jobs and city amenities, so they should help finance them, Wilpon argued. New stadiums are necessary to bring in enough revenue to pay the sky-rocketing salaries of the players, and if you don't sign the star players, "You can expect to be vilified," Nederlander commented.

A member of the audience asked Ilitch-Lites, the only woman on the panel, about the climate of pro sports for women. "As a woman, I would say that there is definitely a lot of testosterone in sports. It is definitely challenging as a female. When I began, people assumed I knew nothing about sports but as time goes on and I gain more experience, I get more respect." She liked living in Dallas, she added, where hockey was a new sport, because she got to explain the rules of the game to a man for the first time in her career.

However, she noted that, "There will never be profitable women pro sports teams until the world accepts women in `that way' [as professional athletes]." Nederlander added, "It might happen if a stadium was already open and there was a need to fill stadium time."

When asked to give advice to the players union presidents, Lites snapped, "I'd say, `Don't be a pig.' The greed factor is so significant."

"I'd probably say the same thing but in different words," said Ilitch-Lites. "I'd say, `Take the time to learn the dynamics of the business. You must understand what it takes to make a business run.'"

Tisch agreed, adding, "My problem is with the agents. There is a huge gap between the most well-paid and least well-paid players."