TOP TEN Bad Owners in Sports –
Inspired by the current ramblings of Ottawa Senators Eugene Melnyk, I have come up with my Top Ten Bad Owners of all-time. It was obviously tough to whittle down the list because there’s lots to choose from as I’m sure you will agree. I had to leave out a few including Murray Pezim of the B.C. Lions and Bernie & Lonie Glieberman of the Ottawa Rough Riders. It’s certainly living proof of the oft-mentioned mantra – “Show me a bad owner and I’ll show you a bad team!” Here goes, in no particular order!
Eugene Melnyk, Ottawa Senators
Melnyk is the current and sole owner, governor, and chairman of the Ottawa Senators and probably the most hated man in the Nation’s Capital. Melnyk made his fortune in the pharmaceutical business. He founded Biovail Corporation, a specialty pharmaceutical company, quickly growing its revenues by looking for drugs with expired patents, then reinventing them with the company’s proprietary technologies. Melnyk would leave Biovail abruptly following news that the US Securities and Exchange Commission planned to take legal action against him.
In 2008, the SEC sued Melnyk and Biovail for accounting fraud claiming that Melnyk and other executives repeatedly overstated earnings and hid losses in order to deceive investors and create the appearance of achieving earnings goals. When it ultimately became impossible to continue concealing the company’s inability to meet its own earnings guidance, Biovail actively misled investors and analysts about the reasons for the company’s poor performance. Biovail settled for $10 million US. Melnyk was banned from senior roles at public companies in Canada for five years and fined $565,000 by the Ontario Securities Commission.
So this pillar of integrity is now sole owner of the Senators and he has single-handedly driven the team into the gutter. Any lingering trust the team may have had with the fan base has been pissed away by Melnyk.
Ted Stepien, Cleveland Cavaliers
Stepien was so bad the NBA even created a rule in his name called the Ted Stepien Rule which prohibits teams from trading away first round draft picks in consecutive years. At one point, from 1982 to 1985, Stepien traded away five consecutive first round picks. The team was derisively known as the ‘Cadavers’ by local media. During the 1981-82 season alone, Stepien fired three heads coaches and hired four.
In an interview in December 1980, Stepien said, “No team should be all white and no team should be all black, either. That’s what bothers me about the NBA: You’ve got a situation here where blacks represent little more than five percent of the market, yet most teams are at least 75% black and the New York Knicks are 100% black. Teams with that kind of makeup can’t possibly draw from a suitable cross section of fans.” He also said that “blacks don’t buy many tickets and they don’t buy many of the products advertised on TV. Let’s face it, running an NBA team is like running any other business and those kind of factors have to be considered.” He described his Cavaliers at that time — consisting of six whites and five blacks — as “a balanced team racially, and that’s a good reflection on our society because it’s balanced too.” Way to go Ted! Glad you had it all worked out in your little mind!
Harold Ballard, Toronto Maple Leafs
Harold Ballard’s involvement with the Maple Leafs began in 1961 when he became part of an ownership group with John Bassett and Stafford Smythe, the son of legendary Leafs owner Conn Smythe.
Within three years under the new owners, profits at the Gardens had tripled to just under $1 million. Ballard negotiated lucrative deals to place advertising throughout the building, and greatly increased the number of seats in the Gardens. He also expanded the number of concerts in the building including booking the Beatles on each of their three North American tours. During one of their concerts, Ballard ordered the building’s heat turned up, shut off the water fountains, and also delayed both of the concerts for over an hour. The only available refreshments were large soft drinks from the concession stands, at triple the normal price.
In 1969, Ballard and Smythe were charged with tax evasion and accused of using Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd. to pay for personal expenses. Bassett received the support of the board of directors to fire Smythe and Ballard. However, Bassett didn’t force Smythe and Ballard to sell their shares, and both men remained on the board. This proved to be a serious strategic blunder, as Smythe and Ballard controlled almost half the company’s shares between them.
A year later, they staged a proxy war to regain control of the board. Ballard was reappointed Executive Vice President. Facing an untenable situation, Bassett resigned as Chairman and sold his shares to Ballard and Smythe in September 1971. Smythe died just six weeks later. At age 68, Ballard won a battle with Stafford’s family and bought his shares, giving him a 60 percent controlling interest in the Gardens. He installed himself as President and Chairman of Maple Leaf Gardens and Governor of the Maple Leafs.
Shortly after taking control of the Leafs, Ballard stood trial on 49 counts of fraud, theft and tax evasion. He was accused of using funds from Maple Leaf Gardens to pay for renovations to his home and cottage as well as rent limousines for his daughter’s wedding and to buy motorcycles for his sons. Ballard was convicted on 47 of the charges and sentenced to nine years in a federal penitentiary. After a brief stay at Kingston Penitentiary, he was moved to a minimum-security facility. Upon parole, Ballard stated that prison life was like staying in a motel, with colour television, golf, and steak dinners. He even claimed to possess photographs of himself drinking beer with corrections officers.
After being released from prison, Ballard had an apartment built at the Gardens where he took up permanent residence. He let the Gardens go into disrepair. When the roof leaked, he did little more than order plastic sheets to catch the rainwater.
All told, the Leafs only had six winning seasons in Ballard’s 18-plus seasons as majority owner and never finished higher than third in their division in any format. Many fans consider the Ballard era to be the darkest period in team history. Off the ice, the Maple Leafs under Ballard were one of the league’s most financially successful teams.
Ballard was best known for his verbosity. As a guest with Barbara Frum on As It Happens, Ballard stated that “Women are best in one position – on their backs.” On a hotel elevator at a Board of Governor’s meeting, Ballard turned to an associate and said, “Did you ever see so many Jiggs in all your life?” He was apparently unaware that the hotel was hosting an NCAAP convention. Ballard was also quoted as saying, “If you can call a Chevrolet a Chev, why can’t you call a Japanese a Jap?”
One of Ballard’s classic moves came in the mid-1970s when the NHL was battling it out with the WHA. The NHL passed a rule that players’ last names had to be placed on the backs of their jerseys. Ballard refused, citing it as a threat to program sales. After being threatened with a large fine, Ballard complied by putting the names in blue letters on the Leafs’ blue road jerseys, and in white on their white home jerseys, making them unreadable. After being fined, Ballard finally relented.
Jeffrey Loria, Montreal Expos/Miami Marlins
Loria effectively ended baseball in Montreal without a shred of compassion. After an initial investment of $12 million in the Expos, Loria triggered a series of showdowns with MLB and local government until he managed to gain 94% control of the team. Loria promptly hightailed it out of town, leaving behind an alienated fan base and bitterness that still simmers today.
By playing the stadium card, Loria was able to sell the Expos to Major League Baseball for $120 million. The Expos would become the Washington Nationals while Loria was given the keys to the Florida Marlins for $158.5 million with the $38.5 million difference ponied up by MLB in an interest-free loan. Talk about a sweetheart deal!
In the late 2000’s, Loria would repeat the scam in Miami. He held the city hostage for a new stadium, refusing to pay for a new ballpark himself. Loria announced he would relocate the franchise without city and state support. Ultimately, the city kicked in a large part of the funds needed for the stadium and Loria got his way. The Marlins’ publicly-financed stadium was one of the most spectacular corporate lootings in recent history. The city would be on the hook for $2.4 BILLION.
To complete the illusion that he would use the new stadium to field a competitive team, Loria briefly signed free agents before promptly selling them off for prospects. The Marlins began a long cycle of perpetual rebuild while Loria reaped the financial benefits of MLB’s profitable revenue-sharing program.
In 2017, Jeffrey Loria finalized the sale of the Marlins to a group fronted by former Yankees star Derek Jeter for $1.2 billion. Loria’s long trail of manipulation netted him a profit of over one billion from his initial investment in the Expos.
Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers
Sterling was anything but sterling during his long tenure as Clippers owner from 1981 to 2014. ESPN the Magazine once voted the Clippers the worst organization in all of professional sports and it was a well-earned reputation.
Sterling’s Clippers wrote the book on losing. They didn’t have their first winning season until 1991–92, 11 years into his ownership. In Sterling’s 33 years of owning the Clippers, they lost 50 or more games 22 times, 60 or more on eight occasions, and 70 games once. Things were so bad Sterling was even known for heckling his own players from courtside.
In April 2014, Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million after private recordings of him making racist comments were made public. Sterling’s wife Shelly reached an agreement for the Sterling Family Trust to sell the Clippers for $2 billion to Steve Ballmer, which Sterling contested in court. It was a tidy profit since Sterling has originally purchased the Clippers for $12.5 million.
And, oh yes, one more thing. In 1996, Christine Jasky, a property management consultant for Sterling who also did work for the Clippers, sued Sterling for sexual harassment, claiming she quit her job after he repeatedly offered her money for sex, and asked her to recruit sexual partners for him. Sterling brazenly counter-sued, and the two eventually reached a confidential settlement. Needless to say, the NBA was happy to see this pathetic saga finally come to an end.
John Spano, New York Islanders
The admitted fraudster is best known for briefly buying control of the New York Islanders franchise in 1996, before it emerged that he did not have nearly enough assets to buy the team. It was nearly one of the biggest con jobs in pro sports history. He subsequently pleaded guilty to bank and wire fraud and has been in and out of prison ever since.
The NHL thought Spano’s purchase of the Islanders would be a lifesaver for the Isles. He promised to keep the team on Long Island and either renovate, rebuild or replace the aging Nassau Coliseum. Spano agreed to pay $165 million for the team but Newsday later exposed Spano as a complete fraud who didn’t have even a fraction of the money required to complete the deal.
Federal prosecutors would charge Spano with multiple counts of bank fraud, wire fraud and forgery. In January of 2000, he was sentenced to 71 months in prison. It turns out that Spano was no garden-variety con man. After getting out of prison in 2004, he was arrested again the following year on more fraud charges and jailed for 51 months. In 2014, Spano was indicted for a third time and sentenced to 10 years in prison, which he currently calls home.
The Spano fiasco forced the NHL to change how they vetted potential new owners, a job now handled by Ernst and Young. However, it didn’t prevent John Rigas from buying the Buffalo Sabres in 1997, only to have the league take over the franchise after his 2002 arrest for fraud. In 2007, the Nashville Predators were sold to a group that included William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, who was later revealed to have fraudulently obtained $110 million in loans from two NHL owners and eight banks in order to purchase a stake in the Predators, a crime for which he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The NHL has quite the history of disreputable owners. Apparently their idea of vetting a new owner was to ask if he had a bank account. “Yes? OK, you’re in!”
Robert Irsay, Baltimore Colts
As sleazy owners go, Robert Irsay would be at the top of the list. In 1984, Irsay famously abandoned Baltimore by packing up the team in the middle of the night in a fleet of Mayflower trucks and hit the highway for Indianapolis. It capped years of efforts by Irsay to sabotage the city of Baltimore including an infamous drunken press conference at the airport in which he lied about having met with other cities about moving the Colts.
Irsay’s son Jim ended up inheriting the Colts. He has battled alcohol and drug issues for years and was arrested on suspicion of DUI and drug possession in 2014. It was later revealed that Irsay’s mistress, Kimberly Wundrum, had overdosed and died in a house that Irsay controversially purchased with money belonging to the Colts. After pleading guilty to OWI and being sentenced to one year of probation, Irsay was suspended by the NFL for six games and fined 500,000 dollars.
Marge Schott, Cincinnati Reds
One of the weirdest stories of a sports owner is that of former Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott. She purchased the team in 1984, but immediately became known as somewhat erratic and racist. She died in 2004 at the age of 75, but her unfortunate legacy will live on.
Mrs. Schott’s image first soured in November 1992 when several former Reds executives said that she had referred to players and business associates using racial and ethnic slurs. In an interview that month with the New York Times, she said that “Hitler was good in the beginning, but he went too far.” This was just one of the many times Marge put her sizable foot in her sizable mouth.
Jerry Richardson, Carolina Panthers
Richardson was booted out of the NFL after allegations of workplace misconduct were substantiated following a lengthy investigation. He was fined $2.75 million and forced to sell the team. While Richardson stepped aside in shame, the Panthers sold for a record $2.2 billion.
The review detailed various incidents of sexual harassment and racist behavior from Richardson. Additionally, the NFL said the investigation found similar matters that had not been previously reported. The team did not report any of the misconduct claims, or the agreements to resolve them, to the NFL.
Just to illustrate what a true no-nonsense ethicist Richardson was, he sat back and did nothing when Greg Hardy was accused of domestic abuse even though Ray Rice’s beating of his fiancée in an elevator ruined the optics for every other don’t-give-a-damn NFL owner. Richardson was also a hardliner over locking out both the players and the referees for their salary demands despite pocketing millions in profits every season. He also reportedly once sneeringly responded to Peyton Manning’s concerns about concussions with, “What do you know about player safety?”
Richardson is yet another owner who managed to secure large amounts of public money for stadium renovations. Jerry Richardson – you will NOT be missed!
Dan Snyder, Washington Redskins
Dan Snyder is the absolute epitome of a meddling owner. The Redskins are widely considered to be one of the worst managed teams in professional sports. The number of foolish player signings is almost endless. Snyder needs a shiny new toy each season when it comes to NFL free agency yet the team remains largely noncompetitive.
If you’ve been paying attention to the NFL, you probably know Snyder as the staunch defender of an unambiguously racist name who can’t stop putting a loafer in his mouth every time he opens it. Snyder has marshaled every resource to defend the indefensible. He’s trotted out multiple Indian defenders of the Redskins names who aren’t even Indians.
In 16 seasons, Snyder has seen his team coached by eight different men which tells you all you need to know. Snyder has completely ruined a once proud franchise.