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Fathers and Sons – A Sports Business Saga

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The Blackhawks continued their resurgence into existence in Chicago with a 6-1 spelunking of the Phoenix Coyotes Friday night, leaving coach Wayne Gretzky checking his watch and looking for all the world like he realized he forgot to lock the AmEx Black away before the road trip. Dustin Byfuglien (pronounced “AWE-sum”) scored three goals before the ice was even scuffed in front of Nikolai Khabibulin’s net.

Byfuglien, a defenseman, is so obscure that most sports sites don’t have a head shot for the 2003 eighth round pick.

It’s another mile post on the road to recovery for a franchise teetering on the edge of insignificance for nearly fifteen years, thanks to an ancient sports business approach provided by an ancient legacy hire, William Wirtz. Scion of the real estate mogul Arthur Wirtz, he took over the family business and made it wildly more profitable than ever before in every arena it entered (liquor distributorship, real estate, banking, insurance) except the NHL.

“Dollar Bill” Wirtz never seemed to apply basic notions of investment he insisted upon in his other business dealings to the Blackhawks, instead running the business underground by hiding home games from television and divesting almost all investment in players and marketing. Wirtz carried these old school mantras about sports business (damned players make too much, television is robbing us of ticket money, candle power was lighting the games just fine, and the players learned to skate around the wax, etc.) to his grave.

This left most Chicagoans believing the only hockey team in town was the AHL Chicago Wolves. The Wolves packaged themselves well, priced tickets reasonably, and put a quality product on the ice. They weren’t brilliant, by any means; they just looked like it next to their NHL counterpart.

Since the passing of Bill Wirtz a few months ago, Rocky Wirtz took over the team from its caretaker (and his younger brother), Peter Wirtz. Existing hires from Pop’s time were promoted out of danger; Peter’s hires were undoubtedly put on notice at the same time.

The young talent the ‘Hawks had been gathering over the last few years were just starting to emerge as well, but no one would have known without an actual marketing campaign and the ability to see these young men excel. For example, a few Chicagoans Saturday morning might recognize Dustin Byfuglien, the 6’5″ behemoth with the natural hat trick, because Friday night’s home game was on local cable.

Rocky Wirtz has been championed for these moves and others, including stealing the president of the Chicago Cubs (John McDonough) during the Cubs’ long transition into new ownership. Still, he’s only taken the first few obvious steps that any minor-league hockey team in town would take.

His future prowess as a businessman and sports team owner are still to be determined as he works to win over the eight-year-olds in 2007 that will become the base of the returning Chicago Blackhawks fans. Capturing the next ten years’ worth of eight-year-olds will finally allow the team to recover from the damage done by dear old Dad.

Another scion is setting up his team’s fan base for the same object lesson today in New York City. James Dolan, genetic and financial donation recipient from Charles Dolan, has proven himself generally unworthy of both gifts as the head of MSG’s languishing teams (Knicks, Rangers, Liberty). James Dolan has quite a different old school business problem that you won’t see in too many sporting enterprises anymore.

James Dolan (whom you might know more fondly as leader of the band JD and the Straight Shot or, if you’re a Knicks fan, as mortal and finite) believes you must spend money to make money. Actually, it’s not clear he’s aware of the last part; this may be coincidence. He’s got the first part down, though, as he’s tossed extraordinary contracts to front office and player personnel without allowing them to be any hindrance to firing them.

The Rangers have been an expensive joke for his entire reign, showing modest success recently in what may be the NHL equivalent of a dead cat bounce. The Knicks won’t be out of salary cap hell until 2010, assuming fiscal responsibility from this moment forward. The Liberty…well, it’s possible he doesn’t know he’s in charge of the Liberty.

Thursday night’s Knicks loss to the Celtics (104-59, in case the wound had stopped throbbing) felt like Truth to most Knicks fans living the Dolan experience. Isiah Thomas, the Alan Alda of the 21st Century, couldn’t draw up a single defensive adjustment during the contest. The players checked out sometime around tipoff. Knicks fans wanted to do the same, but it was impossible to look away.

Over the last few years, the Knicks have given themselves few chances to attract those eight-year-olds they can count on for future support, much like the Blackhawks did for so long. Still, the Blackhawks never had to try to explain to those eight-year-olds why Coach Keenan thinks gender slurs are an acceptable business practice, and why Chris Chelios keeps that sheet of plastic on the back seat of his truck.

Knicks fans must hope Charles Dolan is finally ready to accept that his son is a better rock ‘n’ roll star than businessman and take back the team to run it more like his brother Larry runs the Indians. The Knicks will have far more than the Blackhawks ever had to recover from, but it’s possible to return to new glories eventually.

Still, they may want to get started down that long road soon. With the Brooklyn Nets a distinct possibility, there’s not much time before eight-year-olds all over the NYC metro area learn to love the new team. At that point, no amount of family ties will save the Knicks from deeply reduced profit margins and second-tier status.

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About Tuffy

  • How come the only thing black in the NHL is the AmEx?

  • psst. Dustin Byfuglien. In the article above. Hey, boss.

  • So you’re saying a black person’s mugshot isn’t readily available?

  • We’ll take progress in American race relations where we can get it, I guess.

  • alessandro

    Georges Laraque and the puck are black.

    Coach Keenan. Funny that guy. He trades Florida’s biggest asset next to Jokinen in Luongo for Bertuzzi and then fails to do anything with the team. Now the Panthers are reeling as Luongo becomes the best goalie in the world. Keenan will now run the Flames into the ground.

    It is nice to see the Blackhawks bounce back. Toews, Kane, Seabrook and even Keith should have bright futures.

    So, are Tom Lysiak, Al Secord and Denis Savard lacing it up?