Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Minnesota Sports Ownership Groups Mismatched With Teams

There is nothing more frustrating for a devout sports fan than watching every other team win a championship while their team fails to grab the golden ring. This is a truism to which Minnesota fans can relate only too well, with only the Minnesota Twins providing local fans a championship over the past half century.

The short-comings of Minnesota teams come in a wide assortment. The early Twins teams had the talent but faced some very good opposition at a time when the league was less watered down. During the Calvin Griffith era, the team mostly wallowed, burdened by a parsimonious owner. The team's fortunes changed under owner Carl Pohlad, who, as tight as he has been with the dollar, appeared to be a knight in white armour following in Griffith's footsteps.

The Vikings great teams had the misfortune of playing against the Dolphins and the Steelers of the 70s and the added liability of underperforming most substantially against inferior teams in Kansas City and Oakland. And the Vikings' top two teams never even made it to the Super Bowl, one falling victim to hubris, poor coaching decisions, and bad luck, the other the victim of one incredibly bad call on a cold day at the Met.

Following General Manager Mike Lynn's failed Herschel Walker gambit, the Vikings fell to mediocrity for several years before being resurrected to an extent under Denny Green. Green's inability to propel the Vikings to the Super Bowl, combined with new owner Red McComb's desire to field a winning team in support of his bid for a new stadium led to the Mike Tice era out from under which the team yet is attempting to climb.

On the wholly less successful end of the spectrum for Minnesota sports franchises are the Minnesota Wild and the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Wild have a partial excuse for only once moving beyond the first round of the NHL playoffs, namely, that they are a relatively young franchise. Still, with several years now in the books, teams like Detroit magically remaking themselves over night, and others like Pittsburgh rising far more quickly from nothing to championship contender, the clock is now ticking on the Wild.

While the Wild receive a partial pardon for their struggles, the Wolves receive none. Clearly one of the more dysfunctional franchises in all of major sports, the Wolves in 2008 appeared no better than the inaugural edition of the team. With coaches and management alike forever trotting out lines such as "we just have to get over the hump," "we showed effort, and you've got to like that," and "we just all need to buy into the system, and we haven't done that yet," is it any wonder that this revolving door of over-paid never-was players, over-hyped rookies, and retreads has only once made it past the first round of the NBA playoffs?

But the point here is not to frustrate further the presumably and understandably fragile sports psyches of Minnesota sports fans. Rather, the point is to note the absolute greatest misfortune of all for Minnesota sports fans, namely, that their professional sports franchises ownership groups are so poorly aligned.

If there were justice in the world for Minnesota sports fans, the complexion of the local sports franchise ownership groups would be much different. Assuming that Minnesota fans were stuck with the four current ownership groups, a simple realignment of ownership groups ought to provide Minnesota sports fans with a much higher probability of seeing their favorite teams enjoy success than is possible under the current alignment.

For the Wild, the clear choice for owner is Carl Pohlad. Owning the Wild would provide Pohlad with the three things he appears most to cherish in owning a professional sports franchise--a low and firm salary cap, a relatively new venue, and a cash cow.

What makes Pohlad even more ideal for the Wild, particularly from the perspective of a Wild fan, is that, despite his miserliness, Pohlad seems to have a knack for finding good people to run his organizations. Imagine the hockey equivalent of Terry Ryan running the Wild. It would be a match made in heaven.

With Pohlad gone to the Wild, the Twins would be in need of a new owner. And there is no more logical fit for that vacancy than current Wolves owner Glen Taylor. The Twins continue to struggle under Pohlad's tight fist, losing players in their prime and saving their gambles for washed up players and young players with several years of MLB servitude yet in their futures. With proper management and some lousy competition, the Twins have made that a successful formula for making it into the playoffs once in a while. But it is clear that the algorithm requires higher caliber talent to win it all.

In Taylor, the Twins will have the single Minnesota sports franchise owner to whom money means almost nothing. Taylor was so eager to see the Wolves succeed that, for several consecutive seasons, he actually paid a luxury tax. Pairing Taylor with Minnesota would mean that Minnesota Twins' fans could shift their considerable energy from debating how the Twins can best field a team under an artificial salary cap to whether the Twins made the right moves in the off-season.

The caveat with Taylor, of course, is that he is the polar opposite of Pohlad when it comes to managing a team. Though willing to spend and eager to field a winning team, Taylor appears absolutely void of any management sensibilities, retaining a management group that has made poor decision after poor decision with the ultimate indignity being the trading away the team's franchise player essentially for a younger, not as talented version of that franchise player, and failing to land, in the deal, the one additional player that would have made the deal palatable.

If someone else makes Taylor's management hiring decisions, Taylor running the Twins could be one of the greatest sports marriages of all time. If Taylor were to continue to make the decisions, however, all bets would be off.

Taylor's move would leave a vacuum into which current Vikings' owner Zygi Wilf readily could step. Eager to show his commitment to the local storied franchises, nobody would feel more at home dishing out rehearsed BS about a moribund team than Wilf.

With a team about which few care, an arena with less enviable sight lines than the Metrodome offers for baseball, and no cap floor with which to concern himself, Zygi would have, in the Wolves and the Target Center, a team that could only improve, a truly bona fide claim for renovation or rebuilding of a sports venue, and no need to drain his pocket book to get the return that he seeks.

Wilf's ownership of the Wolves is, perhaps, the least satisfactory outcome of the exchange of ownership groups among Minnesota's sporting franchises, but it is the pareto optimal outcome. And, even if Zygi refused to spend, he might accomplish two things that most Wolves fans would welcome--an improved venue and the firing of the current management group. Those two accomplishments alone would make Zygi an ideal Wolves owner.

That leaves only the Vikings without an owner and current Wild owner Craig Leopold without a team. The fit is a natural one, even if Leopold is not an ardent NFL fan. In the Vikings, Leopold retains a salary cap structure, albeit a higher one, akin to the NHL. That higher cap should not faze even the wealthy Leopold, however, as the NFL also provides substantially more revenue--well ahead of the NHL as compared to each league's respective salary cap.

With community ties to which Minnesotans more comfortably can relate--for better or for worse--Leopold would stand a better chance of obtaining a new or significantly upgraded venue for the Vikings than does Zygi. And with a track record of at least modest management success, the Vikings would fair no worse under Leopold than they currently do under Wilf.

The caveat in all of this, as was the case with Taylor, is that each owner will have to identify the proper management group with which to build a contender. Where Taylor has failed miserably, Wilf could not help but improve. But where Wilf has had some success, there is no certainty that Leopold would succeed. Only Pohlad seems charmed enough to be counted on with certainty to make such a transition. Even with this substantial caveat, however, the re-alignment of Minnesota's professional sports franchise ownership groups would be interesting to watch.

Up Next: The Making of an Executive of the Year--Footsteps Not to Follow.


The Inevitable Muck-up said...

I've got to disagree with you saying that Al Jefferson is a less talented version of KG. Comparing their 4th year Big Al has a better field goal%, Free Throw %, Rebound average and Points average in 2 minutes less time on the court per game.

I know that this is a Vikings site and I know that Kevin McHale is the worst executive in all of sports (regardless of what Forbes says) but that was actually a good deal.

Everything else about this post was pretty spot on.

vikes geek said...


Thanks for the comment. We might actually agree on KG, just with a different timeline in mind.

Though I confess to following the NBA not nearly close enough to call myself an expert on the team, I can say without reservation that, as of this moment, KG is by far a better player than Big Al--and it's not even close. While BA might one day eclipse what KG is now able to do, that day has not arrived. That, in my mind, makes BA a less talented version of KG at this point in time.

As for the KG trade, time will tell how good of a trade it was for Minnesota--but there is much catching up to do from the outset. While Boston added a player that helped them win today, Minnesota merely added a player. And, though Minnesota held all the cards, the man making the trade caved yet again, relinquishing a request for Rajon Rondo--an addition that really would have shifted the balance of the trade in Minnesota's favor.