With the impending sale of the Clippers to former Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer, and the recent death of controversial Tampa Bay Bucs and Manchester United owner Malcolm Glazer, sports team owners have been all over the news this week. And to our great fascination. As the Donald Sterling saga has shown, some of these owners' stories would do Shakespeare (or a telenovela writer) proud.
Hollywood has been aware of the on-screen power of sports owners for a long time. These are inherently dramatic figures, tied to money, power, victory and defeat, so it's no wonder that their cinematic counterparts over the years have served as antagonists, comic relief and occasionally even heroes. Here are some memorable instances. [Warning: Some spoilers below.]
"Any Given Sunday": In Oliver Stone's 1999 football drama set in the fictional Associated Football Franchises of America, Cameron Diaz played Christina Pagniacci, the ruthless owner of the Miami Sharks.
It's a character that has drawn comparisons to vocal real-life NFL owners Jerry Jones and Georgia Frontiere. Having inherited the once-great, now struggling team from her father, the hands-on Pagniacci clashes with old-school coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) and at one point is described as the type of woman who "would eat her own young."
Diaz's character seems to have the last laugh when she drives Pacino's D'Amato out of the organization — only to be one-upped when he takes a job with a new expansion team and brings the star QB with him.
"Draft Day": Director Ivan Reitman offered up a less caustic take on professional football in "Draft Day" earlier this year — unsurprising given that the movie was made with the league's cooperation.
Kevin Costner invests his trademark blue-collar charm in the character of stressed-out Cleveland Browns General Manager Sonny Weaver, who answers to a wealthy, irascible team owner played by Frank Langella. With the draft looming and a No. 1 pick in hand, the boss warns Weaver, "I need you to make a splash," but Weaver just wants to do his job. Langella's character doesn't make it easy, but Costner's maneuvering ends up winning the day — and, eventually, placating Langella.
"Major League" and "Major League II": It turns out viperous female sports owners are something of a movie cliche (see the next entry as well). In the baseball comedy "Major League" and its sequel, Margaret Whitton played the vindictive Cleveland Indians owner Rachel Phelps, a former Las Vegas showgirl who tried to tank her team's season to facilitate a move to Miami.
If you've ever seen a sports movie about a ragtag team facing insurmountable odds, you'll have an idea of how her plan went over.
The Indians went on to win big and thwart Phelps' notion. And while the movie most of us saw has her vanquished, an alternate ending that was shot but not included in the theatrical cut showed a softer side: Phelps, it turns out, had a plan all along to keep the team in Cleveland and was just rattling her saber to motivate the players.
"Slap Shot": Playing the aging player-coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, Paul Newman spends much of this classic 1977 hockey comedy trying to track down his foundering team's elusive owner. When he finally does, the boss turns out to be a wealthy widow played by Kathryn Walker who is amused by his antics but thoroughly uninterested in saving the team. Newman's character tastes sweet victory, though, winning the title, if by a forfeit, and celebrating in Chiefs-like style.
"Heaven Can Wait": Warren Beatty's 1978 fantasy comedy found the director/cowriter/star playing Joe Pendleton, a backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams summoned to heaven before his time.
To make up for their gaffe, the powers that be put him in the body of a millionaire industrialist, after which he buys the team and personally leads them to the Super Bowl as QB. You know what they say, if you want something done right ….
The season after the film's release, the real-life Rams did in fact make the Super Bowl and face off against the Pittsburgh Steelers, their opponents in the movie. Without Beatty on their side, however, the Rams lost, 31-19.
"Seinfeld": Granted, this example is from TV, not movies, but we couldn't resist including Larry David's absurdist impersonation of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner on the long-running sitcom. The late Steinbrenner reportedly found the gag funny as well and even shot scenes for a cameo, though they were ultimately cut. Fortunately, highlight reels of David's Steinbrenner — the quintessentially entertaining on-screen owner — abound on YouTube.