SUPER BOWL XXI : THE NFL OWNERS : THE NFC WEST
Who are the people who own the teams that compete in the NFL, and strive each year to make it to the Super Bowl? What kinds of people are they? Are they all rich? Are they all self-made? Do they own teams because they love the sport, or because the teams are good investments? The Times assigned staff writers Bob Oates and Earl Gustkey to research and write about the NFL owners with these, and other, questions in mind. Their stories appear in the adjoining columns. Oates writes about the AFC’s owners, Gustkey the NFC’s. TOM BENSON, New Orleans Saints
Tom Benson, the 59-year-old managing general partner of the New Orleans Saints, was talking about his boyhood on the streets of New Orleans.
“My dad used to preach the virtues of physical fitness to me, and made me and my brothers walk two miles to school--each way--rather than take the bus,” he said. “It wasn’t until we were older that I figured out we couldn’t afford the bus fare.”
Today, Thomas Benson Sr., 85, and his wife, Carmen, 82, avidly watch their son’s football team play from their private Superdome suite, and they don’t take the bus. Sometimes, they’re driven to the games by their son in his Chevy Caprice.
Benson doesn’t come across as a typical NFL owner. There is no glitz, no gold, no driver. What you have here is a guy who’s supposed to be worth something like $100 million, yet drives a Chevrolet, wears a Bulova watch and rumpled, ill-fitting suits obviously off the rack.
Yet, this is the guy some Louisianians call St. Thomas. He kept the Saints from moving to Phoenix. Or Jacksonville. Or Oakland. Or Baltimore.
He had never been much of a football fan. He says he had attended only a few Saint games before he put together the group that bought the franchise from John Mecom for $70.2 million in 1985.
Benson owns 24 car dealerships in Louisiana and Texas with estimated yearly sales of $400 million, controls six banks in Louisiana and Texas with deposits totaling $400 million, and owns 2.7 million square feet of commercial real estate, much of it in San Antonio.
Benson and his wife, Grace, have seven grown children. They have a home in San Antonio, a condominium in New Orleans and a 2,000-acre ranch in Pedernales River country near Johnson City, Tex.
Benson, who as a boy sold copies of the New Orleans Times-Picayune to earn spending money, said he became involved in the Saints purchase when it became apparent that the city was in danger of losing the team.
“Even though I wasn’t a rabid football fan, I thought it would be a terrible blow to the city to lose the Saints,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to do something for my hometown, where I got my start.”
In the early stages of the negotiations, Benson pledged $20 million of his own money for a 31% share of the deal. “I couldn’t afford to write a check for $70 million,” he explained recently. Now, Benson and younger brothers Jerome and Larry own 50% of the stock.
Benson has New Orleans roots that go deeper than his boyhood neighborhood around north Johnson Street in the Eighth Ward. A granduncle, Herbert Benson, was a founder of the Sugar Bowl game and the architect of Tulane Stadium, where the game was played before the Superdome was built.
In business, after serving a Navy hitch and getting an accounting degree at Loyola University of New Orleans, he started out in 1948 selling cars at Cathey Chevrolet in New Orleans. After eight years, the dealership’s owner asked Benson to go to San Antonio to turn around an ailing dealership he owned there.
When Benson agreed, the owner made Benson a 25% owner. Then, in 1962, he became full owner of Tom Benson Chevrolet. More dealerships followed.
But the deal that put him on the road to real wealth was one in 1966 involving 25 acres of open land in north San Antonio. After studying a demographics report of the area, Benson was convinced that San Antonio’s commercial growth was headed for that area.
While contemplating the merits of going deeply into debt, Benson went back to New Orleans and asked the old family priest, Father John Sokolski, to get to work.
“Pray for me, padre,” he said to Father Sokolski, who remembers the incident well. “If this works, we’re in clover.”
Father Sokolski also reports that Benson has never forgotten his promise to help St. Anthony’s Seminary with contributions.
Benson borrowed $1 million and bought the land, where today there are shopping centers, fast-food restaurants, office buildings, a string of six Tom Benson auto dealerships and two Tom Benson banks. Real estate analysts appraise the property at $25 million.
Benson remains active in the running of all his businesses, and says they suffered in his early days of owning the Saints.
“I was spending about 80% of my time with the Saints, and that was way too much,” he said. “I was throwing a lot of responsibility of my other businesses onto my brothers. But I’ve got dedicated, competent people from top to bottom running the Saints now, and we’re on the right track.”
Benson said that the NFL franchises consistently successful on the field are also successful on the balance sheet, and figures the Saints are headed that way, with the construction of 140 more Superdome luxury suites planned over the next two seasons. The Saints will build them and lease them, for about $15,000 a year. EDWARD J. DeBARTOLO Jr., San Francisco 49ers
At first, he said all the wrong things, among them that most unpardonable of all verbal sins. He called San Francisco Frisco .
In the beginning, in the late 1970s, it didn’t look as if it would work out--a rich kid from Youngstown, Ohio, buying the 49ers from two old-line San Franciscans, the Morabito family and Lou Spadia.
Edward J. DeBartolo Jr., who bought the 49ers in 1977, didn’t help matters any by bringing in abrasive Joe Thomas as general manager. Thomas promptly fired the coach, the entire staff, alienated the media and fielded two terrible teams. Faithful 49er fans didn’t know whom they wanted to be rid of the most, Thomas or the rich kid from Youngstown.
Enter Bill Walsh. DeBartolo hired him in 1978 after a 10-minute interview at the Fairmont Hotel. The result has been Super Bowl championships in 1981 and ’84, proving at least that absentee owners as well as feuding owners (see Giants, Vikings) can be winners.
The $17 million that DeBartolo spent in 1977 at the age of 30--at 41, he’s still the NFL’s youngest owner--to buy the 49ers flowed from Youngstown, where Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., presides over one of America’s great financial empires. The 77-year-old father of the 49ers’ owner was ranked as the 30th-richest American by Forbes magazine in 1986, which estimated his wealth at $900 million.
His DeBartolo Corp. builds and operates suburban shopping centers, more than 50 at a recent count. The firm employs 8,000 people.
The elder DeBartolo learned his early lessons in the construction business from his Italian-American stepfather, a master mason who never learned to read English.
DeBartolo Sr. graduated from Notre Dame in 1932 with a civil engineering degree and served in the Pacific as an Army engineer in World War II.
He left the service in 1945 “without a dime” and gradually developed a shopping center construction business in Youngstown. He apparently saw clearly the retail sales implications created by the exodus of Americans to the suburbs after World War II.
He says he has never taken a vacation in his life and still shows up for work between 5 and 6 a.m. Fourteen-hour days aren’t uncommon, his aides say. His company, besides controlling 51 malls that account for 60 million square feet of retail space in 26 states, also owns hotels, land and race tracks. It’s thought by some to be the world’s largest real estate development company.
The elder DeBartolo is the firm’s chairman and chief executive officer. His son is president and chief administrative officer. Both still live in Youngstown, the elder DeBartolo in the same house that he built in 1959.
Edward DeBartolo Jr.--the 49er players call him Mr. D.--also lives in Youngstown but flies one of his company’s private jets to most 49er games, home and away. He reports that his teen-age daughters agitate constantly for a cross-country move, to be closer to the football team.
Although the family is best known to sports fans for the son’s ownership of the 49ers, the elder DeBartolo has long operated in big-time pro sports. He owns the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins. And he owned the Pittsburgh franchise in the United States Football League. He once tried to buy the Cleveland Browns.
He also owns four race tracks, which explains in part why he was unable in 1980 to crack the ownership circle of major league baseball.
He put up $20 million to buy the Chicago White Sox, but Bowie Kuhn, then baseball commissioner, nixed the deal, saying that DeBartolo would be an absentee owner, that he intended to move the team to another city, and that he owned race tracks.
As for his son, the 49ers’ owner, it must be reported that he still uses the word Frisco. But not in reference to the City by the Bay. It’s his schnauzer’s name. GEORGIA FRONTIERE, Los Angeles Rams
Quick, what comes to mind first when you say Georgia Frontiere?
Well, let’s see, there’s the Rams, the team she owns. Then there are her seven husbands. And her present husband, Dominic, in prison over some messy business about scalping Super Bowl tickets.
What about her habit of often being late? In fact, wasn’t she late for her own husband’s funeral?
Yep, that’s Boss Mama, as Dominic Frontiere and the Ram family call the franchise’s 59-year-old owner.
One thing, though. She owns a pretty good football team. The Rams have been a consistent winner since Georgia Rosenbloom Frontiere inherited the franchise when her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, drowned while swimming off a Florida beach in 1979. And she has certainly played a role.
--Under Frontiere, the Rams have fielded playoff teams for four straight years, an achievement only the 49ers can match.
--She hired John Robinson in 1983, and he has become one of the NFL’s most successful coaches.
--She has approved of trades that brought the team players such as Eric Dickerson, Jim Everett, Gary Jeter, David Hill, Gary Green, Ron Brown and Tony Hunter.
--In an era when some NFL franchises are having attendance problems, the Rams have achieved great prosperity in Anaheim Stadium, their home since leaving the Coliseum in 1980.
The Rams averaged 59,285 in paid attendance in 69,007-seat Anaheim Stadium in the 1986 season, showing an increase for the fourth straight season. The Rams don’t announce season ticket sales figures, but it’s believed the club sold about 45,000 season seats last season.
One of only two woman owners in the NFL, and the only active one, Georgia Frontiere is a native of St. Louis, where her mother, a Miss St. Louis in 1926, led a 14-member girl band that played at car lot openings, farm-machinery shows and steak houses.
Later, Lucia Pamela Angelo and her daughter, billing themselves as the singing Pamela Sisters, took their act to Fresno, where Georgia was married for the first time. That marriage was annulled when she was 15 1/2. Her second husband was killed when hit by a bus in San Francisco.
She worked in Little Theater productions and as a photographer’s model, and won the 1952 San Joaquin Valley Talent Quest.
In the mid-1950s, she was singing in Miami Beach lounges. She was also, briefly, a TV weather reporter. It was in Miami Beach that she met Carroll Rosenbloom, who at the time owned the Baltimore Colts. They were married in London in 1966.
Rosenbloom, in a swap of franchises with Robert Irsay, obtained ownership of the Rams in 1972, and the Rosenblooms headed west.
For eight years, Rosenbloom’s wife presumably led the good life in Beverly Hills. But on April 2, 1979, her life changed drastically. Rosenbloom, 72, drowned while swimming in the surf in Florida. In his will, he had left his millions and majority ownership of the Rams to his widow.
She demonstrated early that she intended to be in full control, a hands-on owner. In a shocker, she fired Steve Rosenbloom, Carroll’s son and the club’s vice president. Within two years of her taking over, 28 administrative employees had resigned or had been fired.
In 1980, she married Dominic Frontiere, a film score composer. He is currently serving a one-year sentence at the federal correctional institution at Lompoc, Calif., after pleading guilty to charges of filing a false income tax return and lying to federal investigators in a case involving thousands of scalped 1980 Super Bowl tickets.
Frontiere, 55, was also fined $15,000 by a Los Angeles federal judge last month after he pleaded guilty on an indictment that charged:
--That he and his wife reported income of $397,000 in 1980 on their tax return, when Frontiere knew that he and his wife should have reported substantially more income from Super Bowl tickets he sold.
--That he and his wife claimed a false deduction of $116,335 for Super Bowl tickets that they said they gave away, when he knew that the tickets had been sold.
--That he lied to Internal Revenue Service investigators when he told them that he had personally received only about 200 tickets and that he had given most of them to friends. A federal prosecutor in the case said he believed that Frontiere made about $500,000 from the scalping operation.
Frontiere’s attorney said on Jan. 5, the day Frontiere began serving his term, that he “should be out in four months.”
Georgia Frontiere was not charged in any of the complaints. RANKIN M. SMITH, Atlanta Falcons
The story of how the National Football League came to Atlanta can be traced to the late 1950s, when Branch Rickey was trying to start a new baseball league, the Continental League.
“Some people from Chicago came to Atlanta and wanted to put a Continental League team here,” said Rankin M. Smith, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons for the last 22 years.
“The Continental League was killed because major league baseball expanded in 1960. But in the meantime, I was involved in an Atlanta group that called itself Major Sports, Inc., which tried to bring a major pro sports franchise to the city.
“Once we got a stadium built, the Milwaukee Braves moved here, then the NFL granted us an expansion franchise.”
Smith paid $8.5 million for the franchise.
At first, Smith’s group tried for an American Football League team. An attempt was made to use Coca-Cola’s advertising clout with NBC to put an AFL team in Atlanta.
When word of that got out, Smith says today: “The NFL came flying down and told us to wait a couple of weeks, that they’d get us a team.”
That was 1965. Atlantans had built 59,000-seat Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium--for less than $15 million--a facility that Smith now calls inadequate.
“We’re playing in the second-oldest stadium in the NFC (stadiums that haven’t been expanded) in a division (the Western, with the Rams, 49ers, and Saints) against teams that can generate $5 million to $6 million more per year in gate revenues than we can. We can’t continue to compete on that basis, and I don’t care who owns the team. It’s just a fact of life.”
Is that a threat to leave Atlanta? Some Atlantans wouldn’t mind. The Falcons have been in the playoffs three times since 1965. In 1983, Smith fired the only winning coach he had ever had, Leeman Bennett.
Smith has followed with more than casual interest the stadium developments in Miami, where Joe Robbie has pulled his Dolphins out of the Orange Bowl and built his own stadium in suburbia.
Building his own stadium, after his lease expires in 1990, is “do-able,” Smith says. Another option is to move the team.
“When you have that situation (a stadium lease about to expire), you hear from all kinds of people,” he said. “It would serve no useful purpose to say who, but you can figure out which cities would like to have NFL teams.”
It used to be that Smith, 61, was the focal point of Falcon fans’ disappointments over the years. Now they have three Smiths to yell at. Smith has brought in his sons, Rankin Jr., 38, and Taylor, 32, to run the franchise. Smith retains the chairmanship. Rankin Jr., has been club president for 10 years, and Taylor was named executive vice president last spring.
Smith is somewhat sympathetic about his oldest son’s role.
“Anyone who is a Junior has a problem,” he said. “Everybody says he got his job because he’s my son. If he does well, they say he should have done well because his old man owns the team. If he screws up, they say ‘Look how he got the job.’ ”
Rankin M. Smith was born into a life insurance firm, Life of Georgia, co-founded by his grandfather in 1891. But before he went to work for the firm, he flew escort fighter planes on B-29 bombing missions over Japan in World War II.
He started out as a crack life insurance salesman, working poor black districts of Arkansas and Georgia in the late 1940s. He was named to the firm’s board in 1950, executive vice president in 1963, president in 1970 and chairman a few years later.
He was ousted as chairman in 1975. The stated reason was that board members were upset because he was spending too much time with other business interests, including the Falcons.
Smith and his sons are avid hunters. Rankin M. Smith spends an increasing amount of time on his 9,000-acre spread in south Georgia, three miles from the Florida line, “in the heart of the greatest bobwhite quail country in the world,” where he spends long afternoons in the woods, hunting with his favorite bird dogs.