Raj Bhathal Enjoys Taking Care of Business in a Different Field : Pro football: Newport Beach swimsuit manufacturer goes quietly about running the World League’s Orlando Thunder.

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Raj Bhathal is living the American dream in more ways than one.

As owner of a pro football team, the Newport Beach resident finds himself in one of the most select and sought-after clubs in the nation. Bhathal’s team is the World League’s Orlando Thunder.

“It’s really exciting,” Bhathal said. “I’ve been in business for 26 years and have been very successful and this new venture is great.”

But Bhathal is no wealthy neophyte meddling in the team’s day-to-day operations. He’s not taken to dancing on the sidelines after victories like New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, or publicly blasting players and executives like George Steinbrenner of the New York Yankees.


“I would be happy if my name would not get printed any place,” Bhathal told the Orlando Sentinel this month when denying a report that the team was for sale.

“I have no ego. I’m a private person,” Bhathal said in a recent interview. “I have hired highly professional people and let them do the job.”

In the Thunder’s case, the key person is Dick Beam, who spent 10 years as the Rams’ director of operations and is now Orlando’s CEO and general manager.

“He’s given me everything I need (financially) to get it done,” Beam said of Bhathal. “He’s been wonderful about it.”

Bhathal, 50, who immigrated from India in 1962 to attend South Dakota School of Mines, founded Tustin-based Raj Manufacturing with his wife, Marta, in 1968, and built the firm into one of the nation’s largest swimwear manufacturers.

In 1990, Bhathal, a Ram season ticket-holder and ardent pro football fan, had read about the NFL’s plans to back and establish an international spring developmental league. With the assistance of his friend and then-neighbor Paul Bartelt, a former Raider front-office employee, Bhathal began seeking a franchise and the best place to locate it.


Bhathal first sought a team in California, but the Sacramento Surge, the state’s only franchise, went to Sacramento developer Fred Anderson.

Forced to look elsewhere, Bhathal encountered three Pro Football Hall of Fame members during his search. The first was Tom Landry, who for 29 years was the only coach the Dallas Cowboys ever had, and was seeking to invest in the San Antonio franchise.

“I was looking into San Antonio,” Bhathal recalled. “Tom could manage the team for us and become a partner.”

Landry eventually did become a limited partner with the Riders. Bhathal went on to have discussions with Tex Schramm, the former Cowboy president and the World League’s first president, and Raider managing general partner Al Davis.

“Al Davis said, ‘Raj, if I were you, I would put a team in New York or Los Angeles and the third best is Florida, and if I were you, I would go tomorrow to Florida,’ and that’s what I did,” said Bhathal, who was also buoyed by a World League study that showed that Orlando was the best marketing opportunity in the league. “I thought Orlando was a much better town and had a much better stadium (than San Antonio.)”

Bhathal was introduced as the team’s owner on Nov. 28, 1990. The Orlando Sentinel reported he originally owned 70% of the franchise, whose total cost was $11 million. Bhathal has since bought out one of the minority owners, Donald Dizney.


The Thunder had many obstacles to overcome in 1991, its first season. One was the ghosts of start-up pro football teams of the past--the World Football League’s Florida Blazers and the U.S. Football League’s Orlando Renegades. Burned in the past, fans took a wait-and-see attitude about this latest venture.

Another problem was the 70,000-seat Florida Citrus Bowl created little urgency to purchase season or advance tickets.

Because they were not from Orlando, Bhathal and Bartelt, who relocated to Florida and became a part-owner and director of operations, found a cool reception in the city. A perception that continues in some circles today.

“No one would miss (Bhathal and Bartelt) if they left,” a former employee said.

Said Bartelt: “Everybody who meets Raj thinks he’s great. It’s been difficult for Raj because he is from Southern California and maintains his business and residence there. This is a small town and it’s difficult for somebody outside of Orlando to break in with some of the local people because he doesn’t spend a lot of time here.”

Bhathal flies in for the home games and participates in a league-wide conference call each Monday. He estimated that he spends about 20% of his time on Thunder business.

“As long as you have proper management there and with the technology we have, you can run a business from anywhere in the world over the phone,” Bhathal said, adding that he cannot move to Florida because of his Southern California business commitments.


On the field last season, the Thunder won its first two games, lost its next five, and won its last three, finishing 5-5, which was good enough for a tie for the North American East Division championship, but the New York/New Jersey Knights advanced to the playoffs on the basis of its victory over the Thunder. Orlando averaged 19,018 fans.

During the off-season, six of the original eight front-office employees were dismissed. General Manager Lee Corso returned to ESPN, as provided for in his contract, and was replaced by Beam.

Coach Don Matthews left for a reported $200,000 raise for a similar position with the Canadian Football League’s Saskatchewan Rough Riders. Galen Hall, an assistant coach who had been the University of Florida’s head coach, was promoted to succeed Matthews.

Bhathal, Beam and Bartelt have tried to bolster the franchise’s image. Bhathal, who is on UC Irvine’s Executive Round Table and several other campus organizations and was a founder of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, became a trustee with United Arts of Central Florida, the umbrella support group for cultural activities in the region.

Bartelt has joined the boards of several civic and charitable organizations and Beam has gone out on “the chicken circuit,” spreading the gospel of Thunder football.

With their 13-10 victory over the Barcelona Dragons Saturday, Orlando completed the 1992 regular season as division champion. With an 8-2 record, the Thunder shared the league’s best mark with Sacramento. Orlando will play host to the Birmingham Fire in a playoff game Saturday or Sunday.


But in part because of factors outside its control, the Thunder has again struggled at the gate, averaging 16,522 for five home games.

“There’s no question it’s a growing process as far as establishing a new business,” Rose said. “While Raj would be the first to admit that he came into the league without previous football experience, I think he’s learned a lot in the last two years.”