If there's such a thing as a consumer advocate for hockey fans, it may well be Los Angeles money manager Philip Propper.
For the last month, executives for the Los Angeles Kings have allowed the season ticket holder to review their books on behalf of the team's long-suffering fans, who have never enjoyed a Stanley Cup championship.
Propper isn't offering many hints about his findings, which will be posted in about two weeks on a popular fan-run Web site, www.letsgokings.com.
As for his improbable role as the Ralph Nader of ice hockey, the 42-year-old chartered financial analyst sees it as part of an inexorable movement in which pro sports teams are being pushed to come clean with the people they're charging $8.50 for a beer and $4,300 for season tickets.
"People are more sophisticated now, and there's too much competition for the entertainment dollar," Propper said. "You cannot ask for the fans to invest both their emotions and their cash without keeping them in the loop as to what's happening with the team."
Not only is Propper's exercise highly unusual for the Anschutz Entertainment Group, a firm that traditionally has closely guarded the details of its private ownership of the Kings and Staples Center. It also is believed to be unprecedented for a professional sports franchise in any league.
Although Major League Baseball recently released financial summaries showing that the majority of its teams were awash in red ink, it didn't allow outsiders to inspect individual franchise books. That triggered widespread skepticism about the numbers, which many believed had been rigged to justify contraction and hardball labor negotiations.
As the National Hockey League faces its own labor showdown next year, two of its teams have allowed journalists to view and report on their balance sheets. But only the Kings have agreed to let a fan take a look and issue his own findings, according to NHL officials.
King followers, a vocal lot that trusts team management about as much as it would a one-eyed referee, eagerly await the results.
"A lot of people think it's an excellent PR move by the Kings," said Mike Zampelli, a former Long Beach record store owner who runs Letsgokings.com. "A lot of people are waiting for Phil's report. Not only is he going to look at the numbers and see if they're losing money, he's going to tell why he thinks they're losing money."
In the rabid realm of King fandom, there is one big question that needs to be answered: Is the Anschutz organization just too cheap -- or too greedy -- to win?
The grumbling can be traced back to devotees who have watched the team struggle while favorites, such as defenseman Rob Blake, were traded to keep a lid on salaries. Then, the grumbling turned into catcalls after Forbes Magazine estimated last year that the Kings made $7 million a year. And the catcalls became boos when Anschutz Entertainment President Tim Leiweke, in a bid to refute that estimate, opened up cash-flow statements to The Times.
They showed that the company has lost more than $103 million since Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz bought the team in 1995. The statements also indicated that the Kings are on track to lose an additional $10 million this year.
Among those booing the loudest was Propper, a New York transplant who owns a half-share of two season tickets, 17 rows up from the visiting team's bench.
The portfolio manager and media stock analyst wrote Leiweke in January expressing his doubts about the Kings' balance sheet and offering to study it, just like he does the financial statements of AOL Time Warner Inc., Viacom Inc. and Walt Disney Co.
To Propper's surprise, Leiweke agreed.
"I thought it was a unique way of being accountable, and a reasonable request," Leiweke said.
The company's only caveat was that Propper sign a nondisclosure agreement promising to keep figures for unrelated Anschutz Entertainment entities confidential and giving the Kings final approval over the release of any specific franchise numbers. Propper may be able to use certain data, however, and is free to publish his analysis and conclusions about the team's books and business practices, King officials say.
To that end, Propper has spent 10 hours since mid-February in a place only a rink rat with an MBA in finance could enjoy.
He has scrutinized sponsor revenue, ticket pricing, luxury suite payments, concession sales, parking receipts and outside contracts with the vengeance of a team that has a one-man advantage.
"I don't want to say we pulled up every cash register tape, but I did have to get some old boxes out of storage that were several years old," said Dan Beckerman, Anschutz Entertainment's chief financial officer, adding that he has been amazed by his visitor's thoroughness.
For his part, Propper has been on the lookout for fancy financial maneuvering.
In particular, he said he was "expecting that the Kings were paying millions of dollars in consulting fees" to Anschutz Entertainment to make the team look unprofitable. At the same time, he said, Anschutz Entertainment can take advantage of a more favorable tax position when the revenue is shifted its way.
"Everybody does that," Propper said. "It's just clever tax management."
"I can't tell you what I found, but there were fewer intraparty transfers than I expected."
Propper acknowledges that his work is moving beyond a simple pronouncement about the Kings' financial health.
"It has evolved into a study on the challenges that sports franchises have in running their businesses and, more importantly, the challenges the NHL faces as the collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the 2003-2004 season," he said. "I'm uncovering a lot of issues and problems."
As Propper has toiled over the books, there have been murmurings on the fan Web site that the money manager is being either deceived or bought off by team officials.
He waves off such talk like a bad icing call, maintaining that Anschutz Entertainment has been generous with its financial documentation but nothing else.
"I pay for my tickets. I pay for my food. I pay for my beer," he said. "I have received nothing from the Kings except for four Sierra Mists."