To be a champion ...

The secret behind the big-league success of a Robert Kraft or a John Henry isn't just savvy leadership. It's setting out to win. Quickly.

Email|Print| Text size + By Beth Healy
Globe Staff / March 2, 2008

In major-league sports, it doesn't take long for owners to show their true colors: They either have what it takes to win - or they don't.

Boston fans have seen this up close. The Boston Celtics, in their sixth year of new ownership, can smell championship in the air for the first time in two decades. John Henry and Tom Werner took just three years to lead the Red Sox to their first victory in 86 years. Robert Kraft earned his first Super Bowl ring within eight years of buying the New England Patriots.

The common thread: These success stories have all been written under new owners.

In professional sports, an owner's commitment to winning right out of the gate counts, according to a Globe compilation and analysis of championships won by the last two rounds of owners for every team in the four major US sports leagues. If new owners don't win a championship within five to eight years of buying a team, depending on the sport, their chances of ever doing so decline dramatically, the Globe found. Many will never win.

Kraft claimed his first championship in precisely the median time it has taken other football owners to win - eight years. For baseball, basketball, and hockey, the median time to win the big trophy is five years, the data show. The largest slice of winning owners earn their victories within five years.

Take baseball, with its 30 teams, for example. Among 59 current and immediate past owners, seven won a World Series within five years of buy ing a team. After that, a handful of victories are sprinkled over four decades. And 38 owners have never won (not counting nine who have owned teams for less than five years).

The odds are surprisingly similar in the other major-league sports. It turns out that an owner's impatience to deliver championships is a big factor in the results.

"From the very beginning, we were very focused on doing whatever was necessary to win," Sox co-owner Werner said in an interview. That meant dispatching Theo Epstein to make bold player decisions, from signing Curt Schilling, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and David Ortiz, he said, to trading the popular Nomar Garciaparra. It meant spending $100 million on Fenway Park to add seats and bring in more revenue to spend on the team. And it meant developing a vibrant farm system to produce talent like Jonathan Papelbon and Jacoby Ellsbury.

The Globe and 17 percent of the Red Sox are owned by The New York Times Co.

Werner acknowledges he made "rookie mistakes" during his tenure with the San Diego Padres in the early 1990s. He was criticized for trading away talent to save money and meddling in decisions about players. Other owners have been distracted by efforts to build a new stadium, to run a concessions business, or to oversee multiple teams at once.

"In San Diego, I didn't realize that you really need to win," Werner said. "Winning takes care of a lot of problems."

Indeed, winning helps owners fill seats, make money, and attract talent. But many of them can't seem to pull it off. One doesn't have to look far to be reminded of Boston's slew of losing teams. The Yawkeys couldn't capture a World Series in seven decades. Paul Gaston took over the Celtics from his father in 1992 and left the previously dominant franchise winless for a decade. And Jeremy Jacobs, with the longest tenure of any owner in hockey, has no Stanley Cup to show for 33 years at the helm of the Boston Bruins.

Jacobs, in an interview, said, "We had the experience of getting real close but never really winning it." That was early on. As for why the team hasn't won in so long, he admitted, "the organization probably got a little old and got a little less performance-directed."

For fans, that has meant frustration. And the chances of improving are slim under the current ownership. Among recent owners in hockey who've won championships, they all did it within 15 years or less.

Of course, some owners sell after failing to win for a long period. Others, like Cablevision magnate and Madison Square Garden owner James Dolan, hang on because they count their success in dollars, not in trophies. His New York Rangers and New York Knicks have disappointed fans with poor performance for more than a decade now.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College and a sports specialist, said, "Very often, owning a sports team is simply a vehicle for very wealthy owners to promote their other assets."

Jacobs owns concessionaire and entertainment company Delaware North Cos. and the TD Banknorth Garden, where his Bruins play. For him, hockey is just a small part of a business empire. Indeed, failing to win championships hasn't hindered his ability to make money; the Bruins he bought for $10 million in 1975 were valued at $243 million by Forbes last year, making them the NHL's seventh-most valuable franchise.

Jacobs claims he and his son Charlie are focusing more on the team now than at any time in the past. Jeremy Jacobs says he has confidence in general manager Peter Chiarelli to assemble a competitive team, after moving longtimer Harry Sinden out of the job and firing Mike O'Connell after that. Last fall, the owners hired Hall of Famer Cam Neely, the former Bruins power forward, as vice president.

"I'm very, very positive about this group," Jacobs said. "I'm also humbled by the fact that I have to perform, and I have to perform well, and in this city where we're so accustomed to success, that I'm performing below that."

As for whether the team and fans would be better served by a new owner, Jacobs said, "They're not going to experience that change."

Zimbalist, the Smith professor, said he wouldn't rule out longtime owners winning a championship after a long drought. But he sees a key similarity among owners who do win.

"One of the things that's common to [Yankees owner George] Steinbrenner, and common to Werner and Henry, and other successful owners - and I think to some extent the Krafts - is that they were successful early on," Zimbalist said. "They saw the payoff that success can have and they stuck to that strategy."

If statistics are any guide, the Celtics are hitting their stride just in time. Wyc Grousbeck and Stephen Pagliuca bought the Celtics midseason, at the end of 2002. This is their fifth year as owners, operationally, which puts them right at the median timeframe for winning a title.

After trading every player but Paul Pierce, the Celtics owners last year ponied up $105 million for Kevin Garnett's five-year contract, giving up young talent as part of the deal, and further bolstered their bet with shooting guard Ray Allen. The trades pushed them over the salary cap, costing them money in taxes to the league, and is an indication, they say, of their dedication to winning.

"To do what it takes to win it, you've got to take some risk," Pagliuca said in an interview. In this case, that meant pulling out the wallet to bring in a star. It's virtually impossible to win an NBA championship without a dominant player to lead a strong supporting cast; the Lakers did it with Shaquille O'Neal, the Chicago Bulls had Michael Jordan, and the San Antonio Spurs have dominated with Tim Duncan.

Asked whether they felt pressure to pull the trigger this year, Pagliuca and Grousbeck hedge. They are in it for the long haul, they insist, and are willing to be patient. But they make clear that their chief goal in buying the team was to win a championship.

"That's the only reason we did it," Pagliuca said.

Owners argue that winning championships is no simple matter of ambition. Each sport has its hurdles, from football's hard salary cap, free agency, and revenue sharing to basketball's guaranteed long-term contracts and superstar requirement. Baseball grapples with free agency and the lack of a hard salary cap that gives rich teams an edge over teams of more modest means. Hockey is swimming in financial chaos, with its ill-conceived expansion and lack of lucrative television contracts.

Reaching the top in sports requires brains and money, almost everyone agrees, plus a knack for hiring great managers and a willingness to take risks. After that, luck plays a role, owners and sports analysts say.

Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks boss known for his ambition and commitment to winning, believes the only thing separating him from a title is luck.

"There is no template," Cuban said. "If there were, everyone would follow it. It takes equal parts brains and luck."

Cuban has come painfully close to winning a championship in his nine seasons owning the team. In season seven, his Mavericks made it to the finals but lost to the Miami Heat. That was 2006, and Heat owner Micky Arison did what few in the modern era do - win a championship after 11 years at the helm. Arison had the star power to do it: Shaq and high-scoring guard Dwyane Wade.

Among the 30 current NBA owners, and the 27 before them, 10 have won championships. (Some of those have won multiple times.) Half grabbed their first title within five years. Two did it in six or seven years. Three pulled it off in 11 to 15 years.

In an e-mail exchange, Cuban defied the notion time was working against him. And last month, he showed he's willing to battle the odds, by acquiring All-Star point guard Jason Kidd from the Nets. The deal cost him two future first-round draft picks and several players.

Citing a number of key moves that have given the Lakers, Pistons, and Spurs a leg up, Cuban said, "There are 27 other teams working hard to reach their level of smart and lucky. None of which has a time limit."

Beth Healy can be reached at

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