Thursday, September 27, 2007

Obit – the last of a dying breed William “Dollar Bill” Wirtz

The dead should be mourned and respected at least in the hours and days after their passing. Wednesday, one of the worst owners’ professional sports history Bill Wirtz, the longtime owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, passed away. It would be an understatement to suggest Wednesday was a great day for fans of the Blackhawks, nonetheless Wirtz deserves to be respected and remembered for the good he brought to the National Hockey League. At the same time it’s only fair to look at both sides of the coin, and when it came to Bill Wirtz there was two sides of the coin – the good Bill Wirtz and the bad Bill Wirtz.

Along with being the President of the Chicago Blackhawks, Mr. Wirtz was the Chairman of Wirtz Beverage Group, President of Wirtz Corporation and Wirtz Realty, Director of First Security Trust and Savings Bank, and Chairman of the South Miami Bank Corporation. Mr. Wirtz also served as a Director of U.S. Bank Corporation and Alberto Cluver.

A 1950 graduate of Brown University, Mr. Wirtz took his place alongside his father Arthur and brother Michael when the family purchased the Chicago Blackhawks in 1954. In 1966, Mr. Wirtz was named President of the Chicago Blackhawks, a title he maintained for 41 years.

Mr. Wirtz served as Chairman of the Board of Governors of the National Hockey League for 18 years and was responsible for negotiating the merger between the NHL and the World Hockey Association in the late 1970’s as well the expansion of the league. Known as a man of his word, Mr. Wirtz was also a member of the National Hockey League’s Executive Committee.

No one did more for hockey on both the professional and amateur levels than Mr. Wirtz. He served on both the 1980 and 1984 Winter Olympic Committees. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Team captured the Gold Medal at Lake Placid. For his efforts on both the professional and amateur levels, Mr. Wirtz was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1976, was the recipient of the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1978 and was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1985.

Under the guidance of Mr. Wirtz, Chicago Blackhawk Charities was established in 1993. Since that time, Blackhawk Charities has donated over $7.5 million to worthy causes in the Chicagoland area such as Boys and Girls Clubs, Cathedral Shelter, Miseracordia Homes, the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, the Chicago Blackhawk Alumni Association, and the Amateur Hockey Association of Illinois (AHAI). Mr. Wirtz also donated both the Chicago Stadium and the United Center to host the Blackhawk Cup, the annual High School Boys and Girls State Championship Game, over the past 20 years.

Mr. Wirtz was also the driving force behind building the United Center which opened in 1994. This was not an easy decision for a man who literally grew up in the old Chicago Stadium. As difficult a decision as this was, Mr. Wirtz recognized the necessity for change. Together with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, he succeeded in constructing the United Center, a state-of-art arena and one of the finest buildings in the country.

Mr. Wirtz was most proud of the fact that the United Center was financed with private funds and without taxpayer dollars. Mr. Wirtz was most proud of developing the Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Sports Program at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. This program was near and dear to his heart as it was named after his mother, Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz. Along with continuing to fund this program, Mr. Wirtz was a model humanitarian and many of the good deeds he did for people and organizations throughout the community went unnoticed by design.

“Bill Wirtz was a giant presence in a giant city – his beloved Chicago – and an even greater presence in the National Hockey League. His 41 years as President of the Blackhawks and 18 years as Chairman of the Board leave an incomparable legacy of contributions to the game and to the League. His strength, intelligence, character and passion have been ingrained indelibly in the Blackhawks, in the League and in me. Bill was a true icon and a great competitor.

“While a fan of the game, first and foremost, Bill was a staunch advocate of philanthropic work in the community. Bill gave so much of himself to so many people without hesitation. He touched countless lives in countless ways.

“On behalf of the Board of Governors and the entire NHL family, I send heartfelt condolences to his wife, Alice, to his children – Rocky, Gaily, Karey, Peter and Alyson – and all the other members of the Wirtz family. Bill will be dearly missed.”-NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman

“It is a sad day in hockey. We have lost a great owner and a great steward of the sport. Bill carried his passion for the game and for his team with him everywhere he went."

"No one did more for hockey on both the professional and amateur levels than he did. He will always be remembered as a dedicated leader in the sport and for the legacy he has left in his community, especially his humanitarian efforts through his foundation."
"On behalf of all of the owners of the National Hockey League, our hearts are with his family on this difficult day as we all mourn the loss of our dear friend."-Jeremy Jacobs, owner of the Boston Bruins and Chairman of the NHL Board of Governors

“Illinois has lost a true sports and business icon. The legacy of Bill Wirtz will live on through the numerous businesses he built, charities he funded and the thousands of Illinois residents he employed. Patti & I wish to extend our sympathies to the entire Wirtz family. They remain in our thoughts and prayers.” Statement from Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich

“Brenda and I were saddened to learn of the passing of Bill Wirtz. Bill was a good businessman, a good friend and someone who cared deeply about Illinois and, especially, Chicago.

Bill and I worked together to bring the DNC national convention to Chicago in 1996 and I believe he will be remembered for his compassion and for his commitment to his family, his businesses, his employees and to numerous charitable causes.

Brenda and I extend our most sincere thoughts and prayers to Alice and the entire Wirtz family.” Statement from Gov. Jim Edgar

“Bill Wirtz was a giant of a man whose passing leaves a tremendous void in Chicago. It was an honor to have been his partner for over 25 years. He was a person of great integrity, loyalty and generosity.“ Statement from Jerry Reinsdorf

The unedited comments and obit from the Chicago Blackhawks – but is that the real Bill Wirtz, or is there more to the story?

Wirtz had a reputation for stubbornness and frugality. He was vilified by Blackhawks fans for forbidding Blackhawks home games to be shown on TV and for allowing Bobby Hull to leave the Blackhawks. Wirtz was also blamed for the loss of both Dominik Hasek and Ed Belfour, the sacrilegious trade of Chris Chelios to Detroit (in actuality, Chelios asked to be traded and gave approval to then-General Manager Bob Murray when told Detroit was the most interested team), the lopsided trade of Jeremy Roenick and lastly the 1967 trade of a young Phil Esposito.

Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita are so embittered by Wirtz's cheapness that they will have nothing to do with the franchise. Wirtz was also blamed for the Blackhawks Stanley Cup drought, which is the longest in the NHL and the longest in team history.

Under the ownership of Wirtz, the Chicago Blackhawks were named by ESPN in 2004 as the worst franchise in sports.

ESPN has ranked Wirtz as the 3rd greediest owner in all of sports. In February of 2004, ESPN The Magazine published results of a nationwide survey ranking 121 professional sports franchises from the NBA, NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball. The criteria the fans voted on included "Bang for the Buck", "Fan Relations", "Ownership", "Affordibility", "Stadium Experience", "Players", "Coach/Manager", and "Championships".

It came as no surprise to Blackhawks fans their team finished dead last. And who did Blackhawks fans blame – Bill Wirtz.

But that is only the beginning of the anger Blackhawks fans have towards Wirtz. One of the more popular Blackhawks fan related websites – “He single handedly put hockey on life-support in Chicago. And that, my friends, seemed to trump all today.”

Longtime Chicago Sun Times columnist Jay Mariotti was incensed Wednesday evening at “Wirtz celebrators” those reveling in the death of Bill Wirtz.

“There are days when I'm ashamed to work in the Chicago sports media. Wednesday was one such day. On both sports radio stations - neither exactly busting out with big ratings when the Sun-Times' Bob Feder reports on them every quarter - I detected a celebratory mood in the air about the passing of Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz.

“Yes, Wirtz wasn't a popular man. Yes, the Hawks might have a chance to get with the times and have success as new leadership takes over. Yes, he seemed more keen on fighting the players' union than winning hockey games. But have some perspective and decency in the wake of a man's death. Unfortunately, perspective and decency never have been trademarks of Sick Puppy Radio in this town.

“On WMVP-AM, the lead afternoon host implored listeners to call with their choices on other local sports people they wouldn't be sorry to see pass on. Personally, my first selection in any such poll would be Osama bin Laden or someone of his ilk, and I'd like to applaud the station's listeners for not responding with much zeal to the question.”

And as much as others might want to run and hide from this profile – the Wall Street Journal served up Wirtz on a platter the week of April 16, 2007.

The National Hockey League made it to the front page of the Wall Street Journal this week, for all the wrong reasons. In an article titled “The Wirtz Curse: Why Chicago Fans
Trash Blackhawks” Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Belkin painted as terrible a picture of a professional sports team owner as has ever been offered in one of America’s most respected publications. In the many years the Blackhawks and the Chicago Bulls shared the Chicago Stadium it was the Blackhawks and not the Bulls who filled the historic and now demolished arena. The United Center may be the house that Jordan Built but it’s the arena where the Blackhawks can’t sell tickets. The Blackhawks averaged 12,727 or just 62 percent of their available inventory. The NHL remains a gate driven league and when you are not selling tickets you’re losing money.

According to The Wall Street Journal: in a recent ESPN survey of 80,000 sports fans, the Blackhawks ranked 118th out of 121 professional sports franchises. Under the category of ownership, defined as honesty and loyalty to players and city, the fans ranked Mr. Wirtz second-lowest, above only Jeffrey Loria of major-league baseball's Florida Marlins.

What should be of even greater concern a report earlier this month in The Chicago Tribune suggested the half empty United Center includes thousands of tickets being given away for free by the Blackhawks through numerous promotions, including an e-mail campaign that put top-notch freebies the length of a hockey stick from the ice.

"It's called papering the house," said Barry Melrose, a former NHL player and now a hockey analyst for ESPN. "I'm not surprised they are doing it. It's been a terrible period for the Blackhawks. People are frustrated and angry, and the fans are showing it the only way they can, by staying away."

One fan told the Tribune: "I bought 40 tickets for $3.06 each," said 25-year-old Jason, a part-time ticket broker and full-time culinary student. That small sum accounted for the fees Ticketmaster charged to process the seats.

These weren't in the nosebleeds, either.

"I had two in Section 119 four rows up from the glass," said Jason, who resold those tickets on for $30 each. Face value on those tickets: $80. Yes the Chicago Blackhawks according to the published report are giving tickets to brokers for nothing. That isn’t “insult to injury”, its sheer stupidity. The Blackhawks are devaluing their entire ticket inventory. It will take the franchise years to recover from how they’re running their business operation.

"We're just trying to put some butts in the seats," said Peter Hassen, the Blackhawks manager of advertising and promotions. "We've had our ups and downs this year, and the fans haven't been supporting us as much as we'd like."

Another recent promotion was with radio station WCKG-FM 105.9. Members of that station's VIP club were offered free tickets for their birthdays instead of the usual box of doughnuts.

"Probably close to 100 or 150 people took advantage of that," Hassen said.

But the giveaway that has drawn the most attention started with an e-mail sent to recent ticket buyers, not season ticket-holders.

"We offered two free tickets to those fans who supported us in the past," Hassan said. "We gave them a password they could use on Ticketmaster to get the free tickets."

A few days after the Wall Street Journal report The Toronto Star’s Rick Westhead broke a report that Wirtz was prepared to sell his interests in the Blackhawks if there was a change in the leadership of the National Hockey League Players Association and that “adjustment” included leadership that mirrored former NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow.

Goodenow led the NHLPA into a year long lockout that ended with NHL owners negotiating a salary cap directly tied to hockey generated revenues. Wirtz who for many years was the Chairman of the NHL Board of Directors battled the NHLPA for years over the escalation of salaries. Dollar Bill never wanted to pay his players a dollar more than he had too and the thought of the NHLPA going back to the future drove Wirtz to the brink.

"If the union hired someone like Bob, who just says your lying whenever you say you're losing money, I'd put the team up for sale," Wirtz said to Westhead at the time. "And I think that might cause other owners to look at their own investments."

According to the Toronto Star report, Wirtz who owned the Blackhawks for 40 years, lost $191 million in the last 10 years he owned the Blackhawks -- $31 million during the last NHL season alone.

“If you put a gun to my head, I wouldn't buy an NHL team right now, and that includes my own team," Wirtz told The Hockey News in 2003 before the lockout that whipped out the 2004-05 season.

Sports marketer Marc Ganis, of Sportscorp Ltd. in Chicago, told the Wall Street Journal for their April cover story Wirtz "decided the economic structure of the NHL was lunacy long before the other owners. He was the sane man in an insane crowd." By the time owners locked out players, resulting in the cancellation of the 2004-05 season, player salaries accounted for an unsustainable 75% of team revenue, Mr. Ganis says.

Wirtz was widely credited -- or blamed -- for leading the lockout. Leading up to the lockout, Hockey News quoted Mr. Wirtz as saying, "The players keep wanting more and more. Pretty soon they'll want the key to my door. I love them all. But I love my door even more."

“He holds a public trust, a responsibility, and he's failed to live up to it," says Mark Weinberg, a Chicago attorney who spent two years researching and writing a self-published book called "Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks' Fans."

Wirtz and Weinberg had an “interesting relationship” Weinberg published a ‘fanzine’ in the years before the internet and blogging began serving sports fans. He then wrote "Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks' Fans." And Wirtz really was upset with Weinberg. Wirtz allegedly had Weinberg threatened with arrest for selling his the book outside the United Center (on public property). Weinberg filed a Federal lawsuit over the matter.

“I wrote it in 2000. ("Career Misconduct: The Story of Bill Wirtz's Greed, Corruption and the Betrayal of Blackhawks' Fans.")

“It’s an expose of Wirtz’s crimes and corruptions over the course of his career. There’s litigation surrounding the book. When I wrote it in 2000 I wanted to sell it to disgruntled Blackhawk patrons outside the United Center. So from Dec. 27, 2000, to Feb. 14, 2001, I sold it outside the arena. But on Valentine’s Day three undercover cops told me I couldn’t sell it on public sidewalks because I was violating Chicago’s anti-peddling ordinance. I left that night but came back two days later thinking there’s no way they’ll harass me two nights in a row. But they threatened to arrest me, so I left.”

Owning a sports franchise for 4 decades is a very long time. Bill Wirtz experienced the full spectrum of the sports industries evolution in the last 40 years. He began his days as an NHL owner in a period when the owners had total control and never really adjusted to changes in the sports industry when the pendulum swung the other way. Bill Wirtz may have understood what it was to be an NHL owner in the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s but he wasn’t ready when the players seized control of their rights in the 1990’s. You can say whatever you’d like about anyone but once they stop recognizing the changes their business is undergoing they become a poor manager and owner of their business.

Bill Wirtz never and that should read NEVER understood where the sports industry was in the last 15 to 20 years. His steadfast belief that televising his teams’ home games would hurt his teams’ attendance never made any sense. Add in how important broadcast revenues are to sports franchises today and the scope of how out-of-date an owner Bill Wirtz had becomes even more apparent.

That is in no way to suggest Bill Wirtz was a bad man. Having never met the man personally it’s not fair to judge the man’s character. But as the owner of a major North American sports franchise there is no excuse whatsoever for how out-of-touch with reality Bill Wirtz was. Everyone deserves to be respected and Bill Wirtz did more good than bad in his life, but at the end of the day he ceased to be an effective sports owner 20 years ago and the fans of the Chicago Blackhawks paid a terrible price. Respect and honor Bill Wirtz but its time to revive a once great sports franchise nearly killed by its now late owner Bill Wirtz.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom

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