The sports world lost an icon this morning when George Steinbrenner passed away. A few months back, when talking about the sports situation in DC, I reflected on Steinbrenner’s ownership style:
Having been a Yankee fan for 31 years and nine months tomorrow, I’ve been spoiled in many ways by George Steinbrenner. The once-mercurial owner has taken on a gradually lessened role in the pure baseball decisions and has relinquished much of the control of the team to his sons, but has never wavered in the Yankees’ larger organizational goal of winning championships. That means that at baseball’s trade deadline, if the Yankees need a player, they’re going to be buyers and not sellers.
For all the controversy that Steinbrenner caused, the one big idea he kept following was the idea of victory.
He was the fan’s owner. He recognized that Yankee tickets were and are expensive (and that New York is a pricey town). He recognized that Yankee fans lived, breathed, ate, and slept the Yankees. So he did the same. Sometimes that meant acting impetuously and making bad baseball decisions. But there was never a season in the Steinbrenner Era where the goal was anything less than a World Championship; from 1973 until 2010, Steinbrenner insisted that he owed the fans nothing less. And even when players, executives, coaches and managers drew Steinbrenner’s ire, the fans were consistently recognized as the reason for the franchise’s existence.
To see Steinbrenner’s impact, look at the fate of other great franchises since he took the helm of the Yankees in 1973. The Boston Celtics have been eclipsed as the NBA’s signature franchise by the LA Lakers. Green Bay was “Titletown” after the Packers dominated football in the 1960s; the Super Bowl era has seen the Cowboys, 49ers, and Patriots each take a turn as the top team. The Yankees could have suffered the same fate thanks to the losing teams that closed out the 1960’s and a the championship drought from 1978-1996. The late-1970s “Bronx Zoo” Yankees and the dominant 1996-2001 dynasty (you could argue that the 2003 team should be included) re-established the franchise’s mark – and extended what has become a 90-year winning streak with a couple of hiccups.
The Yankees do have more resources than any other baseball team – thanks in large part to their success over the past 15 years. They are currently worth $1.6 billion; Steinbrenner and his partners bought the Yankees for $10 million in 1973. In 2002, unsatisfied with what local cable networks were offering for the rights to televise games, Steinbrenner’s Yankees launched their own network. At it’s launch, the YES Network was valued at $850 million – or, to put it another way, about what the Mets are worth now.
This is not solely the product of a rich market or luck. This is the result of a man – and, by extension, an organization – that pursued excellence as best he knew how. The money, the new stadium, the cable network, and all the resources came because of that pursuit.
A politician chasing votes may say certain things to get elected; a company may say certain things to sell an inferior product. Successes earned in such ways are short lived. George Steinbrenner pursued a mission and let everything else take care of itself. In 1980 it may not have seemed like it, but today Yankee fans can appreciate how lucky they are to have had a team owner who thought with such single-minded resolve – an owner who thought like they did.