Thursday, June 16, 2005

And the winners are...

Since I already profiled the worst organizations in sports it’s only right I comment on the best. These franchises have set the bar that all other teams must reach. All have solid ownership, hire great people, they win, and they are amongst the most celebrated and imitated organizations in sports. Without further adieu…

1. New England Patriots-All you have to know is the Pats have three Vince Lombardi Trophies in four years. Only one other NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, has ever won three Super Bowls in four years. Team owner Robert Kraft was widely criticized when he hired Bill Bellichick but no one is laughing now. Bellichick is now regarded as the best coach in football and maybe one of the best ever. But that’s another argument for another day. When Kraft took over the Patriots in 1994 the team was last in the league in attendance and revenue…they’ve sold out 114 straight games since. Within three years Kraft & Co. turned around a floundering franchise and had it playing in the Super Bowl in ’96. Over the last five years the Pats have been the best team in football and one of the most profitable. In 2002 Gillette Stadium opened. What’s unique about this is the stadium is the largest privately financed venue in sports. Kraft has created the most sound business model in the NFL.

2. New York Yankees-Love ‘em or hate ‘em no one can argue that the Yankees are the most recognizable team in American sports. No other franchise can lay claim to the historical significance that is the New York Yankees. The most visible team in America’s largest city the Yankees own more professional championships than anyone in North America. Enigmatic owner George Steinbrenner has built a team that has won with almost frightening consistency. World Series champs in ’96, ’98, ’99, and 2000 the Yankees have 26 crowns. When you figure the team started in 1903 that’s a title every four years. Some of the most famous personalities in sports have played for the Yankees: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, and Lou Gehrig are but a few. As a long time baseball hater it pains me to say this but Yankee Stadium is a cathedral. No other venue in sports, save Notre Dame Stadium, has the lore and spine tingling aura of the “House that Ruth Built”. If you’re a baseball fan do yourself a favor and attend a game in the hallowed confines of Yankee Stadium and visit Monument Park, buy a Coney Island hot dog, soak in the experience, and bottle it.

3. Las Angeles Lakers-When then owner Jack Kent Cooke sold his sports empire to real estate mogul Jerry Buss the stars aligned foretelling the future of the most successful North American sports franchise of the last 25 years. Since 1980 the Lakers have won eight NBA championships with only two losing seasons and a gaudy .650+ winning percentage. They own the league records for wins by a franchise and are second in championships. Former General Manager Jerry West built one of the most enduring sports dynasties in America. Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Shaq, and Kobe Bryant were all brought in by West and cemented the mythos of the most financially valuable team in basketball. West not only made brilliant player personal moves he also hired arguably the two best NBA coaches ever. Together Pat Riley and Phil Jackson combined to coach the Lakers to seven NBA titles and twelve finals appearances. The blood feud between Kobe and Shaq has tainted the image of the Lakers but not their legacy.

4. San Antonio Spurs-The forgotten team from central Texas has racked up two NBA titles since ’99 and is well on their way to a third. Not bad for a team in one of the smallest markets on the continent. Originally an ABA franchise the Spurs were a consistently average to good team until Gregg Popovich was hired. In his eight years as head coach Popovich has led the Spurs to the playoffs every year but one. Dell Harris had the Spurs on the edge of greatness but Popovich pushed them over…with a little help from Tim Duncan and David Robinson. Since 1990 the Spurs have had one losing season, and that netted them the lottery pick that would be Duncan.

5. Manchester United-Now some will scoff at the notion of Man U on this list but if you look closely you just might learn a thing or two. According to Forbes Magazine Manchester is the most valuable sports franchise on Earth. With an estimated worth of $1.2 billion Manchester is at least $200 million more valuable than the richest team in North America, the Washington Redskins But overall worth does not paint the whole picture. Since ’93 Man U has won eight English Premier League titles. They’ve also won the UEFA Cup twice in their history. Even though the current ownership situation is in flux Manchester remains the most admired professional sports team in the world. Truly a marketing phenomenon this team’s jerseys and merchandise are coveted in nearly every country with an even timid soccer following. Manchester United is a nearly perfect marriage of marketing, team success, and financial health.

6. Denver Broncos-Pat Bowlen was recently named by ESPN as the best owner in sports. You can’t argue with his results. Bowlen purchased the team in ’85 and immediately put his brand on the Broncos. Five AFC Championships and two Super Bowl titles later the Broncos are still one of the most consistently good/great franchises in sports. In ’95 Mike Shanahan was hired as head coach and has been at or near the top in his profession ever since. John Elway went to three Super Bowls under Dan Reeves but never really had a legit chance to win until Shanahan arrived. Elway had his best statistical and most successful years with Shanny including back-to-back Super Bowls in ’97 & ’98. This team has sold out every home game since 1971 and boasts maybe the most passionate fans in all of sports. In Denver football is a religion and the deities are clad in blue and orange.

7. Detroit Red Wings-If you’re a hockey fan it is impossible to argue with the fact that the Wings have been the best team in the NHL for over a decade. Winners of the Stanley Cup in ’97, ’98, and ’02 the Red Wings have been dominant since the early 90’s. Coach Scotty Bowman directed the team to five division titles before his retirement in ‘02. All tolled since ’90 the Wings have won eight division crowns, four President’s Trophies (awarded for best record), and three Stanley Cups. The list of Red Wings alumni is staggering: Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Marcel Dione, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Federov, Chris Chelios, Domanik Hasek, and Niklas Lidstrom. As a Colorado Avalanche fan I’ve grown to hate the Dead Wings but I will not deny their achievements. What a segue…

8. Colorado Avalanche-The former Quebec Nordiques came to Denver in ’95 and the love affair began immediately. The key to their success has been Pierre Lacroix. The master of the trade deadline acquisition and free agency Lacroix has brought in superstars Patrick Roy, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Paul Kariya, and Teemu Salanne to join team stalwarts Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, and Adam Foote. The Avs hold the record for most consecutive division titles in the history of North American sports. Add to that two President’s Trophies and two Stanley Cups and you’ve got one of the most successful sports teams of the last decade. Owner Stan Kroenke bought the Avs, Denver Nuggets, and the Pepsi Center in 2000 and has directed his investments in virtual silence but with a deft touch. Known affectionately as “Silent Stanley”, Kroenke has been one of the most unobtrusive owners in sports, the direct antithesis of Steinbrenner, Jerry Jones, and Al Davis. He’s brought in good people and let them do as they wish. More so than any executive in sports Kroenke knows that he’s not part of the game.

9. Philadelphia Eagles-They’ve played in the NFC Championship four years in a row and just narrowly lost to New England in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Eagles have been a perennial playoff contender for nearly fifteen years and have finished first or second in the NFC East ten times since 1988. They also have some of the most boisterous fans around. Since Jeffrey Lurie bought the team in ’95 the Eagles have been in the playoffs eight times and have over 100 wins. Only the Green Bay Packers have more post season appearances in that time and only four other teams have as many wins.

10. Green Bay Packers-Speaking of the Packers no NFL franchise is as beloved by its fans as the Pack. The only publicly owned team in the four major sports the Packers play in the smallest media market of any other team yet they sell out every game in sun, rain, sleet, hail, snow, ice, etc. Without a doubt the Pack some of the most loyal fans in the world. With nine playoff appearances in ten years, a Super Bowl title, and a stadium that sells out like clockwork the Packers are a model of competitive and financial success. There are season ticket holders in every state and four foreign countries. The estimated wait for season tickets is 30 years. Packers’ fans aren’t going anywhere and if football is a religion in Denver in Wisconsin it’s a birth right.

Honorable mention-Dallas Mavericks, Pittsburgh Steelers, Boston Red Sox, Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat, Atlanta Falcons