Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander may think he’s selling his team. But fans feel it really belongs to them.
By Claudia Feldman
At first glance, businessmen Les Alexander and Drayton McLane don’t have much in common.
Alexander, 73, is a former bond trader from New Jersey, Jewish, a liberal, a vegetarian, an animal rights advocate. Fellow billionaire McLane, 80, is a Southern Baptist, a lifelong Texan, a conservative, a steak lover.
And yet the two men are old friends, and McLane is watching with empathy as Alexander begins the process of selling his Houston Rockets.
McLane sold his professional sports team, the Houston Astros, when he, too, was in his mid-70s. “I just felt it was time,” said McLane in a telephone call phone from Amsterdam, recalling his own decision to sell.
“I’d had a lot of fun — we went to the World Series and built a new stadium. But it’s kind of like getting out of college. I thoroughly enjoyed it but you can’t go to college forever.”
McLane summed up his best advice for Alexander: “I’d tell Les to make sure it’s the right time for him and his family — and to move forward.”
Tom Stallings, a professor of sports management at Rice University, predicts Alexander will be just fine, in fact, relieved when he finds a buyer. “Owners say a team is just like owning a boat,” he said. “You’ll be happiest the day you buy the boat — and the day you sell it.”
Stallings, who worked for both the Astros and the Houston Aeros early in his career, has been a close observer of Houston’s professional sports team owners for decades.
They spend millions, even billions for a team, Stallings said, and assume a huge financial risk. But in the eyes of the fans, owners are only “caretakers. It’s not the owner’s team, but the city’s team.”
McLane would have to agree, though he described his old job a little bit differently. “It’s like being a mayor or a senator who is responsible to the fans,” he said. “You can’t just look at a sports team as if you bought a piece of real estate that is yours and you can do what you want with it. The fans, the citizens are totally involved, and owners have to be concerned about the things that are important to them.”
Stallings said both Alexander and McLane more than met those obligations. They supported dozens of good causes around the city during their tenures, they spent generously to improve their teams and they relished contact with the players and the fans.
The diplomatic Stallings points to Bud Adams, who died in 2013, as an example of an owner less sensitive to the public’s wants and desires. When his financial demands were not met, he moved his professional football team, then the Houston Oilers, to Nashville.
The move was actually a sound business decision, Stallings said, but locals considered Adams a traitor. “Fans reacted as though their hearts had been ripped out. Instead of being beloved, he was reviled.”
Stallings acknowledges a steep learning curve for nearly all businessmen turned sports team owners and says they probably wonder, at their lowest moments, why they took on the headaches. “These owners have been successful all their lives,” Stallings said. “After a while they assume that if they work hard enough, they can be successful at anything.”
But in sports and in life, that calculation doesn’t always work. “Every year, half these teams are going to have losing records,” Stallings said. “For owners, that’s hard to understand. All those things — desire, hard work and financial investment — don’t necessarily translate to championships.”
Maybe it’s every sports fan’s dream to own a professional team. Certainly the instant notoriety holds appeal, at least at first. “Then the novelty wears off,” Stallings said. “Maybe it is no different from elected office. Eventually you say, ‘OK, I had enough.'”
“Drayton is right,” the college professor added. “Eventually it is time to graduate.”
Alexander’s decision to sell took most sports fans by surprise. He’s said little publicly except that he wants to devote more time to his family and philanthropy.
Psychologist Mary Burnside would say to Alexander what she says to all clients — and friends — considering a move away from the limelight. “Have a plan in place. Have something to look forward to. You might think that you’re able to step away, but you might find out a little bit differently later.”
Then Burnside paused to consider the money involved.
The man whose name is synonymous with the Rockets bought the team for $85 million. The sales price is anybody’s guess, but expected to hover around $2 billion.
“It sounds,” Burnside said, “like a very fortuitous time to sell.”
This article originally appeared online in Gray Matters.