PR 101: The Astros Could Learn a Lot From Other Houston Team Owners
Les Alexander (center) flanked by the former players who helped keep him from being completely hated by fans.
Photo by Groovehouse
Fame has a fifteen minute half-life, infamy lasts a little longer. - The Insider
Owners of sports franchises never have it easy. From Charlie Thomas to Les Alexander, John McMullen to Drayton McLane, Bud Adams to, yes, even Bob McNair, fans are ruthless and we're talking Houston, not Philadelphia or New York, where fans boo Santa Claus and throw batteries at players on the field. Losing often makes owners an easy target and our teams have lost a lot.
But when it comes to endearing yourself to the fans, the biggest problems are rarely created by on-the-field (or court) moves. Sure, the local professional teams have made more than their fair share of gaffes, but they have had successes as well. The Rockets won two titles. The Astros went to a World Series. Even the Oilers won AFL championships and made the AFC title game twice during the Luv Ya Blue era.
Still, previous local owners are nearly as famous for their off-field blunders as their bad draft picks, poor coaching or general manager hires and ridiculous trades. Now Jim Crane is having his moment and it's ugly. From the shake up in the front office to the changes in the broadcast booth to Crane's own idiotic comments in the media, and now the mess with the Houston Area Women's Center and Astros Wives Organization, the Astros owner is finding out the hard way what others before him have realized: It takes more than a winning team on the field to make the fans happy.
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(Of course, the Astros suck on the field as well, but that's another matter.)
Bud Adams is one of the most hated Houstonians of all time. He took the Oilers to Nashville after he failed to rally support for his "Bud Dome" downtown retractible roof stadium (sound familiar?). He was even willing to split the $250 million price tag with the city (for the record, Reliant Stadium cost closer to double that and the county paid for nearly all of it). But before the dreaded phrase "exclusive negotiating period" was even in our local vocabulary, there was scoreboard-gate.
The Astrodome was the world's first indoor stadium and the legacy of Judge Roy Hofheinz. Adams threatened a move long before Nashville and the county balked, agreeing to pay almost $100 million to renovate the Dome to add more seats and some additional luxury suites. The county is still to this day paying off that debt.
But, in making the renovations, it was determined the famous scoreboard with the lights and bull snorting and cowboy shooting his guns would have to go. Fans who grew up with that old-school scoreboard were livid. Many never forgave him and it certainly played a role in his inability to get a stadium deal in Houston. When he did finally move, even if he did bring football to Houston, his fate was sealed.
Les Alexander also knows the scorn of Houstonians, perhaps better than any other. The northeastern transplant always had a very different sensibility from the good-old-boy network in Houston and many labeled him a carpetbagger when he bought the Rockets. One of his first orders of business was firing Calvin Murphy. After an outcry, Murphy was reinstated, but it was never the same and Murph was run off a second time, the latter when he came under fire for allegations of molestation brought against him by his daughters -- charges that were later found to be not only false but bordering on fraudulent. It was, in retrospect, a pretty awful thing to do to someone who has contributed so much to the franchise and the city even if he wasn't universally loved as a commentator, but that was just the beginning.
Shortly after moving to Houston, Alexander and former wife Nancy were critical of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the equivalent of visiting new friends for dinner and telling them their daughter is ugly. The couple were vegetarians and such staunch supporters of animal rights organizations like PETA, they had the Power Dancers occasionally wear "Animals Have Rights" T-shirts during routines. As you might imagine, that did not win a lot of friends here in Texas.
The Rockets owner's success on the floor and willingness to do whatever is necessary to win has allowed him some leeway with fans, but many still cast an untrustworthy eye toward Toyota Center.
Crane can learn something from the failings of both his contemporaries and his predecessors (I'm sure Uncle Drayton would be more than happy to give him some pointers). These recent problems will pass, but they won't completely go away, which is why it is critical that he get someone in front of the media who won't tell fans that if they want to complain, they can pay $10 million to own a piece of the team.
Ironically, now former team president George Postolos played that very role for Alexander. He helped to turn a ten-digit loss in the 1999 arena referendum into a near landslide victory at the polls in 2000. He became the face of the Rockets during that campaign and helped protect Alexander, whose prickly, decidedly non-Texan personality didn't sit well with voters.
Unfortunately, Postolos was unable to do the same for Crane. And maybe the Astros owner just has to go through this, like a toddler who touches a burning stove before realizing that's not a smart move. Unlike the storms he weathered when he was investigated by the EEOC for charges of discrimination at his company, the Astros are a public entity and fans take ownership of the team as if it were their own. He will learn soon enough if he hasn't already to tread lightly. Fans are remarkably forgiving, but they can also make your life a living hell.