Gaming tribes should buy a professional sports team

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The revenue generated by many gaming tribes has exceeded all expectations. Although not every tribe has received a "windfall" from gaming, the more successful of them are certainly in a better financial position than ever before. As we've often discussed in this space, numerous gaming tribes have invested their casino profits in other businesses, both to diversify their revenue streams and to expand economic opportunities for tribal members. Tribally owned businesses include automobile dealerships, fuel distributorships, newspapers, convenience stores and a host of others.

One area, however, that has yet to see significant Indian participation is professional sports, particularly in the ownership of teams. Sure, there have been and still are talented Indian athletes, ranging from the legendary Jim Thorpe, who excelled in baseball, football and the Olympics, to current sportsmen like golfer Notah Begay (Navajo), hockey player Chris Simon (Ojibwe) and hockey coach Ted Nolan (Ojibwe).

Of course, the sport of lacrosse is of native origin; many players of Indian heritage compete at the highest collegiate levels and currently play in professional outdoor and indoor leagues. The Haudenosaunee Confederacy of upstate New York fields a world-class team called the Iroquois Nationals, which since 1983 has competed against the national squads from the U.S., Canada and other lacrosse-playing countries. In the 1999 world championships at Adelaide, Australia, the team placed third, a very admirable finish, given the respective population bases that the Nationals and their competitors draw from.

So it's not as if Indian athletes are strangers to the playing field. But perhaps due to the relatively recent development of Indian financial capability, we have yet to see a native-owned pro sports franchise. With the continued explosion of major and minor league sports in the U.S., opportunities to acquire a franchise in any number of professional leagues abound. Perhaps we'll soon see a tribe, or a group of tribes buying into the professional sports world. It's an idea whose time may be coming.

Owners of major league teams are an elite group. Many of them have already made their fortunes elsewhere; they generally buy into pro sports for the prestige of team ownership rather than to make more money. What better way for Native Americans to say, "we've arrived" than to acquire a professional team and join this prestigious club?

Casinos are and always will be controversial, but pro sports are an integral part of modern American culture. Certainly, the financial outlay involved in acquiring a team would be enormous, but the savvy businessman can always find a deal. Although a marquee franchise like the Washington Redskins pro football team, which changed hands a few years back for roughly $800 million, is probably out of the question (although wouldn't it be something for a Native owner to acquire the team and change it's name?) potential bargains do exist.

For example, former baseball star Cal Ripken last year purchased a Class A baseball team in Utica, N.Y. for a reported $3 million. This may seem like a large sum for a lower-level minor league team, but it pales in comparison with the investments required to get into other businesses.

Consider also the Buffalo Sabres, a National Hockey League club that is currently for sale. Its owner's financial problems recently caused the league to assume day-to-day control of the team, The Buffalo News, citing unnamed sources, speculated recently that the team could sell for $85 to $90 million. NHL teams with the highest payrolls spend roughly $60 million annually on player salaries; the Sabres' current payroll is in the $35 million range. Indeed while hockey players' salaries continue to rise, they do remain lower than those of athletes in the other major professional sports.

Of course there are other expenses as well, such as advertising and marketing costs, and leasing a stadium or arena for the team to play in. But what's to stop a tribe from building its own athletic facility? Connecticut's Mohegan tribe built a 10,000-seat arena that has hosted boxing matches and women's pro basketball games.

With most professional leagues, a high percentage of existing franchise owners must approve any newcomer wishing to buy in. It's anybody's guess as to whether an Indian-led ownership group would be accepted into the elite world of team owners. But money does talk; a tribe or coalition of tribes with its finances in order and a place to play could be a legitimate contender to join the ranks of pro sports franchise owners.

Getting back to the Sabres, let's hypothetically imagine that a tribal consortium buys the team. The new ownership could conceivably bring back Nolan who, unwilling to accept management's contract offer, left the team in 1997 after winning the NHL's coach of the year award and leading the Sabres to a division championship. The team could then "stock up" on talented Native players, much as the roster of the Montreal Canadiens has traditionally been dominated by players of French-Canadian origin. This is not to say that players of other ethnicity would be excluded; such a policy would be discriminatory and plain foolish. But such a Native-owned team could become a rallying-point for Native peoples across the U.S. and Canada. As such, "Indian country's team" would have a lot more legitimacy than, for example, the Atlanta Braves' or Dallas Cowboys' spurious claims of being "America's team."

Diversification of economic prowess into businesses other than casinos is crucial in continuing to nurture tribal economic power, potential and self-sustainability. The professional sporting world offers opportunities, both economic and social, that should not be discounted. The symbolism of a Native-owned team could bring additional visibility to the mascot issue as well, highlighting the derogatory connotation of names like "Indians" and "Redskins."

It is well within the realm of the imagination that tribal success in the realm of casino games could bring expansion into the world of athletic games. Let the games begin!