SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Careerspeople

Orioles’ COO finds that sports career comes with a spotlight

As might be expected of a career banker, Joe Foss is not unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, with financial transactions involving enormous sums.

So it was neither the cost nor the operational demands of owning a Major League Baseball franchise that got Foss' attention when he became chief operating officer of the Baltimore Orioles nearly a decade ago. It was the media scrutiny and intensity of the day-to-day job that impressed him when Foss made an unanticipated transition from the CEO of an established Washington, D.C.-area bank to the Orioles' front office.

"If you look at professional sports, you're basically running what would be described as middle-market companies," Foss said. "Most MLB and NBA team revenues are between $100 million and $200 million, and sports executives are in the media 365 days a year.

Foss

"As a contrast, in the banking business, where we had billions of dollars of loans affecting thousands of employees, anything we did was rarely in the media."

That Foss is today broadly characterized as a "baseball executive" is a misnomer that he freely acknowledges. After all, he worked for more than two decades deep in the trenches of the regimented world of banking.

"I don't feel I have a background or am qualified to make player personnel decisions, but I work on the contracts and financial aspects of the player personnel decisions," Foss said.

"Baseball executives have developed talent evaluation as a critical component. But they generally haven't had the background of management and financial planning. We can both contribute to each other, trying to make the team in the front office as strong as the team on the field."

Foss said he was a casual follower of the game while he gradually ascended the hierarchy of Minneapolis-based commercial bank Norwest Corp. The closest his duties took him to the sports entertainment industry was in the early 1980s when Norwest Bank became involved in financing some of Minnesota's pro franchises: the NHL North Stars, the MLB Twins and the NFL Vikings.

"I was the guy who turned down the financing by our bank for the Minnesota Timberwolves when they were first coming into existence," Foss said. "I did not think the Minnesota public would support an NBA team long term."

Foss accepted the president/CEO post with First American Bank in 1989. Within a few years, he became acquainted with Peter Angelos and his law firm, a client of First American.

Foss was brought on as a consultant in June 1993 when Angelos decided to buy the Orioles. Angelos' bid of $173 million gave him and his fellow investors the Orioles, and the distinction at the time of paying more for a pro sports team than any owners in history. A decade later, Forbes magazine assigns a valuation to the franchise of $310 million.

Given the high stakes of ownership, Foss cautions executives to be prepared for the media attention and 24/7 work demands they will face when contemplating opportunities in professional sports.

"This is a serious business," said Foss, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the Orioles. "It is other people's recreation, [and] an escape from day-to-day activities. Yet for those of us that are in the business, it is a full-time, focused endeavor to produce meaningful results for investors and for the communities in which we operate. It's not something that can be done casually."

Jed Hughes (jhughes@spencerstuart.com) is managing director of Spencer Stuart Sports Leadership Practices.

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