SBJ/June 9 - 15, 2003/Other News

Hot teams’ leader on hot seat?

Lou Lamoriello is president of two major league teams. One, the New Jersey Nets, has made it to the NBA Finals in both his years at the helm. The other, the New Jersey Devils, has made it to the Stanley Cup Finals three of the last four years, and won two championships during his tenure.

Why then, is there all this talk that Lamoriello may soon be out of at least one of his jobs?

Lamoriello

The answer lies in the mix of fractious politics that surround the affiliated companies that own both teams, along with Lamoriello's reputation for being a martinet who is much more concerned with enforcing his vision of internal discipline than he is with connecting with fans.

Widespread reports say that when the NBA season ends, no matter what the results of the championship series, Lamoriello will no longer be running the Nets. Someone who works for both clubs said Lamoriello's future has not been discussed by either team's board, but that no one has publicly disputed that a major leadership change could take place.

Lamoriello is arguably the best team-builder in sports today, but the most challenged when it comes to marketing them.

Neither the Nets nor Devils sold out their playoff games during the first two rounds. Despite their competitive accomplishments, both fell below the league average in regular-season attendance, playing to acres of empty seats at Continental Airlines Arena.

The Devils were borderline profitable when they were bought by Puck Holdings, an affiliate of YankeeNets, for $186 million in 2000, according to several people with knowledge of the team's finances. Now, they're widely reported to be losing $10 million to $20 million a season, as payroll growth has outpaced revenue.

Both the Nets and Devils had microscopic cable television ratings this season, averaging a 0.4 rating, or 28,000 homes, per game. Across the river, the New York Rangers averaged a 1.1 rating, despite missing the playoffs for a sixth straight season.

The YankeeNets ownership group, which includes George Steinbrenner, Lewis Katz and Ray Chambers, has reportedly been feuding. One insider with close ties to both Lamoriello and the ownership group said Katz and Lamoriello don't get along and that the owners themselves don't see eye to eye on most issues. "If they were all drowning, they'd fight over what lifeboat to get into," this source said.

None of the parties involved would comment on Lamoriello's future, but Lamoriello did take up the topic of marketing the teams.

"You cannot market these teams any better than we have, from the aspect of winning and also the publicity that has been received," he said last Wednesday, just before the Nets tipped off for Game 1 of the NBA Finals and the day before the Devils would host Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals. "The moneys that have been spent [on marketing] exceed any moneys that should be allocated. You get to that point where there's not a return on the investment."

Lamoriello is widely respected for his personnel and hockey operations decisions during his 16 years as president and general manager of the Devils, as the team has won its division in five of the last seven seasons. But his personal style has spawned as much criticism as praise. For example, he won't allow team employees to place photos of their spouses or loved ones on their desks. Behind his back, Nets employees reportedly refer to him as "Tal-Lou-ban," likening him to the religious zealots who ran Afghanistan.

Said to be paternalistic and controlling, Lamoriello even told the Devils where they could and could not take the Stanley Cup after they won it in 2000, said an agent for a Devils player.

League officials quietly admit to great frustration in trying to get Lamoriello to participate in any leaguewide initiatives.

The in-arena presentation at Continental Airlines Arena is a point of distress for both the NHL and NBA, and the NBA reportedly took over that function for the Nets in the late rounds of the playoffs during the last two years.

Raising the profile of stars such as Jason Kidd of the Nets and Martin Brodeur of the Devils runs against Lamoriello's philosophy, leaving two of the best athletes in the world in their respective sports in relative obscurity.

While the Nets and Devils may indeed put dollars behind their community outreach, running television commercials, posting billboards and placing print ads to support ticket sales (even during the playoffs, despite the embarrassment that brought), the teams don't appear to have ever connected with the population of New Jersey.

Theories abound as to why — some assail the location and environs of the 30-year-old Continental Airlines Arena, others say that most New Jersey residents have little local pride and more affinity to the New York teams — but much of the blame ultimately is pinned on Lamoriello, fairly or unfairly.

"I have the utmost respect for Lou Lamoriello as a team operations guy; however, I don't think he has any interest in marketing," said sports marketing veteran Frank Vuono, who has been a Devils season-ticket holder since the team moved to New Jersey in 1982. "I think he believes if you win, you sell tickets."

As long as there are empty seats at the Meadowlands, Lamoriello will face criticism. And as long as his teams rack up wins, he'll have a powerful defense.

"The prime focus is winning," he said. "I hope a lot of teams continue [to focus more on marketing]. Those teams are losing more money than we ever think of losing."

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