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SBJ/November 10 - 16, 2003/Forty Under 40
Published November 10, 2003
When his stepfather bought a failing Major League Baseball franchise and tapped him to run it, David Samson had his first job in sports.
Nothing on his résumé guaranteed, or even hinted, that he was prepared for it. Samson had been through law school, funded a company that provided same-day-delivery of The New York Times in Europe and worked for a Wall Street investment bank.
But the closest thing he had to previous work experience in sports was a recurring stint as an honorary assistant to legendary New York Knicks coach Red Holzman during charity games, a perk he landed because said stepfather, Jeffrey Loria, was a well-connected fan.
Now, Loria was coming to him with an offer to run the business operations of the Montreal Expos, a franchise that was bleeding money, with little chance of getting public funding for the stadium that would solve its ills.
Intrigued by an opportunity to turn his passion for sports into a career, Samson jumped at the offer.
"I wasn't sure how it would go in Montreal, but I was excited by the challenge," said Samson, who got his feet wet working on the investment banking side of Loria's purchase of the Expos. "I knew that there would be pressure on me to perform, because, even though we are family, this is not a family business.
"There's too much at stake for this to be a family business. Too much money. I had an employment contract identical to that of the other senior executives. I wasn't sure how Jeffrey would view my performance, or how long he'd keep me around, but I wanted to see what I could do."
As it turned out, not enough. Samson and Loria were unable to land funding for a new ballpark. An already ailing franchise landed on the critical list.
But an interesting thing happened on the way to financial flat line. John Henry, then the owner of the Florida Marlins, decided to buy the Boston Red Sox. That meant an opportunity for Loria to buy the Marlins, a franchise that, while also imperiled, was not facing nearly as dire a situation as Montreal. And if that could happen, it meant that MLB could set into motion the unprecedented contraction of the Expos.
It was Samson who was at the center of the complex, three-way transaction that got Loria out from under the Expos and into the owner's suite in Miami.
On his best day, Nostradamus couldn't have predicted what was to follow.
Less than two years later, the Marlins shocked the sporting world, putting up the best record in baseball for the latter three quarters of the season, then beating the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs to set the stage for an upset of the New York Yankees in the World Series. Along the way, the Marlins increased regular-season attendance by 62 percent, expanded their sponsor roster from 25 to more than 80 and turned formerly sedate Pro Player Stadium into a madhouse that regularly drew more than 65,000 during the postseason.
Next up: a push to turn the franchise's sudden popularity into funding for a new ballpark that would secure the franchise's financial future.
"It's been enormously satisfying to have the success that we've had after a very difficult first year down here," Samson said. "My greatest day in sports will be the day when Jeffrey is on the podium announcing that the Florida Marlins franchise has been permanently saved. That's what I work toward every day. Everything else is just part of trying to get there."
Samson believes that his background outside of sports paved the way for him to succeed in sports.
"I'm a much better executive than I would have been if I started right after law school," Samson said. "I sowed my oats working on Wall Street and starting a business. I use that experience every day running the Marlins. I'm sure I've made some mistakes, like anyone, but I think the experiences that I had before I got into baseball have served me well."