SBJ/April 11-17, 2011/People and Pop Culture

Meet Mr. Fix-It

Tony Tavares takes teams in troubled waters and sets them on course. Why he's effective, and what makes him want to do more

It was during an 8 a.m. staff meeting after a night game in Washington, D.C., in the Nationals’ first season that Tony Tavares showed his cards. As the caretaker president for a team that had abandoned Montreal and was owned by Major League Baseball, his primary assignment was to keep costs low. Increasing revenue was not important, as MLB officials knew that would happen when new ownership and a new ballpark were in place. Tavares’ focus was to watch expenses.

TIM HEITMAN
Tony Tavares' latest stop is as interim president of the Dallas Stars.
“Tony was our bottom-line guy there,’’ recalled Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business.

Still, Tavares wanted to keep tabs on the lifeblood of any team: ticket sales. So he started the early-morning meeting by asking his staffers for the prior night’s attendance figure. The team’s heads of PR, ticketing and sponsorship sales each gave different numbers – maybe because of fatigue, maybe due to all having different numbers. Never known for reticence during his years in sports, Tavares left the meeting, telling the group, “Suppose I come back to this ----ing room after a few minutes. You guys figure out the right answer. Then I’ll come back and well restart the meeting.”

Tavares calls that method “management by challenge,” a way to make his people acutely aware of the value of consistency.

“Tony’s the ultimate straightforward manager,” said Joe Hickey, Genesco Sports Enterprises director, who worked in sales with Tavares during his tenure with the Nationals. “He’s a quick study and there was never any question about where you stood with him. He will press you if he senses you’re weak. But if he sees there is talent within an organization, he lets it flourish. He’ll give you the tools and make sure that you do something with them. And he cuts through BS very quickly.”

Perhaps that is why Tavares has so easily adapted to his role as the “Mr. Fix-It of Pro Sports.” He helped MLB get through its painful years of owning the Expos/Nationals, and, since January, he has been interim president of the Dallas Stars, who were without anyone in that role after Jeff Cogen departed for the Nashville Predators in August. The Stars have also been without an owner since last April, when Hicks Sports Group defaulted on bank loans that were guaranteed by the Stars and a 50 percent interest in their home arena, American Airlines Center. A group of lenders and the NHL now administer the team and are looking to sell it.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman knew Tavares from his years running the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for Disney Sports throughout the 1990s. So when the Stars’ financial fortunes dimmed, Mr. Fix-It got the call. “When we felt a need to stabilize that franchise and put a public face on it and make sure the club was in an optimum condition for a sale, he was the first name that came to mind,” Bettman said. “He has tremendous experience, good judgment and is great at motivating an organization. Obviously, the banks involved have an important role and they were extremely comfortable with Tony, both by reputation and after having met him.”

Still, when Bettman offered Tavares the job late last year, he balked. At 61, with a home in Lake Tahoe, he was less than eager. “I’m getting fussy,” said Tavares, in a spartan office at the Stars practice rink in Frisco, Texas, “and my wife reminded me that my years with the Expos and Nationals [2002-06] started as a six-month commitment.”

But Bettman was persistent, eventually convincing Tavares that it was a challenge worth taking. Both Bettman and Tavares said there are now six active groups or individuals in various stages of due diligence concerning a purchase of the Stars and arena interest. Still, Tavares sounds like he will play Mr. Fix-It for quite a while, for whatever team.

“I like fixing, building and the challenges associated with that,” he said. “Once things become sundry and day-to-day, I really don’t have a lot of interest anymore.”
Remember that Tavares launched the Ducks and won the World Series with the Anaheim Angels for Disney Sports. But he says sincerely that he can have more fun fixing franchises in disrepair.

“You see these kinds of guys in corporate circles a lot with companies in trouble,” said American Airlines Center President Brad Mayne, on the floor of his arena. “They are the workout guys. But they aren’t so common in sports.”

Those who worked with him say Tavares is the perfect workout guy because he knows the business and won’t hesitate to reach a conclusion.

“Tony’s right for where he is because he isn’t someone who will take a week to make a decision,” said Devils Arena Entertainment President Rich Krezwick, who worked with Tavares when Tavares was the first general manager of the Worcester, Mass., Centrum in the early 1980s. “A lot of people have great ideas. Tony gets things done.

“He also taught me how to throw a telephone across a room,” Krezwick added, with a chuckle. “We replaced dozens for him.”

ICON SMI
Turnaround specialists like Tavares, shown here during his time with the Washington Nationals, are relatively rare in sports.
“Tony isn’t afraid to cut his losses quickly on any person or project, but that’s another reason he is right for fixing a broken franchise,” said Len Perna, president and CEO of Turnkey Sports and Entertainment, who recalls drawing up the organizational chart for the Nationals on a breakfast napkin during Tavares’ first day in Washington, and subsequently hiring a 50-person front office in 90 days. “That saves time and energy, which you need in a turnaround person.”

Since coming to Dallas in January, Tavares has assisted on sales calls and telephoned lapsed season-ticket holders, some of whom he brought back. One of his earliest policy changes was reducing the number of discounted and complimentary tickets at the Stars. “Tickets were too easy to come by,” he said. Beyond that, it’s just a morale fix until the right ownership group surfaces. He says ticket and corporate sales are even with, or better than, last season.

“Staying positive in a negative environment is important,” Tavares said. “I can tell people here that I’ve been through this before, so don’t worry about your job, relax and have fun.”

There is no timetable for selling the Stars, but given the size of the Dallas market, neither Bettman nor Tavares seem overly concerned.

“It’s not going to be an issue to find a quality guy or group to buy this franchise,” insisted Tavares.

What it will take is someone, or some group, with a net worth of $400 million to $500 million, and perhaps some more on-ice success for the Stars, who were just out of the playoff race in the league’s final week at press time.

“You look at what people in this market spend on suites and seats at Cowboys Stadium and you have to think they will spend here if we give them a decent product,” Tavares said. “If I’m able to do this successfully, then maybe the Mr. Fix-It title will really stick. There are enough franchises with problems across sports that I know I’ll never be bored.”

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