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Volume 22 No. 19
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Bill Torrey — One of the most influential leaders of the past 50 years

Historical achievements in sports are well documented. In fact, these days, just about every detail from every professional game ever played in North American sports likely can be found with a few clicks of a mouse. But most preserved achievements are likely going to be limited to those accomplished by the players between the lines.

Less preserved are those achievements and milestones recorded and accomplished by the “players” in the front offices of teams, leagues, players’ associations, colleges and conferences.

Those “players” help the business of sport grow and advance through innovation, investment in people and resources, sound management and inspiring leadership practices.

One such individual, William A. “Bill” Torrey, passed away May 2 at the age of 83.

Many in the industry may know that Torrey was the general manager of the New York Islanders when they dominated the NHL by capturing four straight Stanley Cup championships between 1980 and 1983 (narrowly missing out on a fifth in 1984), winning an unprecedented 19 consecutive playoff series along the way.

Bill Torrey

The on-ice achievements of Torrey’s Islanders are well-documented. The performances and records achieved by Islanders players during the team’s dynastic dominance over the NHL are equally well-preserved for all eternity.

Less known, however, is Torrey’s influence over the sports business industry through his roles as the team’s president and chairman.

A graduate of St. Lawrence University with a business degree, Torrey’s knowledge of the business of sport, his management style and his penchant for supporting innovation set him apart from many of his peers at the time, and inspired others to try and emulate the “Islanders way.”

Under his stewardship, the Islanders became one of the most admired sports properties in North America. They were considered, arguably, the pre-eminent professional sports franchise in the country at that time.

Torrey’s Islanders were the first, or among the first, organizations to adopt emerging technologies to improve their on-ice and off-ice product. From the use of satellite technology to assist with professional scouting to supporting the computerization of many areas of the business, Torrey was a champion of innovation.

Perhaps his most innovative and revolutionary decision, though, was the one he and then-owner John Pickett Jr. made in 1985.

First, the Islanders’ late ’70s and early ’80s success happened to coincide with the birth of the cable TV industry and, as fate would have it, one of the cable industry’s pioneers, Charles Dolan, just happened to be in the early stages of trying to grow a cable company on Long Island — one of the most affluent areas of the country.

The Islanders’ success led to sold-out home games and, in turn, that led Dolan to capitalize on the Islanders’ popularity by acquiring the rights to broadcast Islanders home games for unprecedented fees. What followed, as Dolan hoped and expected, was a spike in cable households across the New York metropolitan area wired by Cablevision.

Then, in 1985, Dolan’s rapidly growing cable empire doubled-down on the team by purchasing the rights to broadcast all Islanders games — home and away — making the Islanders the first franchise in professional sports history to broadcast all of its games exclusively on cable TV.

That decision, and the unparalleled rights fees paid to the Islanders, was a watershed moment for the sports industry. The Islanders withstood the ensuing public relations backlash from media and the public for taking their games off of free, over-the-air broadcast TV and, in doing so, served as a model for the entire industry to emulate.

With Torrey’s passing the sports industry lost one of its most influential business leaders of the past 50 years. The New York Islanders, under Torrey’s humble stewardship, helped shape the industry into the revenue-producing juggernaut it remains today.

Greg Bouris recently launched his own communications and marketing consulting company, Power X Communications. He was the MLBPA’s longtime communications director.