Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Worst sports team owner" Bill Wirtz dies

During my three year stint as an employee at the Bismarck Hotel, now the Hotel Allegro, I got to know--a little bill--Bill Wirtz, whose family then owned the property. I found him to be a friendly and charming man.

Still, I have to agree with many other that Wirtz, who died of cancer early today, was easily the worst owner in professional sports.

The Wirtz dynasty was founded in real estate, and for a while the magic touch carried over to the Chicago Blackhawks, an "original six" NHL team. Wirtz' father Arthur purchased the team in 1954, the "Hawks" won a Stanley Cup in 1961. And for a while the team gave the Cubs, White Sox, and the Bears a run for their money as Chicago's most popular team. The Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita led teams of the 1960s and early 1970s, after that championship, brought a tremendous amount of excitement to the city.

But Hull jumped to the World Hockey Association in 1972--Wirtz' father still owned the team until his death in 1983--but the team remained successful, but without a Stanley Cup, into the 1990s.

But free-agency came to hockey in 1990 and Bill Wirtz' Blackhawks refused to spend the money to keep star players such as Tony Amonte, Chris Chelios, Jeremy Roenick, and Ed Belfour in Blackhawks sweaters. The Blackhawks have only qualified for the NHL playoffs twice in the last ten years.

And the team' popularity plummeted. People living outside of Chicago find this hard to believe, but home games, with rare exceptions, are not televised in the Chicago area--not even on cable. People have busy lives, and kids who aren't exposed to televised hockey don't become fans. (Road games are televised on cable, but the Blackhawks play in the Western Conference, and play a lot of games on the west coast, when kids are sleeping.)

But Wirtz, on the rare occasions when he addressed the TV issue, responded that three things make the Blackhawks successful: "Season reservations, season reservations, and season reservations."

But that failed Wirtz too. The Blackhawks average 12,000 fans a game, but play in the 20,000 capacity United Center.

Besides the realty holdings, the Wirtz empire includes Judge & Dolph, a wine and liquor distributorship. In one of Illinois' most idiotic laws--a hold over the 1930s--beer, wine, and liquor manufacturers are prevented from selling their products directly to businesses. They have move their goods through a middleman such as Judge & Dolph. During the unhappy term of disgraced Illinois Governor George H. Ryan, a law passed, nicknamed the "Wirtz Law," made it virtually impossible for alcohol producers to fire companies such Judge & Dolph. A federal judge ruled that the law was unconstitutional three years later.

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