Sports Business: The Front Office
And You Thought You Were Busy
Ted Turner lieutenant Stan Kasten runs three pro teams
Relatively speaking, it's been kind of a slow day at the office for Stan Kasten. The John Rocker morass, mercifully, is behind him. Also in his rear-view mirror: a controversy about the futuristic design of the new downtown arena he helped create and a hubbub over a malcontented basketball player who habitually skipped team workouts--until Kasten released him.
On this day, Kasten, the 48-year-oldpuppeteer who pulls the strings for Ted Turner's sports empire, only has to find a coach for his floundering NBA team, the Atlanta Hawks. Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas has been mentioned as a candidate, but the usually glib Kasten is keeping his own counsel. He's gotten through rough patches before. And as the only executive in pro sports to oversee franchises in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the National Basketball Assn., he'll push through this one, too. "We're always having crises in our business," offers Kasten from his office in the bustling CNN Center. "Part of it is adjusting definitions. What might be considered routine or just a problem takes on a different view here--everything's in a fishbowl, everything gets magnified."
Take the day-to-day trials of your average pro sports franchise, multiply by three and a half (Kasten also runs baseball's Turner Field and Philips Arena), and you have an inkling of the schedule the longtime Turner lieutenant keeps. One day last winter was typically frenetic: attend a breakfast honoring home-run king and Braves Senior Vice-President Hank Aaron, discuss fan-friendly refinements with architects at Turner Field, confer by phone with the general manager of the NHL Thrashers, and head back to a stack of phone messages. And that was before lunch.
Kasten hasn't always been responsible for every ball, bat, and puck in the Turner equipment bag, though to Atlanta fans it probably seems that way. He was one Turner's first hires after buying the Braves almost 25 years ago.
The story of their chance meeting is a beaut. Kasten was a newly minted Columbia Law School grad when he and his girlfriend (now wife), Helen, piled into his gold Datsun 260Z sports car and took off from his hometown of Farmingdale, N.J., on a cross-country junket. Their goal was to end every day at a baseball park.
In St. Louis, where the Cardinals were playing the visiting Braves, Kasten noticed a man with a sharp nose in seats next to the dugout. It was 1976, the year before "Captain Outrageous" won the America's Cup, and Kasten says: "No one knew Ted Turner back then." After the game, Kasten says he strolled down to meet the Braves owner, and "In that 5 or 10 minutes, we hit it off. Ted gave me his card and told me to write when I got home."
To this day, Kasten isn't sure why Turner offered him a job a few weeks later. His best guess: "I was an Ivy League lawyer willing to work hard and cheap at a time he didn't know exactly what he needed." Although he recalls that a job was in the back of his mind when he approached Turner, Kasten says when the offer arrived "my friends had to lock me in a room and convince me to take [it]. I didn't want to leave New York, They all said, correctly, `Schmuck, you can come back and be a lawyer anytime...."'
Kasten started as a lowly $200-a-week attorney, learning to bargain player contracts and slowly winning the confidence of his irascible boss. By 1979, at age 27, he was general manager of the Hawks. In 1986, he added the Braves. And when Harvey Schiller, head of the new NHL Thrashers, left to join YankeeNets last fall, Kasten got a third team.HIS WAY. Nowadays, Turner is little more than a mustachioed ghost in the offices of his sports franchises. "Ted has never come to owners' meetings, not for years and years," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. Still, notes Kasten, "No matter where he is in the world, he always knows what the latest score is. It makes a huge difference in his mood." And Kasten's teams do win. The Braves marched to five National League titles and one World Series crown in the 1990s. The Hawks racked up seven straight winning seasons before this year's 28-54 debacle.
There's no argument that Turner and Turner Broadcasting Chairman Terry McGuirk have ceded broad authority to Kasten. And the ambitious, irreverent Kasten wields that power his way. To front-office executives who work under him, Kasten is a nice guy with a knack for knowing what he doesn't know. And Kasten keeps things loose. Ten years ago, John Schuerholz, a highly regarded, straight-laced baseball administrator, was interviewing for the vacant post of Braves general manager when, as he sat across from Kasten, his future boss reached into a credenza and pulled out a rubber chicken. "I'm in the middle of negotiating a very significant deal, and he's playing with this chicken," Schuerholz says. "That night, I called my wife and told her: `As bizarre as that was, this place is fun. I'm taking the job."'
Player agents and reporters occasionally see a side of Kasten that's less playful. A voracious reader of magazines and newspaper sports pages, Kasten can be a searing critic of stories he finds unfair or poorly reported. Jeff Denberg, who covers the NBA Hawks for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, got into Kasten's doghouse for stories he didn't write. Denberg temporarily was banished to a back row seat at Hawks games when Kasten became upset that his newspaper wasn't devoting more space to the team. "His PR staff was aghast, but Stan was on a rampage, so we dealt with it," says Denberg, who quickly patched things up. Counters Kasten: "I should sit back and let myself be a doormat for the [AJC]? We had a message to deliver."
That's tame stuff compared with the jabs Kasten takes at player agents, whom he dismisses as "the only group in professional sports who make no contribution to their industry." Kasten uses almost any forum to pound agents for their money-grubbing ways and poisonous influence over player-clients. "Sorry, I don't like agents," he says.LAUGHS? When agents publicly swipe back, Kasten has developed an offbeat way to blunt their criticism: He passes out business cards featuring the offending quote--such as "Rude New York Lawyer." It's all in the game, says Kasten, adding: "Most agents will tell you that even in intense negotiations, they wind up doing a lot of laughing."
In fact, a number of agents don't see the humor. Among their complaints about Kasten is that he goes for the end run, attempting to cut them out and negotiate directly with their clients. "I'm tired of his petty comments," complains Houston-based agent Randy Hendricks. "He's nothing but an agent for Ted Turner himself, no more, no less. Maybe this is about fear and self-loathing in Atlanta."
Hendricks and Kasten were thrown together under trying circumstances when Atlanta pitcher John Rocker's swaggering comments about New Yorkers, immigrants, and gays landed him at the center of a national debate over free speech. At their first meeting after Rocker's comments hit print, Kasten told the chastened pitcher, whom Hendricks represents: "You're talking about my parents." Kasten's mother and father survived Auschwitz, met in a camp for displaced persons, came to America, and saved enough money to start a chicken farm that they later converted to a roadside motel, The Flame. Kasten, who honors that heritage, is home every Friday night so he, Helen, and their four children can share a Sabbath dinner.
Still, Hendricks suggests that it's Kasten who needs the sensitivity training. "I bear him no malice, but why because of my profession am I to be belittled, attacked, and treated with disdain by this man? I'm as offended by his comments [about agents] as anyone was offended by what John Rocker said," says Hendricks. Is Kasten repentant? Not really. "Do I bust people's chops?" he asks. "Guilty."By Mark Hyman in Atlanta