Late to the Game: The McCombs School of Sports Ownership

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Red McCombs owns a lot of things. The license-plate holder on your pre-owned 2005 Toyota Camry that reads Red McCombs Toyota? Well, no, he doesn’t own that piece of cheap plastic advertising, and no, he doesn’t own the Camry, but he used to, and he also owns the dealership that sold you that Camry, on top of seven other car dealerships in San Antonio. He also co-founded Clear Channel Entertainment in 1972 and McCombs Energy before that. The McCombs name is etched onto buildings across the Forty Acres, from the North End Zone inside Darrell K Royal–Texas Memorial Stadium where you purchase a grande cafe au lait to the entirety of UT’s business school, where you learn how to be good at business so you can own all the stuff like McCombs.

But this is a sports column, and as relevant and interesting as McCombs’ fortune and philanthropy is, we’re interested in one thing around these parts: the sports teams McCombs has owned. I know what you’re thinking, and you’re very funny, but McCombs does not own the Texas Longhorns, however much the local beat writers will have you believe it.

No, the man from Spur once owned the San Antonio Spurs, and a couple other pro teams too.

McCombs first caught the ownership bug in 1954 at age 25, when he took $10,000 he made at his first car dealership and plunked it down to buy the Clippers. Hold on, you exclaim, but you needn’t exclaim or hold anything, for that matter. McComb’s Clippers were the Corpus Christi Clippers, an independent minor league baseball team that played in Texas’ Big State League, a hyper-literal title to be sure. But alas, the Clippers ceased to be after the 1957 season, when the Big State League folded.

In 1972, McCombs, a fellow named Angelo Dross, and 34 other San Antonio businessmen leased—yes, leased—the Dallas Chaparrals from its current owners. The American Basketball Association team would revert back to its original owners in three years if McCombs and his associates declined to buy the team, in a sort-of lease-to-own deal. But, as you can likely tell, McCombs likes owning things, so he moved the team to San Antonio and briefly renamed them the Gunslingers. Perhaps ahead of the curve on shying away from munitions-related team names but more likely honoring his hometown, the team was renamed the Spurs before playing one game in San Antonio. The team was so immediately popular—they surpassed the final Dallas season attendance in just 16 games in the Alamo City—that the group bought the team outright after one season. The newly christened San Antonio Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, forming an identity behind gunner and future Hall of Famer George Gervin. McCombs sold off his stake in the team in 1982, but bought back into pro basketball when he bought another ABA team, the Denver Nuggets, which he owned until 1985.

Before the 1988-89 season, McCombs bought the Spurs back from Drossos. The next half-decade was notable for a number of reasons. McCombs hired and then fired legendary college coach Larry Brown—though, in all fairness, getting fed up with Larry Brown would later become a trend in NBA circles—and did the same with Jerry Tarkanian, the embattled former UNLV coach. Tarkanian lasted just 20 games in San Antonio during the 1992-93 season.

McCombs sold the Spurs in 1993 for $75 million, but not before he saw the potential in small-market San Antonio, and in a team that has since grown to be the most dynastic success in recent NBA history.

McCombs again didn’t stay away for long, though his next major sports team purchase was the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings in 1998, for which he outbid bestselling author Tom Clancy, to the tune of $250 million. In an interview with Texas Monthly in 1999, McCombs reflected on that seemingly large investment, but by then, $250 million to a billionaire was more tenable than his $10,000 Clippers investment was 44 years earlier.

“When I bought the Vikings, I was asked how it felt to pay that much money for a team,” McCombs said. “All I could think of was that it was no big deal compared to the risk I took with the Clippers.”

McCombs sold the Vikings to current owner Zygi Wilf in 2005 for $625 million. McCombs apparently didn’t want to sell, but the state of Minnesota didn’t want to help him replace the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome with public funds. He cited incoming governor Jesse Ventura’s reluctance to get involved as four lost years. In 2010, just days before a Vikings game against the New York Giants the roof of the Metrodome collapsed under the weight of falling snow. Two years later, a bill was passed, and Vikings ownership had a new stadium. In 2014, the Metrodome was demolished. The 2018 Super Bowl will be played in U.S. Bank Stadium, the string of McCombs’ dream scenario having played out only after he felt it was time to walk away. He hasn’t owned a pro team since, and, now 88-years-old, it’s unlikely he’ll get in the game again.

“I would have loved to have [owned the Vikings] forever,” McCombs told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in 2012.

As of September of this year, the Vikings are worth an estimated $1.59 billion, almost double the price McCombs sold the team for only 10 years ago. You can’t win ’em all, even if you’re Red McCombs.

Illustration by Melissa Reese.

 

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