Monday, January 30, 2012

System D & the Super Bowl

Football is big business--but only one of the teams in this year's Super Bowl has its roots firmly in System D.

The New England Patriots and New York Giants are both massive enterprises. Indeed, Forbes Magazine's valuations for the Patriots and Giants show that they're the 3rd and 4th most valuable franchises in the league, worth $1.4 billion and $1.3 billion respectively. Forbes estimates that the Pats' 2010 EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) was $42.9 million while Big Blue pulled in a cool $40.6 million.

But only the Giants still trace their roots directly to System D. Timothy James Mara, the grandfather of current president and CEO John K. Mara, bought the franchise when the National League of Professional Football Clubs expanded into New York in 1925. He paid $2,500.

Tim Mara knew a good deal when he saw one. How did he have such business acumen? Because he was a bookie. Mara placed his first bet when he was 12, and, when he left school a year later, started his illegal gambling operation. Four years before he bought the Giants, he expanded his bookmaking efforts to Belmont Park. There, on an average weekday, he handled bets amounting to between $10,000 and $15,000. On weekends and holidays, his book was worth as much as $30,000.

He took the cash from his System D activities and diversified into other businesses, including the Giants and a coal company. At the same time, however, he was found to be legally destitute. On paper, the Giants were owned by his two sons, while the coal firm was in the name of his wife and brother. As for his bookmaking concern? Mara swore that he was just the manager and had no actual financial interest in it. But, as A.J. Liebling wrote in an appreciative profile of the wily entrepreneur, "Tim's destitution does not interfere with his enjoyment of life. Daily he visits the various business enterprises in which he has no financial interest." And he lived in a pauper's palace--an eight-room apartment at 975 Park Ave.

Today, the Giants and the Patriots are both wildly profitable formal operations. But you know which team I'm rooting for.

(for more background on the founder of the New York Giants, read "Turf and Gridiron," by A.J. Liebling, which ran in The New Yorker on Sept. 18, 1937 and also appears in The Telephone Booth Indian, Liebling's classic compendium about all things System D in NYC.)

**And here's another reason to root for the Giants: one of Tim Mara's great granddaughters, the actress Rooney Mara (she stars in 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo') heads the board of the Uweza Foundation, which supports empowerment programs for children and families in Kibera, the largest mud hut community in Nairobi, Kenya.**

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