Sports with Art Thiel
9:29 am
Fri March 25, 2011

What makes a successful pro sports owner? Look to the late Barry Ackerley

He was tough. He was obstinate. He was the only sports figure to ever lay a hand on KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel. But Art says Barry Ackerley was the best owner the Sonics ever had.

Ackerley the Man

Ackerley died March 21 at the age of 76, after suffering a stroke.  Art says his relationship with the "billboard baron" was often contentious - Ackerley never liked dealing with the media. When Art dogged him after a press conference, Ackerley gave him a shove and said he wouldn't answer his questions. Art said it was "no big deal."

Another time, upset with something Art had written, Ackerley banished him for a game to a seat at the very top of the then-Seattle Center Coliseum (which became KeyArena during Ackerley's ownership).

Ackerley the Owner

Art says Ackerley was successful as an owner because he invested enough money to keep the team competitive and he stayed out of the way for the most part. The Sonics went to the playoffs 13 times and the NBA finals once during his 18 years as owner.

What Makes a Winning Owner?

Art says it takes four qualities to be a successful sports owner:

  1. "Stupid" wealthy - more money than you can ever possibly need
  2. Passion for the sport
  3. Roots in the community
  4. Thick hide

Art says Barry Ackerley had all of these qualities. His successor, Howard Schultz, appeared to have them. But Art says, one year after taking over the team,  Schultz was asking Seattle and the state for more money to renovate KeyArena, which had just been upgraded in 1995. Art says the anti-tax climate at the time prevented that from happening. A few years later, Schultz sold the team to a group of Oklahoma businessmen, who moved the Sonics to Oklahoma City in 2008.

Art says he saw Barry Ackerley shortly before he died, and briefly talked with him about the Sonics leaving town. He says Ackerley was crushed.

"He and his family invested a lot in that franchise and he was clearly disheartened by what had happened. He felt the same shame and disappointment that I think every Sonics fan did."