When he and his brothers bought the Spokane Indians in 1985 – sale price: $137,000 – Bobby Brett “figured we’d get bored with it after a couple of years” and sell.
Some years after that, the brothers – Bobby, John, Ken and Baseball Hall of Famer George – added the Spokane Chiefs to their portfolio and Brett moved up from California to oversee the acquisition. He rented a house. For six months.
He hasn’t left yet.
Now, professional baseball in Spokane has completed 25 seasons under Brett ownership; the hockey team, 20. Along the way, he’s also bought and abandoned a soccer team, jousted and made up with various governmental landlords, tried to live down a WWE-ish sidewalk encounter with a former mayor, lost his brother Ken to the cruelty of cancer, made a run at buying a Major League Baseball team and turned his two Spokane franchises into model operations of their kind. Nearly 9 million spectators have taken in Brett productions here, including events like the Memorial Cup, NHL exhibition games, the Northwest League All-Star Game and the USISL Premier League finals.
His latest project: junior hockey’s first outdoor game, to be played Jan. 15 at Avista Stadium. On the eve of the Chiefs’ home opener Saturday, here’s a look back – and ahead – with Spokane’s managing partner:
Q: Your thoughts on passing these longevity milestones?
Brett: The business plan when we bought the Indians was “Hey, let’s go buy a minor league baseball team. Sounds like it would be fun. Hopefully, we won’t lose too much money. And when we go to sell the team in a couple of years, we’ll get our money back.” If you’re a sports guy, you want to own a sports bar – and we did that, too. We owned one for a few years, you made a few dollars, then you’re losing a few dollars so you get out of it. You get it out of your system.
Q: Was buying the hockey club a bigger leap of faith?
Brett: The team was hemorrhaging money – over a quarter of a million dollars. My right-hand guy was Tom Leip and he thinks we can turn the hockey team around and it’ll make the baseball operation better – there were some synergies there. At that time, where was I in my life? Well, we weren’t doing many real estate deals because the real estate market was really tough. I’d just gotten married and had a kid. I was living in Manhattan Beach. So I said, I’ll go up there and get it going, and we rented a house for six months at Liberty Lake. It was a more serious investment. We had to raise almost a million dollars – we had to overpay to buy the team and then we had to have a reserve.
Q: What convinced you to get into hockey?
Brett: Doing my due diligence, I fly up to Seattle. Seattle is playing Portland and it just happens to be one of those games that was on TV. That was when Petr Nedved was there, and Seattle was really good. I go to a game at the old Seattle Coliseum and there’s 15,000 people there! What an atmosphere! And (former Western Hockey League commissioner) Ed Chynoweth met me there. Then we were going to go from there to the All-Star game in Tri-Cities, and George flew out from Kansas City for the All-Star game. And that was sold out and what an atmosphere. I get to meet all the WHL owners. They’re all these Canadian guys and they like to have fun – f-u-n.
So I see two games and come back to Spokane later on for the playoffs. The old Coliseum – it was old and tired but what a great place for hockey. And the fans they had were diehard fans. Now I’m thinking I want to do it. Then I’m hearing from everybody, “Spokane has a good young team.” They were talking about Pat Falloon and Ray Whitney and some of the young guys. Looking back the timing was probably perfect. We’re buying a team with some really good young players. We bought the team, we realized we were pretty good and then Tim (Speltz) made some trades and we win the Memorial Cup. I think the first year, it’s really easy. Then with those extra playoff games we got, we ended up in the black the first year.
Q: Twenty-five years is a long time in the minor-league sports business. Why have you stayed?
Brett: One thing that was interesting to me, I come up in 1985 from California and for lot of people from California coming to the Northwest, they have two strikes against you. But right away, the people in Spokane treated me so well – whether it was the county, sponsors, whoever. Maybe it’s because I had a fancy last name, I don’t know. But I enjoy everything about the sports business. I have the best job of anyone I know – better than George.
Q: Any truth to the rumors that you’re ready to get out – that the Chiefs, in particular, are for sale?
Brett: No. I got a call (from former Chiefs and current Detroit Red Wings coach) Mike Babcock about four months ago, “What’s this I hear you’re selling the team?” I was selling my house, not the team. A lot of people assumed when my son went off to college that Bobby’s back to California, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I do want to spend more time in California – especially during the winters. But this is home. I tell people, every apartment building I own, I would entertain an offer on. But the Indians and Chiefs, out of all the assets I own, those are the only two I don’t think I’d ever sell. Well, not ever. But I have no desire to. I live in Spokane. If I don’t own the teams, what would I do? If someone came up to me to make an offer, I would say I don’t want to hear it – I wouldn’t even want to entertain it.
Q: Do you have a company philosophy that stretches to both organizations?
Brett: We have company goals, things we strive for. Really the No. 1 thing is we have to be profitable. If we’re profitable then we can give back to the community more, we can pay our people more, we can pay bonuses. Any business, you have to be profitable. We have employee development. We love to see our employees whether they’re players – Jared Spurgeon just gets a contract with Minnesota – or anyone else. We want to present good affordable family entertainment and do right by the community, do good for the community, be charitable.
We like to hire local if we can. We promote from within. We’ve never hired a manager from outside our organization with the exception of Greg Sloan when we decided to go in-house accounting. Andy Billig (Indians president) started as ticket sales guy. (Indians vice president) Otto Klein started that way. (General manager) Chris Duff we hired at our job fair. (Chiefs director of sponsorships) Randy Schwaegler was a section leader at the ballpark. And not everybody stays. Dave Cohen is now a vice president with the Atlanta Falcons. Paul Barbeau is the president of a minor league team. Rich Waltz broadcasts Florida Marlins games. We’ve had two major league groundskeepers. I’m pretty proud of the people we’ve hired.
Q: Do you judge the success of the two teams differently?
Brett: The losses are tougher in hockey and the wins more enjoyable, because we have our stamp on the whole system. In baseball when we’re doing really well and people come up to me and say, “Bobby, great job of putting that team together,” I tell them thank you very much. If the Indians are on a 10-game losing streak and they complain about the players, I say “We have nothing to do with the players.” And baseball you play every day. There’s always tomorrow. Sometimes in hockey, you lose on a Saturday night, you might not play for a week. Especially if you lose on a Saturday night at home to Tri-City, it’s no fun that week.
Q: How are your relationships with your two landlords, the county and the public facilities district?
Brett: They’ve been good. There are always going to be issues between the caretaker of the facility and the tenant. But by living here over time, you get to know people and they get to know your long-term goals. They didn’t build the Arena for the Chiefs; we’re just part of the event mix, and they’ve done a great job of maintaining the facility. With the ballpark, I carry around pictures to show people – this is what we bought in 1985 and this is what we have today. It’s been a good partnership with the county. We’ve invested back into the facility and they’ve done a great job with improvements.
Q: Critics say your leases are sweetheart deals. What do you tell them?
Brett: You always get that. But you want us to be profitable. If we’re profitable, we can invest back into the community, and we can keep good people like Andy Billig and Tim Speltz and Otto Klein.
Q: Sometimes those relationships were fractious, no?
Brett: The county was easy, with baseball. We were buying (a team with) a dilapidated stadium. We raised enough money to put in those red seats in the lower section and said if we do that, I need a lease extension and I need you to paint the stadium and clean everything up. It wasn’t gimme, gimme, gimme – we brought something to the deal. Early on with the city – it was the SEACAB board at the time – we had a real adversarial relationship. There was a certain attitude on that board that it was only a good deal for the city if the hockey team couldn’t make a nickel. Then you had to sign a lease that said if the ice breaks down you had the “tough luck” clause – if the ice breaks down, that’s your tough luck. We almost lost some games. Looking back, we put a gun to their head – if we didn’t get a new lease, we won’t buy the team. We needed to share in more revenues and try to work towards a partnership. That model of that first lease is the same model we have today.
Q: Has the economy impacted your hockey team from a competitive standpoint?
Brett: We always believed we were a development league for players, and also took that approach with coaches. We haven’t hired the ex-NHL guy like some teams – I think there are four in the league. So this last hire, we had to adjust our plan a little bit to bring on Don (Nachbaur). That cost us more money. But it’s always a juggling act. Tim made the recommendation that this was the right guy at the right time and the business has changed.
Q: Cards on the table – were you truly sorry to get out of the soccer business?
Brett: We liked the (Shadow). The kids who played were passionate. But you have to have a partnership with the landlord and we didn’t. The field was unsafe. What I learned over the years is that you can only do so much as an owner. It has to be a mutual vision, and when I look back there was – is – no vision for Albi Stadium.
I don’t think the city council or any of the mayors have Albi Stadium as a part of their future. When we went out there, we were hoping there would be a plan to improve it for the high schools, and we made a run at Eastern Washington way back when Mike Kramer was the football coach. We thought at the time that Eastern was interested in playing all their games at Albi. What I tried to sell them on was, Spokane doesn’t have a football team. You have to drive 80 miles to watch in Pullman. You have to go 25 to Cheney. If you come here you could own Spokane. We were just a little part of the Albi mix with the soccer team, and it was not a great venue – a dirt lot, dingy, dirty. But if you make it better, it’ll draw more for high school football and Eastern an opportunity there. But we weren’t able to sell that vision. There’s no political will to improve Albi. You look at the baseball stadium and the Arena, Riverfront Park, now the updated swimming pools – as part of the recreation facilities, it’s just not up to par. And if you’re not going to maintain things, then some day I think it’ll just be leveled.
Q: Was it a missed opportunity?
Brett: It was, but I don’t think anybody cared. Eastern decided to go to different direction – Albi needed Eastern more than Eastern needed Albi, although if Eastern could have become Spokane’s team I think it would have helped their whole university. I think it was a missed opportunity on both ends. When we hosted Montana games it was a great atmosphere, but it got no traction. But there’s been no will to improve the place or maintain it. You look at the Arena, it’s 15 years old now, but the improvements are dramatic. They added the Absolut Grill, the meeting rooms in the back. Kevin (Twohig) and the PFD board over 15 years have changed with the times. They have a taxing authority and they’re generating money. The arena is showing an operating profit and they’ve invested back in the facility. Where the old Coliseum, they just ran it into the ground. With Albi, it’s like that – just let it go.
Q: You were first approached with the notion of buying an indoor football franchise, and passed. Are you surprised at the success of the Shock?
Brett: I questioned whether the business model would work. Now look at what Brady (Nelson) and his staff have done – it’s unbelievable! Shows what I know. Why are they so successful? Well, they’ve done a good job – they’ve won games, done a great job of marketing and promotion. And Spokane didn’t have a football team. It’s Spokane’s team. Eastern Washington had that chance at one time, but it’s gone.
Q: Do you regret passing on that?
Brett: No. We made the right decision at the time. I don’t think we would have done what they have. It’s in the right hands.
Q: Any regrets?
Brett: I wish I would have worked harder at buying a major league team. When we tried to buy the (Kansas City) Royals, I should have worked harder to find the right financial partners to pull it off. You need some heavy hitters. It’s about putting together the investor group and convincing them you’re the right guy to lead the process, and I think I had the capability to do that.
Q: You felt a little used at the time – are you bitter about that experience?
Brett: No, not bitter. We didn’t have the financial wherewithal to pull it off on our own. When we’ve bought apartment buildings or minor league teams, I’ve been able to walk into the seller, say “This is what I’m doing,” and not have to get anybody’s approval. When we made a run at the Royals, we needed to rely on guys who had money and you could never really get an answer. I could never go to the seller and say, “Hey, we’re going to write a check for ‘X’ and get it done.” My real estate partner in California is Cliff Warren and we have some nice buildings and he does a good job of operating them. But he said, “We’re really good minor league players. We’re not going to be able to buy the big complex in Orange County or Westwood, because the big boys buy those. We can own the minor league teams, but we’re not major league guys.” To get to that major league level, you have to have some major league investors. Look at Golden State Warriors – two guys are billionaires. It’s good having a billionaire in your corner.
Q: Envision yourself as a major league owner?
Brett: I don’t what it would it would be like if you had a guy you had to pay $10 million to and he’s a bad guy giving you grief and you had to sign that check every month. That would be tough.
Q: You’ve surveyed and investigated trying to bring Triple-A baseball back to Spokane before, and the fan feedback didn’t suggest a demand. With Portland losing its team this year, did you check into it again?
Brett: We were approached quietly and, yeah, I’d have some interest. But where were we going to move our Class A team to? We made an effort to buy Portland the last time and couldn’t get to first base. But we’d have to have a place to move the Class A team, and if Portland can’t get a Triple-A stadium built, are they going to get an A-ball stadium built? There’s no place to go. Bend and Medford are probably the best markets, but there’s no facilities. It’s tough to get a city to build a stadium in these times.
Q: What do you feel best about?
Brett: Being a good community partner. Providing affordable family entertainment. I think we’re good for the quality of life. When people think of the Chiefs and Indians, they have a good feeling. We’re not going to make everyone happy, but when I have friends come to the game, I’m proud of the show we put on. I think people have fun. It’s amazing at the ballpark when it’s a section leader’s birthday and people in their section are bringing them presents.
I think the baseball park especially is a friendly and happy place. Hockey’s different – people come out and they want to win. Baseball, it’s a nice night, go out and have a hot dog and watch the game. Winning and losing doesn’t affect attendance at all. Hockey, you’d better win.
Q: Why the outdoor hockey game?
Brett: I like these projects and I think you can get stale if you don’t do something new. It energizes your staff and freshens your brand. It’s something the community can get excited about.
Q: Would Albi have been a better venue?
Brett: That’s the first place we looked, and the mayor and her people were fabulous. But the one issue we had was with the turf. There had to be assurances that it wouldn’t ruin the turf. Now, these games have been on turf before with no problem, but we can’t take a bunch of liability and find out a year later that we have to put a million dollar turf in. It was just taking too long to work out and we couldn’t take the risk. Selling 6,800 seats will be easier – even with prices higher – but I think we could have put 20,000 into Albi, and I think that would have been electric.