VOL. 8 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 19, 2015
The Titans Will Be Sold. Soon. Here’s Why
By David Climer | Special to The Tennessee Ledger
Anybody got a spare $2 billion lying around? If so, the Tennessee Titans could be yours. Despite statements to the contrary by Titans management, there is growing sentiment locally and around the NFL that the team soon will be available to the highest bidder.
This isn’t idle speculation. Beginning with the death of franchise founder Kenneth S. “Bud” Adams in October 2013, the Titans have experienced major transition both on the field and off. A change of ownership, once considered inconceivable, is no longer out of the question.
Adams took steps to make sure the team stayed in the family upon his death. He split the organization evenly among his three children. He also took measures to make sure the inheritance tax was covered.
The team, born as the Houston Oilers, was Adams’ pride and joy, an untouchable asset in good times and bad. But his heirs have no such emotional ties.
Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk talks with Kenneth S. Adams IV, left, the team’s director of public and charitable affairs, and interim head coach Mike Mularkey before the Jacksonville game.
(AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
This is how Titans ownership stands: Adams’ two daughters, Amy Adams Strunk and Susie Adams Smith, each own one-third. The other third is divided equally among the heirs of Adams’ deceased son Kenneth Adams III – Kenneth S. Adams IV and Barclay Cunningham Adams, and their mother, Susan Lewis.
Things could work if there were peace and shared vision within the family, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. From the outside looking in, the Adams family’s Thanksgiving does not exactly resemble a Rockwell painting.
An example of the dysfunction within the ownership group: On Nov. 3, controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk fired the head coach, Ken Whisenhunt, who had been hired by her sister’s husband, Tommy Smith, in January 2014.
Confused? Join the club. Since Bud Adams’ death, the franchise has been a model of chaos. It has an interim president/CEO (Steve Underwood) who was brought out of retirement, an interim head coach (Mike Mularkey) and an ownership group that is seldom seen and rarely heard in Nashville.
The only sense of stability and continuity can be found in the NFL standings. There, the Titans are in their customary spot – dead last in the woeful AFC South Division and, as of this week, in line for the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft.
Meanwhile, there are concerns at NFL headquarters about the unwieldy makeup of the ownership group. It is no secret that the league office prefers a majority owner rather than ownership groups. It streamlines the voting process and takes the potential for family squabbles out of the picture.
At the league meetings last March in Phoenix, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said his office was working with Adams’ heirs to “ensure the team is under the proper ownership structure.”
“This is something we have been working on since Mr. Adams passed away,” Goodell said. “We want to ensure that the team is under the proper ownership structure, as well as making sure it is being represented properly not only in the Nashville and the Tennessee market but also at the league level.
“We take it very seriously, the votes of every club. Each club is currently dependent on the others to make informed decisions and one with a long-term view towards what’s best for the league and what’s best for the franchises.”
The ownership structure was of such concern that the NFL’s finance committee asked the Titans organization to make some adjustments.
“There is a commitment,” Goodell said. “… They understand our priorities and what needs to get done and we’ll continue to work with them with our finance committee.”
But the Titans ownership structure has remained status quo.
It’s a mess. Aside from Kenneth Adams IV, who has worked with the organization since graduation from the University of the South in 2006, the other members of the ownership group are virtual strangers in Nashville. Outside of their billion dollar-plus investment, they have virtually no connection to the city.
And while absentee ownership does not necessarily preclude success (Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf lives in New Jersey), it is a tough sell in Nashville.
While the city has grown exponentially and changed dramatically over the last three decades, Nashville has remained true to its roots. In order to assure success, business must be conducted in a certain way.
When Clyde Russell was director of the Sara Lee Classic, a women’s golf tournament that helped introduce the area to professional sports in 1988, he correctly called Nashville a “rocking chair town.”
“People want you to sit down on the front porch with them and discuss things so you can develop a relationship that goes beyond business,” Russell says. “If they’re not comfortable with who you are and what you stand for, you’re going to have trouble getting things done.”
Moving forward, it is going to become more important that the Titans are owned and operated by someone who is closely connected to the city.
Nissan Stadium is in its 17th year of operation and is starting to show its age. At some point in the next handful of years, it will require a major renovation or a new stadium will need to be constructed.
And given the current status of the Titans, that would be a tough sell. With a bad on-field product and the disconnect between the city and the team’s owners, securing public funding for a new stadium would be difficult.
It might be more than the current ownership group could stomach.
The Titans won’t come cheap. In September, Forbes calculated the Titans’ value at $1.49 billion, which many see as a conservative estimate. Last year, the Buffalo Bills fetched upward of $1.4 billion despite a stadium situation that is far worse than the Titans.
A number of potential bidders have had their eyes on the Titans for years. Jim Haslam, founder of Pilot Oil Company in Knoxville, made it clear to Bud Adams that he would like to buy the team.
It was only after Adams informed Haslam in no uncertain terms that the team would be passed down to his heirs that Haslam and one of his sons, Jimmy, bought the Cleveland Browns.
It is no secret that Memphis billionaire Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, long has coveted an NFL franchise. Smith currently holds a 10 percent stake in the Washington Redskins but that franchise is controlled by Daniel Snyder.
Hedge fund manager David Tepper, with a net worth of more than $10 billion, is among those in the market for an NFL team. Tepper is a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are other wealthy people who would jump at the chance to pledge to the elite fraternity of NFL owners.
And considering the current state of the Titans and the dysfunctional relationship of the ownership group, it’s no longer a question of if the team will be for sale -- but when.
David Climer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.