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Original Issue


When Owner Nick Mileti spouts old-country sayings, three Cleveland pro teams must listen

Now that we've got this building up, we're not going to sit around sucking our thumbs," cried Nick Mileti, his voice rattling around the sports palace he has built on a patch of farmland 25 miles south of downtown Cleveland. "Now we're going to fill this place." A wolfish grin escaped from the shadow cast by Mileti's scimitar-shaped nose. "If not, I'm losing my you-know-what."

Holding a paper cup filled with Scotch, Mileti waited for his listeners to finish laughing. They were businessmen and newspaper people from Ashland, Ohio, the latest in a succession of communities in "Coliseum Country"—which is how Mileti refers to northeastern Ohio—whose VIPs have been invited to tour the new building. Mileti, a bouncy little man who bears a resemblance to Danny Thomas, makes it a point to be present on all such occasions. He never tires of promoting his $25 million baby and now, standing on the main floor, he pressed on. "We're bringing you hockey and basketball. We're bringing you Elton John and Olga Korbut and the circus. We're gonna go, man, go!"

The visitors from Ashland left, and Mileti drained his Scotch. Talking to his guests, he had exhibited the same enthusiasm with which he once spit out siss-boom-bahs as a cheerleader at Cleveland's John Adams High School. Mileti grew up on the city's tough southeast side, the son of poor Sicilian immigrants, and here he is today, at 42, with a spanking-new 20,600-seat arena to add to holdings that include the NBA Cleveland Cavaliers and the WHA Cleveland Crusaders, both of which he runs as president. Though he has been sharply reducing his involvement in the Cleveland Indians during recent months, he remains, in name, president and general partner of the baseball club, too. Stir in Mileti-owned radio station WWWE, which carries play-by-play broadcasts of all three teams, and you have an owner as busy and ubiquitous as Charles O. Finley or Jack Kent Cooke at their most acquisitive.

Nick Mileti did not come to ownership through great personal wealth, however, nor through family connections. Since sports is his chief business—as opposed to pastime—he is in no position to treat his teams and their athletes as adult playthings to be shown off and hobnobbed with. Mileti emerged as a sports entrepreneur only six years ago and has had to beg and borrow all the way. Operating in an era of rapid expansion in professional sport, Mileti put together syndicates of private investors to buy the teams he wanted, then installed himself as boss of each. But he has had to answer to major shareholders, not-so-silent partners and, above all, banks: he owns 39% of the WHA Crusaders, but has never held more than 10% of the Indians or the Cavaliers.

It is a tenuous position, and Mileti seems determined to enjoy it while he can. Despite living in gray, industrial Cleveland, he knows where to find the night life, and he comes on as the city's jiviest middle-aged businessman. Bopping along busy Euclid Avenue, he is a study in Sicilian soul as he greets traffic cops ("Hey, man, what's happenin'?"), snaps his fingers and makes big with the heel-toe action. He also steals admiring glances at his reflection in store windows—and why not? It was Mileti who introduced velour jump suits and $300 Bill Blass Ultrasuede shirts to the shores of Lake Erie.

The payoff is that Mileti is a bigger celebrity in Cleveland than most of his athletes. During games he moves through the stands glad-handing fans and signing autographs. "Hey, didn't Austin Carr look good tonight?" somebody asks after a Cavaliers game. Mileti shrugs. "To tell the truth, I didn't notice," he confesses, dismissing the subject. With a flourish, he adds, "My life is a Van Gogh painting. It's all broad brush-strokes. I'm not interested in details."

It would be nice to report that this painterly approach has been rewarded with world championships, SRO crowds and fat profits. Instead, Mileti's three teams lost upwards of $3 million in 1973, and the red ink continued to flow last year. Only the Crusaders have enjoyed winning seasons, and until they and the Cavaliers moved into the newly opened Coliseum this season, both were condemned to play before sparse crowds in the Cleveland Arena, a Depression-era barn that Mileti, naturally, also owns. Mileti's personal stake in his $45-million operation is barely $1 million, and most of that is borrowed. He is so extended that some detractors believe the Coliseum only too apt a name, that the collapse of another Roman Empire could be just around the corner.

For his part, Mileti argues that the Coliseum is precisely what will turn his fortunes around—that, plus a couple of championship-caliber teams. In support of this view, Mileti never tires of spouting what he calls old Sicilian sayings, homilies that, in truth, also include proverbs from the Chinese and Yiddish, plus inspirational quotations from Churchill, Emerson and Norman Vincent Peale. Ask him about his financial reverses, and he replies with a wave of the hand, "There's an old Sicilian saying that between every dream and reality are 200,000 nuts and bolts." Press him on when he expects to begin to turn a profit and he replies, "There's an old Sicilian saying: 'You know how to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.' " And while Mileti may not know how Austin Carr fared, he can, on cue, ruminate on the social significance of sport: "There's an old Sicilian saying that bread gives life and flowers give the reason for living. Sports are like flowers."

Even in the face of such eloquence, doubts about Mileti's financial stability have long existed. They reportedly contributed to the decision by the NHL to reject his bid for an expansion franchise, a rebuff that forced Mileti to settle for a team in the new WHA. Similar doubts were expressed by fellow American League owners when Mileti first wanted to buy the Indians in 1972. Stockholders soon were grumbling that nobody was minding the store, and Mileti, while remaining as president, eventually surrendered day-to-day control of the club to others. Last fall, with the bank whose loan he used to take over the baseball team starting to make noises, he sold off a $300,000 chunk of the Indians—roughly half of his personal holdings—and more of his stock is now on the market. Speculation runs high that he will soon bow out of the club altogether.

But Mileti refuses to acknowledge feeling any financial strain whatever. Instead, he invokes his broad-brush approach. "What I like best is to put deals together," he says. "Then I get restless and move on." As far as it goes, the explanation is accurate. Since the Indians were the only one of Mileti's three teams unaffected by the opening of the Coliseum, they suddenly were the loose thread in his grand tapestry, and there is no doubt that his interest in the club waned. During last fall's negotiations to hire Frank Robinson as manager, Mileti seemed far more interested in flying off to Las Vegas to persuade another Frank of note—Sinatra—to star at the Coliseum opening.

One morning, Indian Executive Vice-President Alva (Ted) Bonda called Mileti to discuss the club's new TV contract. "Tomorrow's a historic day at the Coliseum," he heard Mileti trumpet into the phone. "We're pouring cement on the main floor. Think of it!" Unable to focus Mileti's attention for long on the TV contract, Bonda gave up and hung up.

One who is well aware of Mileti's restless nature is the Cleveland Browns' Art Modell, the town's No. 1 owner until Mileti upstaged him with three teams. Then, in late 1973, it became known that the ubiquitous Mileti had helped launch the upstart World Football League and had bought one of the original franchises. Cleveland was stunned and so was Modell. "I admire Nick's insatiable appetite for professional sports," was his tight-lipped comment.

Privately, Mileti assured the Browns' boss that he had no intention of starting another football team in Cleveland. Sure enough, he sold the WFL franchise for an estimated profit of $450,000 and it surfaced as The Chicago Fire. What Mileti did not tell Modell, but what a local reporter learned, was that he was meanwhile urging another WFL owner to field a team just 60 miles away in Akron. Mileti at first denied the story but now treats it as another detail that has no place in a Van Gogh, "To tell you the truth," he pleads, "I don't remember whether I recommended a team in Akron or not."

Mileti-watchers are not unanimous on the question of what makes Nick tick, though all agree that he has an enormous appetite for hard work. Mileti puts in 18-hour days, running behind schedule at all times and seeing little of his wife Gretchen and 9-year-old son Jimmy. Zeroing in on the problem, Mileti confesses with a helpless air, "The whole thing is that I love people." Tom Embrescia, the youthful manager of WWWE, elaborates, "Nick goes to see the president of a company and winds up spending more time talking to the porter." Steve Zayac, Mileti's top aide, says, "Nick doesn't forget where he comes from."

When he is done working, the gregarious Mileti has a nightly routine that might begin with cocktails at the Pewter Mug and conclude only when the final abrazos are exchanged in the small hours in a jazz-cum-sports hangout called the Theatrical Grill. In between, he might squeeze in dinner at the Keg and Quarter, where he can count on the VIP treatment from owner Jim Swingos. "Let this breathe a minute, Nick," Swingos said to him on a recent evening, uncorking a bottle of Chateau de Pressac '67.

"Listen to him," roared Mileti. "Ten years ago he couldn't spell wine. Now he's letting it breathe."

"Ten years ago," replied Swingos evenly, "you didn't know what a fast break was." Mileti banged on the table in delight.

Mileti may be a neophyte in sport, but he is no stranger to Cleveland—an unqualified plus at a time when carpetbaggers roam the landscape of sport, buying and moving teams without regard for roots or geography. Mileti gives the impression of genuinely caring about Cleveland. Distressed that his hometown ranks just behind Buffalo and Philadelphia as the butt of urban jokes, Mileti says passionately, "There's an old Sicilian saying: 'Don't curse the bridge that carried you across.' Translation: Cleveland is the greatest city in the world. It's my city." Hurrying up to Mileti at one of the Coliseum's open houses, a woman visitor cried, "This place is so beautiful, it's hard to believe I'm in Cleveland." She wasn't, of course, being 25 miles out in the country, but Mileti was touched by what the woman said. "That's the bottom line, when people come up to you and say, Thanks for everything, Nick.' "

Mileti also receives thank-yous, perhaps surprisingly, from his financial backers, who include some of Cleveland's most prominent businessmen. Scarcely happy with their losses—the real bottom line—they nevertheless know that sports investments can make handy tax write-offs. They also expect that the seemingly endless spiral in franchise prices will someday enable them to recoup at least part of their money. Noting that the Browns and Indians were Cleveland's only major league teams until Mileti came along—and that the troubled Indians were threatening to leave town—Mileti's backers also admit to impulses that go beyond dollars and cents.

"If Mileti were opening a widget factory, I wouldn't have invested," concedes Banker Bruce Fine, who has put $300,000 into Mileti's three teams. "But sports is something I've always wanted to be in." C. Carlisle Tippit, a manufacturer with a large stake in the Indians and Crusaders, says, "I've made money in Cleveland and I wanted to put some back. Nick Mileti is the man who made things happen." Another heavy investor is the Indians' Ted Bonda, a former board chairman of Avis Rent-a-Car. Bonda once called Mileti's operations an "empire built on marshmallows." Now he says, "We all turned to jelly when Nick came around, but only because we wanted to. Sports is a Walter Mitty thing, and Nick's enthusiasm was infectious."

In point of fact, Mileti stumbled into sport by accident. Practicing law in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, he served as a public prosecutor and as president of the Jaycees, then founded a consulting firm that specialized in low-cost housing for the elderly. In 1967, to raise money for Bowling Green, his alma mater, he promoted one of the school's basketball games at the Cleveland Arena. "It drew 11,000," he recalls. "I figured if I could get 11,000 one night, I could get 8,000 every night." The first person singular tends to obscure the fact that Bowling Green's foe that evening was a major attraction, Calvin Murphy-led Niagara.

Bitten by the promotional bug, Mileti contacted a Wall Street banker named Leo McKenna, an old Army pal. McKenna managed investments for the heirs of inventor Charles F. Kettering, and Mileti persuaded him to put up half the $1.9 million needed to buy the Cleveland Arena and the Barons, the city's minor league hockey team. "We closed the deal on Sept. 27,1968, at 6:10 p.m.," says Mileti, investing the moment with where-it-all-began importance. Since neither property was exactly a bonanza, it was obvious he was playing for bigger stakes.

While continuing to tap the Kettering riches, Mileti also began invading Cleveland's banks and boardrooms for support. When the Cavaliers, an NBA expansion club, were born in 1970, he helped finance the $3.7 million deal by making an innovative $5-per-share offering to the fans. This was followed in 1972 by an extraordinary six-month splurge. First, Mileti paid $5.5 million for NBC's local AM and FM radio affiliates. Next he shelled out $10 million for the Indians. Finally, he paid $250,000 for the then playerless Crusader franchise. A deal had been in the works to have the Indians play part of their "home" schedule in New Orleans, but Mileti scotched it, flying to that city on a disengagement mission reminiscent of Eisenhower's journey to Korea.

"I told them in New Orleans I was sure they had a dynamite city," Mileti says. "I also said 1 didn't want to know them."

Clevelanders might well have imagined they were witnessing the second coming of Bill Veeck, the Indians' supershowman of the 1940s. But unlike Veeck, Mileti had trouble transferring his knack for self-promotion to his teams. With Mileti and a small staff running three newly acquired big-league teams at once, the Indians solicited season tickets on stenciled letters riddled with misspellings. Nor did it create much goodwill on Bat Day when kids were required to present coupons from Burger King in order to receive "free" bats.

"Everything happened too fast," says Mileti, acknowledging early mistakes. "But other people waited till the timing was right, and that's why Cleveland, the eighth largest market in the country, didn't have major league hockey or basketball. That's why the Indians were leaving. Think of it! Pittsburgh had hockey. Seattle had basketball. Seattle!"

Mileti's go-man-go enthusiasm sometimes results in his getting truly carried away. Although he had almost no personal involvement in the Indians' decision to hire Frank Robinson, he phoned the deposed Ken Aspromonte and said emotionally, "I went to bat for you, Ken, but I was outvoted." He told others, "It was time for a change. Frank Robinson became manager because I wanted him to." Another attack of hyperenthusiasm recently led him to buy an estate, a 46-acre spread with a rambling Tudor house set among orchards, stables and fountains in the suburb of Gates Mills. Mileti paid $500,000 for the place, presumably drawing on the windfall from his WFL franchise killing.

"Since I'm not home very much, the next best thing is to make life easy for my family," Mileti says. He does not mention the possibility that he might better have applied the $500,000 to reducing his substantial business debts.

None of his wheeling and dealing, however, prevents Mileti from solemnly attesting to his own essential integrity. "If your name is Mileti and you make 50 cents, everybody right away says Mafia," he complains. "Well, I've been checked out a thousand times now." Ted Garver, Mileti's attorney, says, "Forget Nick's swinging image. He's the squarest, straightest guy you'll ever meet." Aides confide that Mileti was urged at midseason a year ago to sell Lenny Wilkens, the Cavaliers' star guard. Without him, it was reasoned, the club might finish last and thus qualify for the coin toss for UCLA's Bill Walton, then considered a super plum.

"It's not right," ruled Mileti, shutting off debate. "Things like that have a way of coming back and biting you." Wilkens left at season's end. He is now player-coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, which also wound up with Walton.

But the Cavaliers are playing much better this season just the same, and the perennially upbeat Mileti can find other causes for cheer. WWWE, unprofitable when he bought it, is in the black. The money-losing Barons were scrapped after moving to Jacksonville, and Mileti hopes the local school board will take the Cleveland Arena off his hands. And although Mileti cannot claim much of the credit, prospects have brightened for the Indians: a pennant contender much of last season, they drew one million fans for the first time in 15 years and their deficit fell from $1.5 million to $350,000.

As for the all-important Coliseum, those who predict it will flop tend to be the same people who reckoned Mileti would never get the building up in the first place. To do so, the ex-cheerleader laughed at tight money, brushed aside court challenges by environmentalists and thumbed his nose at Cleveland's business Establishment, which wanted the Coliseum downtown.

The semi-rural location defies the widely held assumption that indoor sports complexes must be situated near public transit and population centers. Still, the site is handy to freeways, and Mileti has his eye on all of Coliseum Country. "In Cleveland we'd have Lake Erie at our back," he says. "Out here we've got five million people within a 50-mile radius."

Early-season crowds at the Coliseum for the Crusaders and Cavaliers have been bigger than they were at the Arena, but still disappointingly below the pergame averages—12,000 and 9,000 respectively—needed to begin showing profits. Attendance was unquestionably hurt by a seven-week newspaper strike that ended just before Christmas, and Mileti is encouraged that 1974-75 bookings for such major attractions as rock concerts and ice shows total nearly 170—to say nothing of the coup he hopes to bring off: a March fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Spectators have oohed and aahed over such amenities as upholstered chairs and two telescreens for instant replay, not to mention unobstructed sight lines. There are also 96 loge suites, private 10-seat boxes that go for $11,000-plus a year. Mileti claims to have found takers, mostly large corporations, for them all.

Not long ago the Cleveland Press' Bob August wrote of Mileti, "Even a master juggler can get too many oranges in the air." Mileti responded with a touch of humor: "I'll tell the papers what to print when I own them." In fact, Cleveland's No. 1 sports entrepreneur suffers such unsolicited advice well. One evening he and several friends were having a sociable time in a suburban bar when a blond, eager-eyed young man approached their table. "Remember me?" the stranger demanded. "I met you in here last year."

"Nice to see you again," Mileti said noncommittally.

The young man's view of Mileti apparently corresponded with that of Bob August. "If you're smart, Nick, you'll sell the Tribe," he said.

"You really think so?" Mileti asked playfully.

"I sure do."

Mileti beamed. "Then it's settled. I'll do it."

But the stranger kept chirping away, and Mileti, as usual, grew restless. "Want to know something?" he asked at last. "The fact is, I've never been in this place before in my life."