Feature Stories

Sports Moguls

The Inside Stories

By Bonnie Blackburn
New York had George Steinbrenner. Cincinnati had Marge Schott. Dallas has Mark Cuban. Indianapolis has Jim Irsay and Tony George. All are sports moguls whose personalities became part of their city’s identity.

And Fort Wayne has Michael and David Franke, Jason Freier and Jeff Potter.

Yep. Fort Wayne has its very own sports moguls, people whose business is presenting professional sports in the Summit City. Their work lives involve fans, players, coaches, vendors and venues.

We fans love our sports here in the Summit City, but nobody loves them more than the people who own what the rest of us always think of as our teams. Each came to his team in a different way, but all of them are invested in and passionate about their teams and their sport. They have all the emotional ups and downs of fans about whether the team wins or loses. They also get to manage all the factors that determine whether the business supporting the team will survive another season.

From hometown brothers to faraway investors, we bring you the inside stories of the men behind the team benches and a glimpse into the minds of Jason Freier, CEO of the TinCaps baseball team; Michael and David Franke, heads of the Komets hockey team; and Jeff Potter, president of the Mad Ants basketball team.

 

 

 

Illustrations by Paul Combs

The Keepers of the team

Franke brothers continue Komets legacy

The Franke boys grew up playing hockey. Street hockey, ice hockey, wintertime fill-the-backyard-with-water hockey. So really, when you think about it, it’s not a surprise that they would end up owning a hockey team.

And not just any team. They own the Fort Wayne Komets, the 60-year-old team that inspires its fans to paint themselves black and orange and scream and shout and shake the rafters at Memorial Coliseum. The team that gutted it out and won the Central Hockey League’s President’s Cup in May.

“The family was a fan of the Komets from 1952 on. All of us came to the games,” Michael Franke said. “Komets hockey was very important to us; hockey was very important to us. We were so into it.”

So, back in 1990, when the Franke boys learned the team was about to be moved to Albany, N.Y., they knew they had to do something to keep professional hockey in Fort Wayne. The boys, Stephen, David, Michael, William Jr. and Richard, put their heads together and pulled the financial pieces together with help from the Popp family of the Perfection Bread Co. And a handful of days after the team was indeed moved to Albany, the Franke brothers purchased a defunct hockey franchise out of Flint, Mich., won back the Komets’ name and restored professional hockey to Fort Wayne.

“Fort Wayne was without the Komets for a couple of days, but we applaud (former owner) David Welker for allowing us to keep the name,” Michael Franke said.

Two and a half months after the ink dried on the deal, the Komets kicked off the 1990-91 season and ended up in the International Hockey League playoffs. On April 21, 1991, down in Indianapolis, the Komets fought the Indianapolis Ice and Lonnie Loach slipped that puck into the net in overtime in Game 7 to win the game. It was probably the most important goal in Komets history, and Michael Franke remembers it like it was yesterday.

“When that puck crossed that line,” he said, the memory animating his face, “Oh, the exhilaration! I never felt that way before. You never forget that.”

And even then they kept winning — game after game. Fans took notice and began buying tickets again. Game after game, and the Komets kept gutting it out. That toughness marked the beginning of a new era in Komets hockey, the Franke era.

“That year was the turnaround point for Komets fans who said we don’t ever want to lose this again,” Michael Franke said. “They called (the team) the Vagabond Boys — guys like Steve Fletcher, Colin Chin. It doesn’t get better than them. It was never say die — that was the mentality of that team.”

The Komets are Fort Wayne’s team. You’ve got families who’ve been coming for four generations, passing season tickets down through the family, much as the Frankes did.

The Frankes brought new blood and new excitement to the franchise. And of course, more than a handful of trophies. A move to the Central Hockey League did nothing to diminish the excitement.

That was proved in this year’s nail-biting series that saw the team fight through seven matches against Missouri to win the Turner Trophy. Then the boys in orange went from three games up to a pounding by Wichita in the race for the CHL’s President’s Cup. The Komets turned around two days later and won the league’s highest honor in a decisive 6-3 triumph at home, drawing 20,000 fans to the last two games, a new record. It was the team’s ninth championship.

These days, David Franke helps longtime coach Al Sims find, recruit and care for the players who come from all over the place, here and there, Canada and elsewhere. David Franke helps with immigration forms and travels to the away games to make sure the guys are OK, that they have what they need to get out on the ice and make the plays. He even cleans out their apartments when the season’s over.

“It’s been an exciting 22 years,” David Franke said. “We’ve had a lot of fun, some major disappointments. But I tell ya, the good and positive have far outweighed the negative.”

The Franke boys have always gotten along and working together comes naturally. Stephen Franke is the majority owner, but his main business is in Kansas City, where his company manufactures gloves. Michael and David are the day-to-day guys, along with Scott Sproat and the rest of the close-knit staff. Brother Bill runs Komets Kuarters, the team’s store. Richard, the oldest, is retired now. And their sister, Mary, never did get involved, though she follows the team from her home north of Chicago.

Michael and David grew up playing together, shooting pucks across their flooded and frozen backyard on Fort Wayne’s south side.

“We all got along as kids,” David Franke said. “We had our spats, being kids. Michael is the youngest, I’m second youngest. We’ve been doing stuff together all our lives. Working with Michael is great. We’re both involved in everything that goes on here. He gets my input, I get his. We overlap a lot. Yes, there’s been some heated arguments, but we never argue to the point where we can’t take it back.”

That family mentality runs throughout the Komets — from the staff to the players to the fans.

“The fans are the best part,” Michael Franke said. “You see now the generations of fans come out to the games. It has been like a religion with Komets fans. With at least half of today’s fans there’s a correlation with a fan from 50 years ago. We have season ticket holders who were in (the Coliseum) for the first game in 1952. The community likes a winner. We like a winner.

“It is such a responsibility to the fans. We are the keepers of the team right now. Our responsibility as the keepers of the team is to continue to do the right thing for the team and the community,” he added. “There’s pressure on us to put a competitive team on the ice every year. It’s like Al Davis of the Raiders said: ‘Just win, baby.’ That’s how it is here. I don’t like going home at night with a loss. It’s very, very stressful. You have to realize that if you did your job to the best of your ability, that the chips have to fall where they fall.”

Looking back to that summer of 1990, when they were putting the plan together to buy the Komets and keep professional hockey in Fort Wayne, Michael Franke remembers his mother Ann’s concerns.

“She said, ‘Why would you do this? You have good jobs. Just don’t do it for the glory,’” he said. “I don’t. None of us do. That’s not what it’s about. It’s for the fans.

It’s for the team. It’s for the community. We’re the keepers of the team. Someday, someone else will be the keeper. We’re just very, very lucky to be in the position we’re in.”

Still, as David Franke said, “Winning sure beats the hell out of losing.”

 

 

 

Illustrations by Paul Combs

If you build it

Freier helped lead TinCaps to new home

If you happen to be sitting in the TinCaps stadium, enjoying a hot dog and a beer on a Thirsty Thursday and watching the pitcher send a hot, fast one screaming into home plate, know this: there is a man in Atlanta who knows exactly how many hot dogs and how many beers have been sold at that very moment. And he knows exactly how fast that pitch was.

That man is Jason Freier, and although he’s 650 miles away, he’s as plugged in as he can get to the team he bought in 2006. As the CEO of Hardball Capital, Freier is head of the TinCaps organization. He runs and manages the team for the ownership group of about a dozen passive investors. And while team president Mike Nutter is the Fort Wayne face of the TinCaps, Freier is the guy Nutter reports to.

A lawyer by trade, Freier’s a baseball man by heart. He grew up in Queens, N.Y., a little ways down the road from Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets baseball team. He played second base — though, he admits, not well enough to make a career of the game. During his 10 years practicing law, he developed a niche in representing owners of major league professional sports teams. And though he can’t tell us exactly whom he represented (lawyer-client privilege), he did say that one case in particular helped him learn quite a bit about minor league baseball.

“I fell in love with the whole minor league atmosphere,” he said. “Every seat in the house was good, the accessibility of the players — I really became enamored of that.”

Enamored enough to want a team of his own. Freier toured the country, seeing some newer ballparks that were doing wonderful things for struggling downtowns.

“You’d have these areas that were underutilized or blighted. And then you saw restaurants, sports bars, hotels opening up around these (ballparks),” he said “The combination of the great atmospheres and the great things they were doing for the areas got me very interested in minor league.”

Which is exactly what former Mayor Graham Richard and other local leaders were hoping would happen when rumors that the then-Fort Wayne Wizards were for sale began to be whispered around town. Planners had already envisioned a new sports arena in the downtown area: the hitch was finding enough other development to support the cost of building the stadium.

“I started visiting minor league stadiums all around the country seeing if what I had seen was representative. I found an awful lot of very good, positive situations. I thought, this has a lot of merit to it. And I started looking for the right opportunity,” Freier said.

One such opportunity was in Fort Wayne. As the 2005 season came to a close, Freier met with the Wizards’ owners, who were indeed looking to sell the team. Richard also attended the meeting, hoping to size Freier up and to sell Fort Wayne as a great location to set up shop. It worked.

“I was very impressed by a lot of the assets the city had, also by Graham’s energy and vision, and in thinking about what the goal was long-term, we said this looked like a really good place to do what we wanted to do,” Freier said. “And they seemed like good folks to do it with.”

From that meeting, things happened quickly. The investment group bought the Wizards, but a study of the team’s then-home, Memorial Stadium, found a considerable number of problems, not the least of which was that every time it rained, the clubhouse would fill up with water.

“There were a lot of issues with the stadium that would have taken a lot of dollars to fix, and you wouldn’t have gotten a lot of bang for your buck,” Freier said.

It was decided a new stadium was the answer, along with a new hotel and a mix of retail and residential properties that would all — eventually — make money for the team’s investors.

And then the recession hit. On the bright side, the lean years saved money on construction costs, but it also made investment capital hard to find. Finally, a team of local Fort Wayne investors came in to put the final pieces of a complex financial puzzle together, and today, we have Parkview Field, the Courtyard by Marriott hotel and the soon-to-be-finished Harrison retail and residential complex.

Owning the TinCaps is a thrill for Freier, who also owns the Savannah, Ga., Sand Gnats, a minor league team affiliated with Freier’s hometown team, the Mets. He spends about 50 days in Fort Wayne each year and the equivalent in Savannah. The travel is hard on Freier, who has a couple of kids and a wife he brings with him to Fort Wayne when he can. (And of course, he stays at the Courtyard.)

Still, from hundreds of miles away, Freier tries hard to stay connected.

“I read the Fort Wayne papers every morning and afternoon on the Internet,” he said. “I’ve been coming up pretty frequently. I have a lot of people I consider to be friends in Fort Wayne who I’ve built relationships with. I definitely feel pretty involved in the community.”

When he’s away from the Fort, he follows the game on the computer or his iPhone. He can track ticket sales through the point of sale system, as well as how many hotdogs a particular vendor is selling.

“I tend to be working during the game here in Atlanta a lot of the ways our folks in Fort Wayne are,” he said. “They are all running around (the stadium) … but none of them can sit there and look at the overarching things. Both on the field and how well we’re serving the fans, I have a pretty interesting window. But the guys on the ground deserve the recognition.”

And even though the players are chosen by the TinCaps’ parent team, the San Diego Padres, Freier is still invested in the outcome of each game.

“Every night is exciting for me in terms certainly of the wins and losses for the team,” he said. “The only thing I watch with more interest than TinCaps games are my son’s Little League games. Those are the ultimate stress for a parent!”

 

 

 

Illustrations by Paul Combs

Both sides of the bench

Former player Potter digs job with Mad Ants

Jeff Potter’s the kind of guy you can’t overlook in a crowd. At 6 feet, 9 inches tall, he looks just like the basketball player he used to be, which means he also knows what he’s talking about when it comes to helming the National Basketball Association’s Development League team, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

As team president, Potter handles everything from hiring (and firing) coaches and players to overseeing marketing, ticket sales, promotions and everything in between. The stress is significant.

“You’re living and dying with every turnover and loss. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. I try to be as stoic as I can be, but I’m churning on the inside,” Potter said.

Running a minor-league sports team is a 24-7 kind of job, and for Potter, the business side has been fun. An attorney by training, he said he draws on his law school education in dealing with contracts and the critical thinking needed to make quick decisions.

“I’m surprised how much I enjoy the business side,” he said. “I’m still quite green … this is my first ‘business’ business.”

He knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the bench. Potter played basketball as a forward across the globe, literally, from Argentina to Russia, “any place that would take me,” after playing for and graduating from the University of Oregon. He got into the team ownership business at the behest of his father-in-law, former AT&T chairman John Zeglis, who was looking for a new challenge after leaving AT&T.

Playing basketball with different professional teams across the world gave him insight into the different ways a team could be run, he said.

“The more I played, the less I wanted to be a coach,” he said. “Opportunities like this rarely come along so I jumped on it.”

The opportunity presented itself when the National Basketball Association decided to start a developmental league that would help give talented young players a chance to play on a professional level and develop their skills before they joined NBA-level teams. Potter and Zeglis knew they wanted in on the chance to own one of those teams.

They looked at several cities and ultimately chose Fort Wayne in part because of the city’s history in developing basketball and its support for minor league teams. The Mad Ants are affiliated with the Detroit Pistons, The Indianapolis Pacers and the Milwaukee Bucks, but Potter and the head coach choose the team’s players.

“Our relationship is different (from other minor-league sports). If the NBA has a player they want to get more playing time, they’ll send him here,” Potter said, to give that player a chance to get more on-court experience.

The Fort Wayne Mad Ants’ first season was in 2007, and the team, frankly, has struggled. Potter said the season that ended in April was “tough.” It saw the firing of coach Joey Meyer and the replacement of any number of team players.

“We had a tough season but by every metric, it’s going great,” he said. Indeed, the fans keep coming out, an average of 3,000 per game. And Potter’s been thrilled with the response the community has given the young team.

“I will always be forever grateful how this city has embraced me and my family,” he said. “The people support us through thick and thin. And our players embrace the community. They call it home.”

His goal is for the team to be in contention for a championship.

“Our fans deserve it for all the support they’ve provided us,” he said. “We want to give something great back to Fort Wayne.”

Potter and his wife Julie, also an attorney, have three children. Potter is originally from Redmond, Wash., and said Zeglis has been more than a father-in-law.

“He’s been an unbelievable mentor for me,” Potter said. Zeglis retains a role in running the team, but Potter, as team president, handles the day-to-day operations, along with the half-dozen staff members in the front office.

He also oversees the Lady Ants, the Mad Ants’ popular cheerleading squad. The cheerleaders, team players and the team’s mascot, the intimidating Mad Ant, make more than 200 appearances around the city each year. He credits the team’s behind-the-scenes staff with helping “make this the best job I’d ever hope for.”

“I love and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” he said. “We’re going to be part of the Fort Wayne landscape for a long time.”

Posted: Mon, 07/02/2012 - 1:28 pm
Last updated: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 11:35 am