By Peter Schwartz
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Andrew Murstein was a big sports fan growing up on Long Island, but he wanted to be more than just a cheering spectator. While many sports fans wonder what it would be like to own a professional sports franchise, it was more than just a dream for Murstein. It was one of his missions in life.
"I had three business goals growing up," said Murstein. "One was to own a sports team, one was to own a bank, and the third was to get involved in politics. So we've accomplished two of the three."
The only thing that Murstein has left on his to-do list is politics.
In 1979, Murstein's family founded Medallion Funding Corporation, a company that has lent over $3 billion to the taxi industry. Then, in 1996, Murstein launched Medallion Financial Corporation, a company that owns and leases several hundred taxi medallions while financing the purchase of thousands more.
Murstein entered the sports business in 2010 when he joined the NASCAR world spearheading a group that purchased Richard Petty Motorsports. The group currently has two cars in the Sprint Cup Series and one in the Nationwide Series.
Then, in 2012, Murstein and a group of investors including Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown bought the Long Island Lizards of Major League Lacrosse.
Murstein started looking at sports ownership about 10 years ago. While taxi medallions are very profitable, he came to realize that sports franchises are not.
He had a chance to buy some teams, but didn't pull the trigger because the numbers didn't add up. He was always determined to buy a team, but it had to make sense.
Long before he purchased the Lizards, Murstein was in negotiations to buy the Arena Football League's New York Dragons. But after taking a good look at the economics, Murstein and company decided not to buy the team.
"In the sports world, if an owner wants to sell, there's usually a reason behind it," said Murstein. "In the Dragons' case, the more we looked at it, the worse the economics looked, so we did not go forward."
Murstein made a great decision. Not long after that, the Dragons and the Arena Football League went out of business.
In 2008, Murstein and his group raised $220 million for a sports fund. They looked at several clubs that were up for sale and submitted offers to buy the Montreal Canadiens and Chicago Cubs. His quest for a sports franchise came to fruition when he acquired the Lizards.
Murstein is banking, no pun intended, on the potential of one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States.
"It's a great family sport," said Murstein. "They're really good guys. In other sports you have issues with guys carrying guns into clubs, and drugs, and here these are Princeton, Yale, Johns Hopkins …really bright guys. They do it for the love of the sport."
They are clearly not doing it for the money, because the average salary for a Lizards player is $10,000. They work another job during the week and then they play for the Lizards on the weekends. From a business standpoint, lacrosse bears a strong resemblance to minor -league baseball.
"It's an inexpensive sport to attend," said Murstein. "It's something that has a lot of upside because a lot of the media stations are looking for additional programming. We figured that over time, this will be attractive to them."
Murstein's investment in the Lizards could see another big payoff a year from now. With the Islanders departing Nassau County for Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Lizards could reap the benefits in terms of sponsorships from Long Island-based companies.
"From a business standpoint, it's great for us," said Murstein. "We're going after a lot of their fan base now for season tickets, and we're going after a lot of their sponsors once they leave."
For Murstein, owning a team has been on-the-job training. At the World Series 10 years ago, Murstein picked the brain of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in the event that he would one day own a team.
"His advice was, 'Once you own a team, do nothing for the first year or two until you learn it and then start making decisions,'" said Murstein.
Shortly after buying the Lizards, who play their home games at Shuart Stadium at Hofstra University on Long Island, he didn't listen to Selig's advice. In an attempt to expand the team's fan base, Murstein decided to move some of the home games to Icahn Stadium on Randall's Island for the 2013 season.
The name of the team was also changed from the Long Island Lizards to the New York Lizards.
"It backfired," said Murstein of his decision to move games west. "New York City has a lot more people but they have way too many options. Long Island's fan base for lacrosse is really east of Nassau County, not west."
So this year, the Lizards will play exclusively on Long Island. Hofstra will host six of the seven home games, including their April 27 home opener against the Rochester Rattlers. The team will also head east for one home game on July 27 at Lavalle Stadium on the campus of Stony Brook University.
When attending a Lizards home game, don't be surprised if you see the owner walking around. Murstein wants to make sure that the fans have a quality experience, so he takes a look at things like the lines at will call and for food. If they're too long, he'll call people on his staff to correct the problem.
"I try to make sure everything clicks right for the consumer," said Murstein.
It should be an enjoyable season for Lizards fans. The squad includes multiple winners of the Tewaaraton Trophy, which is the college-lacrosse equivalent of the Heisman. Among their top players are Long Islanders Max Seibald and Rob Pannell, who is the all-time leading scorer in the history of college lacrosse. The Lizards also traded for Ned Crotty. who was an All-American at Duke where he won a national championship.
"I think we've got a great team this year," said Murstein, who sounds like he has a little George Steinbrenner in him. "The goal, as a Yankees fan growing up, was to emulate the star power of the Yankees here. Immediately I said to the coach (Joe Spallina) that he could spend as much as you want and get us the best talent possible. We want the superstars to play here. It's good for us. It's good for the league."
So what kind of owner is Murstein? While he appreciates the passion that "The Boss" had, he's not about to tell his lacrosse people what to do.
"I will never make a recommendation to them to make a trade or to go after somebody," said Murstein. "All the decisions really get left to the people that know what they're doing, and that's not me."
Now there's a good business decision made by a good businessman. With decisions like that, it wouldn't be surprising to see Murstein standing on a podium in Atlanta on August 23, accepting a trophy after the Lizards just won the MLL Championship Game.
It also won't be shocking if Murstein winds up owning a team from the four major sports. I can think of a few teams that can certainly benefit from his passion and decision-making!
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