Red McCombs

The 78-year-old San Antonio salesman—is there any better way to describe him?—on football, cars, radio, cattle, and giving away his millions.

Evan Smith: You recently sold the Minnesota Vikings, which means this is the first football season in seven years that you won’t be the owner of an NFL team. How does it feel?

Red McCombs: Well, I miss it a lot. We approached this season as if we’d own the Vikings forever. The lead investor in the investor group I made the deal with turned out to be not quite as liquid as the league wanted, so I didn’t know whether it was going to close or not. As it turned out, another person in the group was acceptable as far as liquidity, but I had to be ready [in case I couldn’t sell]. So I was very active in the free-agent market. There were five free agents we wanted, and we got four of them. And we were pleased with our draft. I look at this year’s team as really being my team.

ES: Let the record show that you’re wearing Viking purple. You still feel that loyal to the team.

RM: Of course, because it is my team. I put it together over the past seven years. I’ve been through this numerous times in the ownership of professional sports teams: When I sell a team, as long as players, coaches, and staff who I hired are there, I stay well connected.

ES: You’ve owned pro basketball teams—the San Antonio Spurs twice and the Denver Nuggets once. Is there something particular about owning a pro football team versus a team in another sport?

RM: In terms of what you have to do with your team, it’s not a lot different. The first team I owned, when I was 25 years old, was a class B baseball team in Corpus Christi. It had essentially the same issues. You have a product that’s an entertainment product. It has to compete with a lot of other products for its place. Then you have the issue of knowing that you’re in a business, that you’re in a league, and that when it’s all over, only one of you is going to be a winner. It’s such a challenge to try to be that one. Having said that, the NFL was the epitome of all sports opportunities. I actually chased the NFL for more than 30 years. It took me a long time to get in, but once I got in, it was even more than what I thought it would be.

ES: How’s that?

RM: It’s a closely held brotherhood, yet all of those guys are so competitive against each other as owners. And the viability of the league is the key; you learn that real early. It’s much more important that the league be strong than it is for your individual team to be strong. That’s a hard thing for an entrepreneur type to accept. It goes against your self-interest from time to time. But in the NFL, there’s a very, very strong feeling about the integrity of the league. It works well because of that.

ES: Did the other owners welcome you right away, or did they haze you for a while, kind of like a fraternity?

RM: They’re selective about taking you in. I thought that I would get in in ’92 with an expansion team from San Antonio, but they passed on me and took Wayne Weaver, from Jacksonville, which was just really hard for me to understand.

ES: Did they give you a reason why?

RM: No. Then in ’98, when the Vikings came along for sale, it was held in the format of an auction by the ownership group. I was not the successful bidder; the author Tom Clancy was. But then he had difficulty satisfying the league as to his liquidity, and he bowed out. They put it up for auction again, and I was successful the second go-round. The league said that my application was approved as fast as any they had ever had, and it was unanimous. I was delighted to be in.

ES: Well, you weren’t just a guy walking in off the street. You’d owned pro sports teams before, your liquidity wasn’t an issue, and you clearly cared enough about it to have tried to get into the league before. That probably helped.

RM: I think it did help, and so did the fact that I had been successful in those other operations. When I bought them, they had a lot of problems. They were not exactly at the top of the heap. And we were able to turn them around.

ES: The first season you owned the Vikings was a huge improvement too. You went from 9-7 to 15-1.

RM: And we sold out every game. The Vikings had never sold out a preseason game in the history of the team. When I bought them, we had twelve days until our first preseason game in ’98. We sold it out and sold out every event from that point on. And we’ve already presold this year for the new owner coming in.

ES: Why’d you get out?

RM: Because I inherited an onerous stadium lease, and I couldn’t create any traction to get a new stadium done. The model that the NFL prefers for new facilities is two thirds public money and one third owner money. The problem was the state’s participation. The leadership of the state felt like they had other needs; they’ve had a bunch of problems there since I bought the team.

ES: Did you have a conversation with the governor or his people in which you said, “Look, I need a stadium. If you don’t give me one, I may sell the team, but I may move it”?

RM: I never considered moving the team, although the media would say otherwise.

ES: In fact, isn’t it true that at one point you thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to have the team in San Antonio”?

RM: Well, of course. That’s a natural one. But that was never an issue, and I

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