Arizona entrepreneur Reggie Fowler created a stir in 2005 when he nearly became the first African American to own the majority stake in a National Football League (NFL) team, the Minnesota Vikings. His impending purchase was hailed as a milestone in professional sports, and it was hoped that it would eradicate some of the imbalance in a league where nearly three-quarters of the players are minorities, while the ranks of coaches and front-office staffers have yet to become fully integrated. From the beginning, however, questions about Fowler's finances, and a minor stir about inaccuracies on his resume, raised questions. By mid-2005, the bid had fallen through and Fowler backed away from his efforts to buy the team. Minneapolis-area activist Spike Moss was quoted in the San Jose Mercury News as saying, Everybody was looking forward to him being the first, but first you have to have the money to be considered.
Born in February, 1959, Fowler was one of five children in a family headed by a father who had been an officer in the U.S. Air Force. When Al Fowler settled in the Tucson, Arizona, area, he opened Al's Pit Bar-BQue, a successful eatery whose original location was used as the diner in the 1974 Martin Scorsese film, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Fowler's first job was as a dishwasher at the restaurant. Midway through middle school, his parents moved the family to another section of Tucson, and from then on Fowler and his siblings attended schools that were predominantly white. At Saguaro High School, he was an outstanding athlete and was elected to homecoming court; his father cooked the pre-game meals for him and his football teammates. After graduating in 1977, he entered the University of Wyoming on a football scholarship, starting out as a running back but then switching to wide receiver and linebacker positions.
Tried Out for Bengals
Though Fowler led the University of Wyoming Cowboys in unassisted tackles during his senior year, the changes in his position likely harmed his prospects with the NFL, and he was not drafted. Several months after his December, 1981, graduation, however, he was able to join the Cincinnati Bengals' pre-season training camp, but was cut before the regular season started. He was also on the roster for a short-lived United States Football Team in Arizona in 1983, but played no games with the Wranglers. Returning to school, he took business courses at Arizona State University in the mid-1980s and joined a training program with Mobil Oil's chemical division. He worked in sales for the company before striking out on his own in 1989.
Fowler founded his firm, Spiral Inc., originally as a company that sold the food containers used by grocery stores—the plastic tubs at the deli counters, for example, and the foam trays used in meat packaging. He named the company after a football term that players use to describe the perfectly thrown pass, and his initial investment in it was allegedly just $1,000. The company, which was based in Chandler, Arizona, expanded over the years to include several other divisions, including real-estate development and an aviation-simulator business. Fowler went on to own a cattle ranch as well as a financial institution, the Bank of the Southwest, and he and Spiral, Inc., made their first appearance on the annual Black Enterprise rankings list of the top African-American-owned companies in 1993 as No. 98 in the Industrial/Service sector. Six years later, it had jumped to the No. 22 spot, and was at No. 11 in 2004, after posting previous-year sales of $314 million. The Arizona Republic newspaper estimated Fowler's net worth at around $400 million by then.
Met the Press
Rumors first surfaced in August of 2004 that a relatively unknown Arizona businessman was interested in buying the Minnesota Vikings. The team was owned by Red McCombs, who had tried for several years to strike a deal with Minneapolis-St. Paul-area civic authorities to build a new stadium to replace the Vikings' home turf at the Metrodome. There was intense local opposition in the Twin Cities for a taxpayer-subsidized deal, especially since the Vikings had proven to be one of the most profitable teams in NFL. There were even hints that the team might pack up and move to Los Angeles. But after their 2004 season began, rumors of a sale died down, since teams rarely change hands during the NFL season. The rumors surfaced again in January, and on Valentine's Day of 2005, Fowler wired McCombs's office a $20 million deposit.
Later that day, Fowler and McCombs appeared at a press conference to discuss the pending sale, which was subject to clearing several other hurdles before it could be finalized. The team's price tag was thought to be $625 million, and the Vikings franchise had been valued at $604 million in 2004 by Forbes magazine. Fowler was not the only buyer, though he was the majority owner, or general partner. His limited partners were a pair of real-estate developers from the New York area: Alan B. Landis, once the part-owner of the National Basketball League Association's New Jersey Nets; Zyggi Wilf, whose Garden Commercial Properties firm had expressed some interest in a potential stadium construction project for the Vikings; and David Mandelbaum, a real estate attorney, also from the New York area.
At the press conference announcing Fowler's agreement to buy the team, he stressed there were no plans to relocate the Vikings to Los Angeles or anywhere else. In fact, he said, it would be he that moved to the Twin Cities. "I want you all to know that this is probably the greatest day of my life," Saint Paul Pioneer Press writer Sean Jensen quoted him as saying that day. "I'm excited to be here in the Twin Cities, the state of Minnesota, to let you know that we are here to, No. 1, acquire your team and hopefully put the team back into the hands of the state of Minnesota and let you know that we're committed to being here." There were many questions put to Fowler about potentially becoming the first black owner of an NFL team, but he deflected attention away from the issue. "I think it's a great thing," New York Times writer Richard Lezin Jones quoted him as saying in response to a question about the historic first. "I'm happy that I'm black. As James Brown says, 'Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud.' That really doesn't play a big part to me, I just happen to be black."
Admitted Errors in Biography
The journalists assembled at that news conference were handed a biographical fact sheet on Fowler, and it was subsequently found to contain a few inaccuracies. It claimed he had played in the Little League World Series, had a bachelor's degree in business administration and finance, and had played with the Cincinnati Bengals and the Canadian Football League's Calgary Stampeders. It asserted that his company was ranked eleventh on the Black Enterprise list of African American-owned firms in 2004. In reality, the "world series" was the name used for a Tucson all-star event for youth teams in which Fowler had played, and his undergraduate degree from the University of Wyoming had been in social work, not business. He had been released during training camp for the Bengals as well as the Canadian Football League tryout. Finally, his company was No. 11 only in the Black Enterprise Industrial/Service category, not in the overall rankings.
At a Glance...
Born Reginald Dennis Fowler in February, 1959; son of Al (an Air Force officer and restaurant owner) and Eloise Fowler; married and divorced; two children. Education: University of Wyoming, bachelor's degree, 1981; took graduate-level business courses at Arizona State University.
Career: Mobil Oil, chemical division, sales, c. 1984-89; Spiral Inc., , Chandler, AZ, founder, 1989–.
Addresses: Office— Spiral Inc, 7100 W Erie St., Chandler, AZ 85226.
The press, especially in the Twin Cities, had a field day with the errors, and Fowler flew back to Minnesota to deal with the matter himself just four days later. He explained that the biography released had been a mere draft copy done by a Twin Cities public-relations firm he hired, and had not been ready for release; the rudimentary details had apparently been supplied by Spiral, Inc.'s Chandler headquarters. Fowler was quick to accept blame, however, and released a formal statement. "I realized that there was some confusion surrounding my background, and I wanted to make perfectly clear the facts of who I am and what I have done," it read, according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service report. "I regret that a draft copy of my biography was issued, and I want to make sure the facts on my background are clear."
Black Coaches Voted Their Approval
Some media pundits raised questions about whether or not Fowler could actually afford to buy the Vikings. NFL ownership rules specify that the majority owner must put up 30 percent of the purchase price from his own holdings, but Fowler deflected questions about his net worth at the earlier press conference by reminding reporters that "Mr. McCombs is a very astute businessman," the Saint Paul Pioneer Press 's Jensen quoted him as saying. "I don't think we would be sitting here together if we didn't have the ability to come up with that 30 percent."
Fowler faced more serious tests on his quest to become the Vikings' newest owner. He had to meet with the NFL finance committee in March, and answer detailed questions about his net worth and company holdings; then, 32 other NFL team owners had to vote their approval for the transfer. In early May of 2005, however, Fowler withdrew his ownership bid, acknowledging that he could not provide adequate proof of his financial stake in the ownership group. Fowler held out the possibility that he might be a limited partner in an ownership group, which might help him avoid the possibility of losing his $20 million deposit if the deal collapses. Sports sociologist Harry Edwards told the Mercury News This is not a race issue or double standard. These [financial issues] should have been uncovered and dealt with before he was introduced. There was tremendous hope in Fowler. The NFL wants to get past this historic discrepancy, but hope is a very, very poor strategy.
Arizona Daily Star, February 20, 2005, p. A1.
Grand Rapids Press, February 15, 2005, p. D5.
Houston Chronicle, February 19, 2005, p. 7.
Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, February 18, 2005; February 27, 2005.
Mercury News (San Jose), May 11, 2005.
New York Times, February 15, 2005, p. D1; March 1, 2005, p. D2.
Saint Paul Pioneer Press (St. Paul, MN), February 15, 2005.
St. Petersburg Times, February 20, 2005, p. 2C.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), August 17, 2004, p. 1C; January 20, 2005, p. 3C; March 24, 2005.
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