With the recent success of the Cavs, making their second consecutive appearance in the NBA Finals, it’s easy to forget how humble their origins were.
But in the 1970s, they were a terrible team in a league that was a distant third in popularity to Major League Baseball and the NFL – and didn’t even televise their games live.
The Cavs were a brainchild of Cleveland native Nick Mileti, and were one step in his becoming a sports impresario in Northeast Ohio, including a stint owning the Indians – and keeping them afloat during some tough times in the 1970s.
Mileti was the son of Sicilian immigrants and went to John Adams High School and Bowling Green State University (the alumni center on campus bears his family name) before attending law school at Ohio State.
Bowling Green State University draws many students from the Cleveland area, and Mileti was organizing a BG game in Cleveland. The game between BGSU and Niagara was a smashing success, drawing 11,000 fans to the decrepit Cleveland Arena, prompting Mileti to say, “If I could draw 11,000 one night, I could draw 8,000 every night.”
In 1968, Mileti bought the Arena, which was state of the art when Al Sutphin had it built for the Cleveland Barons of the American Hockey League in 1937, but was starting to show its age and worse. MIleti wasn’t himself wealthy, but was able to put together a partnership for the $1.9 million asking price. One of the things that amazed Mileti was that the team controlled bookings at the arena, and it was Barons games, the circus … and that’s it.
Mileti sought a basketball team, and two years later, got one, the Cavaliers, whose wine and gold colors were a tribute to Mileti’s high school alma mater. The cost was $3.7 million, and Mileti said he’d pay in installments.
Almost immediately, he set out looking for a new home for the Cavs – and not necessarily in downtown Cleveland, either. Following the 1972 season, when both the Pittsburgh ABA franchise folded and the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals decamped for the Midwest, the Cavaliers were the only pro basketball team between the East Coast and Detroit. There were millions of potential fans, and Mileti proposed an arena on farmland in Summit County, a short drive from Cleveland, but also close to Akron, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and Columbus. Mileti estimated that there were five million people within a 50-mile radius.
Mileti had also set his sights on the floundering Indians. Vernon Stouffer owned the team, and financial setbacks in his food business in the late 1960s had taken a toll on his personal finances. A deal to sell the team to George Steinbrenner had fallen through (Steinbrenner then found out that CBS was looking to unload the Yankees, and the rest is history), and after a decade where the Indians seemed on the verge of moving, a deal was in place for the Indians to play a series of “home” games in New Orleans. Times were dire.
But in February 1972, it was announced that Mileti had stepped in to make an offer for the Indians. The deal was sealed a month later, with Mileti fronting a syndicate that bought the team for $9 million. Mileti had effectively kept Major League Baseball in Cleveland, and his empire continued to expand.
The Coliseum – its name a nod to his Italian roots – opened in 1974 with a performance by Frank Sinatra. Soon, it was home to the Cavs and the Crusaders of the World Hockey Association. Mileti also owned a radio station, where he was able to get the games of his teams broadcast. The Plain Dealer suggested he should buy Muny Light (the city electric provider would become the centerpiece of the fight between then-Mayor Dennis Kucinich and city bankers that precipitated the city’s default in 1978).
But Mileti’s empire, like so many other sports owners in Cleveland (Bill Veeck and Art Modell come to mind), was built on other people’s money. A 1975 Sports Illustrated profile estimated the value of his holdings around $45 million, but of that, only $1 million of his money was used – and much of that was borrowed.
After the Indians had lost $2 million annually on Mileti’s watch, he was forced to resign as team chief operating officer in 1973, succeeded by Ted Bonda. Mileti kept the title of team president until 1975. He sold the Cavs in 1980, and before long, they were in the hands of Ted Stepien. The bar is high for poor sports team ownership in Cleveland, but Stepien more than exceeds it.
Mileti has kind of a mixed legacy as a sports owner in Cleveland. He’s regarded as a visionary, getting an NBA team for Cleveland and building an arena with amenities now considered standard, but he did most of it with other people’s money.
Former Forest City CEO Albert Ratner put it best in a Plain Dealer interview: “When he came along, Cleveland was going down the tubes. That gave a creative risk-taker with little capital a chance to make his mark. Nick did it when no one else would take a risk.”
Photo: Cleveland Memory Project