The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett (by Denis M. Crawford)

The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett: Maverick Entrepreneur of North American Sports is the biography of one of the most influential sportsmen...
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  1. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett: Maverick Entrepreneur of North American Sports is the biography of one of the most influential sportsmen of the twentieth century. Dozens of interviews with Bassett’s contemporaries and archival research provide the basis for this work which began as a PhD dissertation in American Studies and was successfully defended at Penn State-Harrisburg in 2020. Interview subjects include Bassett’s friends and family, but also his sports rivals and political opponents. The aim was to craft as complete a biography of Bassett as possible while arguing for his place among the leaders of professional sport in the 1960s and 1970s.

    While there is a great deal in the book about Bassett’s time in the World Football League (WFL) and United States Football League (USFL), a significant portion of the book details Bassett’s time in the World Hockey Association (WHA). A chapter goes into depth on his battle with Harold Ballard and the Toronto Maple Leafs for the hockey soul of Toronto from 1973-1976 while owner of the Toronto Toros. Another chapter chronicles his successful attempts to market professional hockey in Birmingham, Alabama with a team known unofficially known as the “Birmingham Bullies” and “Birmingham Baby Bulls.” The reader will also learn of Mr. Bassett’s role in midwifing Wayne Gretzky’s entry into the WHA and his role in emancipating the Canadian Juniors, acts that led to his team being shut out of the WHA/NHL merger.
    The book is available directly from McFarland Publishing: The Life and Teams of Johnny F. Bassett – McFarland (mcfarlandbooks.com)

    About the Author:
    Denis M. Crawford grew up in the Tampa Bay area and was just the right age to be fascinated by Mr. Bassett’s Tampa Bay Bandits of the USFL. He is author of two other books: McKay’s Men: The 1979 Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Hugh Culverhouse and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He holds master’s in Communication and History from Florida State University and Youngstown State University, respectively, and a doctorate in American Studies from Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg. His research interests are upstart sports leagues and the rhetoric of losing. He is currently on the staff of Youngstown State University.

    Excerpt from Chapter Ten: “Emancipation of the Canadian Juniors”
    The true legacy of Johnny F. Bassett’s time in the WHA, what made him beloved, was the impact he had on the player selection system. Hockey players gained a level of control over their own careers that they have never relinquished and that their predecessors only dreamt of. Bassett’s signing of multiple junior players to professional contracts gave the WHA star appeal and a reason for fans to watch. Just as the American Football League took away just enough business from the NFL to force a merger, so had the WHA made the NHL agree to a merger. This led to more jobs for hockey players, more NHL franchises in Canada and the United States, and proof that a team in the Deep South could work. Even though the Atlanta Flames fled to Canada, a precedent for hockey in the South had been set by Bassett. The Tampa Bay Lightning, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators, and Carolina Hurricanes would not exist without Bassett’s foray into Birmingham. “He was such an innovator,” Gilles Leger said. “He was one of the last, great original individual owners in hockey. He helped to grow the game by giving so many guys the opportunity to make money. It helped that he could relate to them because of his own hockey and athletic background.”

    Bassett got an idea of how much his contributions to hockey were appreciated one night when he and Steve Ehrhart were on a business trip to Oklahoma in the early 1980s. According to his friend, they took in a minor-league hockey game and an impromptu tribute broke out. “We were at a minor-league hockey game in Tulsa and nobody knew who we were in the arena,” Ehrhart recalled:

    “We went down by the bench and some of the players and coaches started banging their sticks against the boards in tribute to Johnny. They knew how iconic he was in hockey, having created so many jobs for so many people in the WHA, in Toronto, and in Birmingham. Johnny kind of shrugged it off, but the respect for him in the hockey world was enormous. He just joked it off, reminding everyone that he was the only man dumb enough not to sign Wayne Gretzky.”

    In the opinion of Wayne Gretzky, the work of Bassett in the WHA paved the way for juniors to become professionals, hockey teams to find a home in warm-weather locales, and the sport itself to become a national presence in the United States. “He was very much an innovator,” Wayne Gretzky said about Bassett’s position on junior players and expanding hockey to new markets:

    “He didn’t believe that because a league made a rule that it should become law. He thought the laws that governed society were bigger than what a sports owner dictated. The rule was no 20-year old players and he just didn’t believe that. The only Southwest team when I played was the Los Angeles Kings. No one had the foresight that Dallas, Phoenix, and San Jose could do it. The Bulls really opened a lot of doors, not just for those cities’ success, but from a television marketing point of view. That team in Birmingham helped pave the way for hockey to become more of a national sport in the United States. Kids in the South and Southwest now grow up wanting to play hockey and that is part of his foresight.”
    [​IMG]
    Bassett’s Ottawa Nationals/Toronto Toros/Birmingham Bulls was just one of five franchises to survive all seven years of the WHA. During that time Bassett further burnished his reputation as a sports-idealist, a talented business operator, and a marketer extraordinaire. Honest, creative, and shrewd, Bassett had navigated very turbulent waters and came out as crisp and clean as any man could.
     
    Last edited by moderator Theokritos: Feb 22, 2021
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  2. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Thanks for joining us.

    Before coming across your presentation, I had no idea who Johnny F. Bassett was. Could you tell us a little bit about his background? How did he become wealthy and how he did he get into sports?
     
  3. Staniowski Registered User

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    The Bassett family has been one of Canada's best-known families over many decades. John F. Bassett's father and daughter were both more famous - at least in Canada - than he was.
     
  4. RustyRazor né Selfish Man

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    I just read both The Rebel League (WHL) and Football for a Buck (USFL) and John Bassett is a major part of both books. While I missed the WHL and WFL, I was a huge fan of the USFL when I was young. I'd be very interested in read more about him, I'll put this on my "Want to Read" list.

    I found the ever changing roster of his team in Birmingham fascinating -- one year it's a squad of goons, then next it's a haul of 18 year olds from junior hockey.
     
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  5. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Thank you for your question and interest! Bassett was helped by family money. The Bassett's were referred to as "The Canadian Rockefellers." His grandfather, John Bassett, Sr. was president of the Montreal Gazette and influential in Canadian politics. His father, John White Hughes Bassett, was president of the Toronto Telegram and CFTO-TV as well co-owner/board member of the Montreal Forum, Toronto Argonauts, and Maple Leaf Gardens. Johnny was a Davis Cup tennis player for Canada and a very good hockey player until a knee injury while playing college football in Canada.

    Bassett started at the family's telecommunications company, Baton Broadcasting, but quickly grew bored. He missed sports. After an attempt to bring a Grand Prix style race to the CNE grounds, he sold out all of his shares in Baton and purchased controlling interest in the Ottawa Nationals of the WHA and moved them to Toronto, rebranding them the Toros and began his career in upstart sports leagues. I must note that Bassett lost and remade the fortune from his selling out several times...sports was his obsession, and his family went along with him on a wild ride.
     
  6. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Yes, John White Hughes Bassett was a prominent man...owner, co-owner, or board member of many significant institutions. Bassett's daughter Carling was a successful professional tennis player. While she never won a Major, she won a few tournaments and had a very representative career.
     
  7. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Thank you for putting my book on you list! I found it interesting that Ed Willes dedicated The Rebel League in part to Bassett. The rapid turnover in Birmingham was indicative of Bassett's innate ability to read the tea leaves and craft a roster which suited the current sociological or political reality around him. The book covers how the goons were crafted to appeal to Birmingham's love of physical contact and the "Baby Bulls" the following year were in response to the likelihood the WHA/NHL merger would not go Bassett's way.
     
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  8. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Thanks for the insight.

    Do you happen to know how expensive resp. cheap it was to buy a WHA franchise like the Ottawa Nationals compared to buying an NHL franchise?
     
  9. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Yes, contemporary press accounts put the purchase price of the Nationals between $1.6 and $2.0 million. During this same period, NHL expansion franchises required a $6 million franchise fee.
     
  10. kaiser matias Registered User

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    Bassett certainly is an underrated figure in the history of sports, and he certainly is owed a lot more recognition for what he did.

    I also like that when he moved the Toronto Northmen to Memphis, he simply changed the name to "Southmen". It's such a simple move but brilliant, even if the people of Memphis didn't agree.
     
  11. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Right, so it was a bargain compared to what the NHL charged. How about the prospects in Ottawa respectively Toronto? Obviously Toronto is much bigger, but on the flipside Bassett had to compete with the well-established Maple Leafs there. Was market size the reason he still opted for Toronto or where there other factors involved too?
     
  12. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Thank you for commenting. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. The WFL team was also informally known as the Grizzlies in Memphis because of the bear logo on their helmets. It is also interesting that when Bassett moved the Toros to Birmingham, he re-named them the Bulls partly to keep the name in the bovine family, to keep the alliteration, and also because he did not need to buy all new uniforms!
     
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  13. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Good question. Bargain is a relative term when we are talking millions. There were high hopes for Ottawa because of a new 10,500 seat arena. However, the Nationals sold only 400 season tickets and drew crowds as small as 1.500. Owners Doug Michel and Nick Trbovich lost $1.5 million and were eager to sell...in fact they missed a lease payment which forced them to play some games at Maple Leaf Garden at the end of the season. Ottawa's souring on the WHA was one factor. Another was simply Bassett was a Torontonian who loved his city and like many hockey fans felt the Leafs under Harold Ballard were short-changing their constituents. Bassett felt the city could support two teams. He did not think he could overtake the Leafs, but felt with a different style of hockey and rosters filled with Canadian juniors and some European stars, he could appeal to the dissatisfied Leafs fan while courting a younger generation.
     
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  14. Staniowski Registered User

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    What was Bassett's involvement in the defection of Vaclav Nedomansky?
     
  15. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Very good question, thank you. When Vaclav Nedomansky announced his intention to defect from Czechoslovakia while in Switzerland in 1974, Bassett, along with many NHL and WHA teams, sent an emissary to Europe. GM Buck Houle traveled to Europe with a Czech-speaking Canadian businessman to explain how a Western contract worked. The personal touch helped, so did a promise to sign Nedomansky's teammate Richard Farda. Nedomansky even lived with the Bassett's for several days while his immigration status was worked out...no doubt the $100,000 annual contract helped Canadian immigration officials to realize Nedomansky had the means to stay.
     
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  16. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Of course.

    Interesting. What do you think are the crucial factors that ultimately made the Toros endeavour fail?
     
  17. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    I prefer to think of it as a successful failure...The Toros drew a respectable 10,000 per game, made the playoffs twice, had a high-powered offense with many star players (Nedomansky, Mahovlich, Henderson, Dillon, et al), and had promotions and giveaways years ahead of their time. Evel Kneivel even took shots on goal in a special broadcast on ABC's Wide World of Sports. The failure was that the Toros never found a suitable home of their own. The city did not work with Bassett to revamp the CNE arena and Varsity Arena (their first home) was just too small. The only suitable venue was Maple Leaf Garden. Bassett's chief rival, Harold Ballard, was the landlord and severely overcharged the Toros for the site, so no matter how well Bassett's team did on the ice or at the box office, he was operating from a financial hole each year just to cover rent. That led him to move to Birmingham, AL. While unorthodox to play hockey in the Deep South, Bassett had a reasonable rent at a brand new arena, and he continued the box office success there.
     
  18. Nerowoy nora tolad Registered User

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    Interesting given that idea is still as relevant now as it was then. If a startup group can get past the enormous territory fees to the Leafs, I think Toronto 2 is the most promising expansion candidate the NHL has:

    -The GTA is the 4th biggest metro area in NA IIRC
    -Its a rapidly growing area with a strong history and affinity for the sport
    -If you live in the area you know theres a growing, vocal number of people who just dont care for the leafs and never will. Similar to the Yankees/Mets split in NY, there are plenty of hockey fans (though usually more on the side of casual fans) who dont like the image the franchise projects, and the long incompetent stretches in the 80s and the 2010s didnt help the situation. Those voices are quieter now that the Leafs are being run by competent people, but its not hard to imagine a strong following springing up around Toronto 2.0 on day one.
     
  19. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    That makes sense. Too bad the city didn't revamp the other arena. Do we know why? Was the city simply not interested in having another big hockey franchise or were there strings being pulled by the owners and sponsors of the Maple Leafs?

    Certainly unorthodox. If the Birmingham Bulls were a box office success, why were they not considered a candidate for the NHL when the two leagues merged? You mention Bassett's historic role in bringing junior hockey stars to senior pro hockey. Was it out of spite that the NHL didn't want Bassett in the league?
     
  20. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    Thank you for commenting. I have only traveled to Toronto a handful of times and never realized how big it is until I arrived. I do think the area could support two NHL teams based not just on population, but passion for the sport. It would require cooperation with the Leafs, however, and I do not know if they would be willing to do so. After all, why would any entity openly court extra competition?
     
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  21. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    I do not know why Toronto did not do more for Bassett. The one limitation of my research is that I did not get the chance to explore any governmental documents of that era. As for Birmingham, spite is the correct word. Harold Ballard was a key member of the merger committee and he did not like the fact Bassett cost him money in Toronto and "stole" several Marlies right from under his nose. While the two men were cordial, and Ballard even came to Bassett's funeral and called him a "class guy," Ballard and the NHL as a whole were not thrilled with the increased salaries and loss of cheap talent Bassett caused.
     
  22. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Here's hoping that one day someone will get to do that research – maybe after picking up your book and wondering what went down in Toronto!

    Not exactly far-sighted on part of the NHL, but that's not much of a surprise.
     
  23. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    @Denis Crawford: Continuing with the Birmingham franchise in the AHL or IHL was not an option for Bassett?
     
  24. Denis Crawford Registered User

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    I am sure it was an option, but not one that appealed to him after proving his worth in the highest levels only to be cast out. Keep in mind he was coming off significant surgery for cancer (which everyone thought he had beaten, only to have it return a few years later) and he had lost quite a bit of money by this point with the Toros/Bulls and Southmen (his World Football League team). Accepting the settlement with the merger meant he could pay off his debts and get out with his finances even. He let the franchise go to local backers who started it up in the CHL. Bassett relocated to Longboat Key, FL where he further regained his health, built a very profitable condominium complex, enjoyed watching his daughter Carling become a successful professional tennis player, and get tempted back into sports with the founding of the United States Football League.
     
  25. Theokritos Global Moderator

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    Makes sense.

    Denis, is there anything you found out during your research you were not aware of before and that stands out to you as particularly impressive or noteworthy? Either about Bassett as a person or about his achievements.
     

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