Walter Shorenstein was a man of means. A billionaire property developer, his was the first number the mayor of San Francisco called in a frantic effort to save the city’s baseball team.
A storied franchise that had already relocated once from New York in 1958, the wayward Giants were now about to head back east for the start of the 1993 season after a group from the Tampa and St. Petersburg area reached an agreement to buy them.
Dogged by poor attendance at a soulless and windswept stadium in San Francisco, the team had been rescued once before when a local real estate magnate stepped up at the last minute to stop a move to Toronto 16 years earlier. But now that the deal was basically done, next stop was central Florida.
Renowned as the man who built San Francisco, Shorenstein was undaunted in his new role as baseball savior. He had a tiny window of three weeks to put a local group together to hopefully persuade Major League Baseball (MLB) to keep the Giants in San Francisco where some of the greatest names in the game’s history, like Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal, had built their Hall of Fame careers.
He also had a substantial company to run and while he was explaining to the mayor on the phone that the newly formed Giants investment group needed a few more partners, he looked across his office at the Hong Kong real estate broker who was here to put the final touches on a deal to sell one of Shorenstein’s buildings to a Taiwanese investor.
“Phil,” he said. “You like baseball, you want a part of this?” Almost before Shorenstein could finish his question, Philip D. Morais replied: “I’m in.”
Born and raised in Hong Kong of Macanese parents, Morais had developed a passion for baseball by playing it with mostly Japanese kids in Hong Kong little leagues. His love for the game was consummated when his grandmother migrated to San Francisco in 1965 during the heyday of Willie Mays and the Giants.
And now he suddenly found his name next to those of the Bay Area business elite like Charles Schwab, head of the eponymous discount brokerage firm, and Donald Fischer, founder of the Gap retail chain, in an effort to keep the team in town.
“Walter probably would not have made the offer if he knew I wasn’t American,” said Morais. One year earlier, there had been a significant uproar in the still largely xenophobic world of baseball over the purchase of the Seattle Mariners by Japanese video game giant Nintendo.
In a strikingly similar situation, Seattle civic leaders had reached out to Nintendo to help keep the team from moving to central Florida only to watch as MLB capitulated to anti-Japanese sentiment and forced the deal to be restructured. Eventually, the Mariners would be transferred to the ownership of Nintendo USA.
Major League Baseball would subsequently vote against relocating the team and in favor of the San Francisco group. Although he held only a minority stake in the Giants, both MLB and the FBI would still do a thorough background check on Morais. “Finally, after a year, I got clearance and became one of the first Asian owners in baseball,” he said.
Today, Asian ownership has its fingerprints all over European football. Tycoons like Malaysia’s Tony Fernandes with Queens Park Rangers, Singaporean billionaire Peter Lim with Atletico Madrid, former Thai PM and telecom magnate Thaksin Shinawatra at Manchester City and his countryman the late duty free king Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha at Leicester City, are but a few of the high profile Asians who own or have owned European football teams.
The prevalence of Asian ownership in North American sports is much less significant. Shanghai-born Charles Wong saved the New York Islanders from relocation as did Mumbai-born software billionaire Vivek Randavie when he kept the NBA’s Sacramento Kings in the California state capital. Pakistani-born billionaire Shahid Khan became part of the exclusive NFL ownership fraternity when he bought the Jacksonville Jaguars and kept them in the northern Florida city.
Unlike Morais, all those owners made their fortune in the US and had majority control of their franchises. The one similarity, however, is that all of them were brought aboard to rescue a distressed asset. “The Giants were definitely a distressed asset when I got involved,” said Morais. “The team was losing US$10 to $12 million a year. We bought the team for $100 million and had to borrow 50% of it.”
Morais share was reputed to be 5% and over the next eight years the losses would keep piling up as would the cash calls from the ownership group. “I was not really aware that my initial investment would require further cash calls,” he said. But as he dutifully ponied up millions annually, his stake in the team was fortified all in the hope that a new waterfront ballpark would energize the franchise.
The ballpark would open in 2000 and it’s safe to say things worked out. The Giants would eventually set a National League record for attendance with a 530 consecutive game sellout streak that included three World Series Championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014. According to Forbes magazine, the Giants are now the fifth most valuable team in baseball with a valuation of $3 billion.
“Sport is just not a business, at least for me,” Morais said. “Of course there are business elements inherent and while I may use some business acumen in trying to understand the things they are doing at the upper levels of the organization, it’s more of an enjoyment for me.”
Today, Morais’ main business is as chairman of Chi International, a company which manages a number of service residences and hotels in Hong Kong as well as a luxury resort in Fiji. According to Morais’ daughter Pilar, the group CEO, her low key father rarely parlays his connection with one of the most valuable and storied franchises in American sports.
“He is not big on self-promotion,” she said. “But our entire family lives and breathes the Giants and the only purpose of the TV in our conference room is so we can watch the games during working hours.”
Pilar also explained how her father’s business acumen has been pivotal in growing the company. “He taught us the knack for picking locations and buildings that may not have seemed desirable at the time,” she said. “But through vision and hard work, the areas and property would soon become some of the most desirable.”
Of course, it’s the classic case of distressed assets because, clearly, some lessons learned are applicable in both sports and business.
Tim Noonan is a writer based in Bangkok and Toyko, covering sports and culture. Follow him on twitter @T_NoonanEast