One of the founding fathers of what we have come to know and appreciate as today’s NBA, sits humbly in an office at Cricket Arena. Friendly and soft-spoken, it is hard to believe that Carl Scheer, minority owner and CEO of the Charlotte Checkers, and former majority owner and operator of the Greenville Grrrowl, developer of the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville, S.C., previous president and general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, and creator of the beloved All-Star Slam Dunk contest, is known as one of the most formidable businessmen in sports.
Quotes such as, “He simply outshuffled us,” and descriptives like “driven and aggressive,” seem hardly to fit the good-natured and well-liked owner of the Checkers, an ECHL, AA minor league hockey team. In a world where sports success is measured in bling and Bentleys, Scheer simply represents a soulful dedication to the roots of some of America’s favorite pastimes.
Scheer’s roots run deep. He was around before big names like Julius Irving dominated the court. Heck, he was rather serendipitously hired into the NBA administration office despite the inability to type; one guesses his sharp intellect and fastidious passion for sports didn’t go unnoticed.
A Player in his Own Right
After a respectable run in undergraduate college basketball and baseball, Scheer graduated from Marquette Law School and began a career in a small law firm in Greensboro. After realizing that his desire to litigate cases would likely be unrealized due to the size of the firm, he visited Guilford College and asked to be slated to broadcast basketball and football games – a passion he had indulged in graduate school.
Scheer had made fast friends with many in the sports community when opportunity knocked. According to Scheer, “Guilford was embarking upon an aggressive, small college basketball campaign, largely driven by star player, Bob Kauffman. I had announced his college career, and once he found himself in demand by two competing leagues, he asked me to represent him for his contract negotiations.”
Scheer elaborates, “In 1968, agents were unheard of. Knowing I was a lawyer, Bob asked me to represent him.” He jokes, “I am sure I left the poor guy quite a bit of money on the table! But, really, the experience introduced me into the world of sports and business; I was hooked.”
Not surprisingly, his work ethic and comfortable personality helped to foster a good rapport with team owners, and he was asked to interview for the position of assistant to the commissioner of the NBA.
Recalls Scheer, “The NBA commissioner at the time, Walter Kennedy, told me after my third interview that he liked me and thought I was a great candidate, but the job was going to ‘the other guy.’ At the time I was content with that. I had had that 15 minutes of glory and was happy to go back to my small North Carolina law firm. But months later he called back and told me the other candidate declined the position, and asked if I would like to be reconsidered. It was a dream come true. I moved to New York and began my indoctrination into the game. There, my sports career started.”
When Scheer was hired as the assistant to the NBA commissioner, the 500-plus people now manning the global organization consisted of an office of a mere six people, and the sport was struggling to survive. Scheer says Kennedy directed him, “Right now, you are going to do nothing but learn in minute detail the history of this league.” Scheer says that he read meeting minutes, history books, rulebooks, and met with NBA icon and NBA Hall of Fame coach, Eddie Gottlieb. Gottlieb, known among other things as the man who signed Wilt Chamberlain to his first professional contract and a notable figure during the introduction of the 24-second shot clock, provided a crash-course education for Scheer.
Scheer comments, “I came away with a real education from the owners, the coaches, managers, and officials about what is involved in all the different facets of sports management. The exposure was unparalled, and taught me one basic truth: knowing the history of the game is vital to the healthy growth and development of any sport.”
He adds, “To see what these guys went through very early to sustain basketball before it was a marquee event really demonstrated pure dedication. Dedication to the integrity of the sport and the fans was the primary focus of the organization.”
Scheer went on to manage the ABA’s Carolina Cougars and moved to Denver to lead the Denver Nuggets in 1974. He was named Executive of the Year in 1973 and again in 1974 by The Sporting News, and even had his picture on a special edition Pepsi can in 1974 and 1975. He masterminded the legendary Slam Dunk Contest in 1976 featuring David Thompson and Julius Irving, helped execute the merger between the American Basketball Association and the National Basketball Association, was named president and general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers in 1984, and was named the Commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association in 1986.
He returned to Charlotte in 1988 as the first president and general manager of the Charlotte Hornets, a year wherein the team enjoyed 20 victories and led the league in average attendance. In 1992, Scheer received an induction into the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame. In 1999, Scheer was named Greenville Businessman of the Year by Greenville Business and Living Magazine and also received the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A TEAM
In 1993, Scheer, together with Felix Sabates – also a notable sports figure – purchased the Charlotte Checkers, bringing hockey back to Charlotte after a 16-year hiatus. The hockey team advanced to postseason and averaged an impressive 8,000 fans per game in its first season.
Scheer and Sabates have worked very effectively and amicably in their combined years of dedication to the Charlotte sports community. The pair was enjoying considerable success when Scheer started ScheerSports, Inc. in the 1990s to develop the Bi-Lo Center in Greenville. After spending countless hours and considerable funds on the arena, however, Scheer felt that his attention was being spread too thin.
In late 1996, the partners decided to sell the Charlotte Checkers to minority stakeholders, who then sold the team to Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Wooldridge. The organization became what Scheer calls “the poor sister” of the beleaguered NBA team. Once the Hornets left town for the Louisiana bayou in 2002, the hockey team was in serious trouble.
When Scheer received a call from Mike Crum of the Charlotte Auditorium-Coliseum-Convention Center Authority asking if he would be interested in repurchasing the team, he got back on the phone to Felix Sabates. Remarks Scheer, “Felix says that I talked him into re-buying the team, and I guess maybe I did, but it seemed like such a great opportunity for everybody involved.”
Three years later, it appears the Checkers have again turned the corner. Numbers are transitioning from red to black, and the promotions of Jeff Longo to Charlotte Checkers president and Derek Wilkinson to head coach/general manager have functioned to reignite fans’ enthusiasm for the ice.
Explains Scheer, “Jeff has provided an energy and momentum that has proved invaluable in turning things around. Derek has an incredible focus and a demeanor that you usually only see after decades of experience. It is clear to me that both of these young guys have only just begun their careers, and that they will be in great demand. It is gratifying to work with people of such enthusiastic talent, and to hopefully provide a foundation that will assist them in that growth.”
The NHL standoff has culled some significant talent, which also hasn’t hurt in attracting some audiences. “But,” Scheer comments, “while we have benefited by some increased competition on the ice, we won’t be hurt once the standoff is over. The average fan just wants to see good competition.”
Ironically, the biggest boon for the team, its pending relocation to the New Charlotte Arena, could also be its biggest hurdle: diehard fans lament the intimacy of Cricket Arena and are fearful of rising ticket prices. Yet, Scheer contends that the venue will do nothing but increase the team’s visibility and support while maintaining affordability and intimacy in a state-of-the-art facility.
“One thing I learned from the NBA is that sports is a business of people and relationships, not bricks and mortar. We are dedicated to making the transition seamless for the faithful, and at the same time look forward to attracting some new fans,” says Scheer, referring to the over 60,000 people who work in the center city.
Charlotte Checkers’ ticket prices will top out at $25 as opposed to $22 from last season, and the team’s negotiations won decent parking rates. The arena contract is for three years with options on both sides, with the Checkers paying out-of-pocket expenses with incentives for attendance. Comments Scheer, “The fans will be able to enjoy the game in one of the newest and best facilities in the country at the price they would have paid at Cricket Arena.”
He adds, “Staying at Cricket was not possible from a financial standpoint. But, we have made arrangements to facilitate the same level of entertainment. All of our hockey seating will be centered around the 5,200 seats at the core level of the arena, and the remaining seating will be curtained off to provide the same intimacy. Plus, the restaurant and technology of the new stadium will increase the entertainment value considerably.”
Since the announcement of the move to the new arena, the Checkers have also announced plans to move its business offices from Cricket Arena into downtown’s Johnston Building on South Tryon Street.
While Scheer’s Checkers have been ushered into a 21st century venue, he still maintains a strict adherence to the sports mores that commanded his passion in the old days.
“What’s special about the Checkers is the same thing I saw when the NBA was in its infancy. The players are young and tireless, playing for the love of the game. The feeling, the effort and the energy that crosses between the players and the fans are what fuel the magic.”
One of Scheer’s favorite moments of his sports career exemplifies this best. “In 1988 when the Hornets reintroduced professional basketball to Charlotte, we had our first home game. There were 24,000 people packing the stands, country bands, speeches from dignitaries, and a lot of black ties.”
He continues, “Well, with great expectations, often comes a great awakening. The clock ran down and the Hornets had lost by 40 points! I was beside myself – How could we have lost so badly on our debut game? Then something incredible happened. The buzzer sounded, the players ran off the court, and the fans jumped to their feet giving the new team a standing ovation. They were just happy to have their team back! That is a feeling I will never forget.”
Scheer recently sold another team close to his heart, the ECHL Greenville Grrrowl, so that he can focus on the task at hand with the Checkers. And while the Charlotte team has a way to go tackling fan concerns and getting used to its new home, Scheer is eyeing the ECHL championship Kelly Cup in 2006.
Last year the team made the playoffs and fans are certainly encouraged. But, perhaps more than they realize, they should be glad to have Carl Scheer back on the team.