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Culture / Sporting Life

New Rockets Owner Tilman Fertitta Tells Uncomfortable Truths On Football, the NHL and Money Decisions

This Loyal Billionaire is Not Just Another Boring Sports Boss

BY // 10.11.17

You don’t see both an astronaut and a police chief at a sports press conference every day. But when Tilman J. Fertitta is involved, things are often anything but ordinary. When it comes to Fertitta, you might as well throw the status quo out the window — and drop kick it all the way to Galveston Bay.

On the day he’s officially introduced as the Houston Rockets’ new owner, Fertitta shows how refreshingly candid, openly driven and fiercely loyal he is. The man who broke the North American record for the most money ever spent buying a sports team (dropping a cool $2.2 billion on the Rockets to be precise) stays true to himself on day one, though it’s apparent that some conservative sports writers may need some time to get used to him.

Sports writers claim they love covering people who speak their mind — and then many of them often turn right around and criticize any major figure who actually speaks his mind. Fertitta speaks his — and then some — for intro openers.

The billionaire tycoon delivers takes on the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NHL and nonsensical rules during one of the most entertaining and truthful press conferences ever conducted by a professional sports team owner.

“We really don’t know where football is going,” Fertitta says at one point. “There’s nothing like the NFL, we all agree that we wait for football season. But even people I know in the NFL are concerned where it’s going to be in 50 years. With baseball, the average viewing age is 60 years old.

“..I would have been scared to pay $2.2 billion for an NFL franchise these days. NFL teams don’t like hearing that. But the NBA is where it’s at.”

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Fertitta is not saying anything that Bill Simmons hasn’t been saying for a year now. Intelligent sports fans who understand the NBA’s amazingly young and global reach get this. But people still aren’t used to hearing such talk come from the lips of an owner.

And how about Fertitta on the Houston Astros’ dramatic run to the American League Championship Series? He starts by wishing Astros owner Jim Crane all the best in the world. But then throws in, “I wish they were my team right now,” with a big grin. Fertitta will never be boring. He does not lapse into political speak.

He’s also refreshingly honest on the billion dollar calculations that went into the purchase of this “generational asset.” “I sat down with my family and said, ‘We’re going to spend two billion dollars on the Houston Rockets,” Fertitta says. ” ‘Is there anything else you’d rather buy for two billion? Anything else you want to own on this planet?

‘Do you want to buy a space shuttle to hang out with (astronaut and Tilman buddy) Scott (Kelly)? Do you want to buy the Bellagio?’ ”

This Houston family wanted the Rockets more than anything else — and the one gaping void in Tilman’s dream portfolio has been filled. Rockets CEO Tad Brown reveals that The Billion Dollar Buyer put his head down on the table and started to cry when he realized he’d be able to close on buying the Rockets. Fertitta’s passion would come right through a FaceTime call.

Tilman Fertitta’s Loyal Astronaut Buddy

There is a reason that both an astronaut and a police chief come to the new owner’s first Rockets moment. There is a reason that the Rockets need to set aside four full rows of seating for all the Tilman friends, family and work colleagues who wouldn’t imagine missing it. There is a reason Rhonda DePaulis, an assistant who’s been with him for more than 20 years, stands quietly in the back, almost proudly taking it all in.

Tilman Fertitta’s been loyal to these people even as he’s lived a dream life, and they’re loyal right back to him. If you cannot see that through the pageantry — the swirling confetti that will greet his walk through the bowels of the Toyota Center, the cheering Rockets employees, the sign revealing this all is being filmed and you could end up on his CNBC reality TV show — you’re not seeing the full picture.

Fertitta calls enough people up to the main stage to take pictures with him afterwards (surely setting some type of sports press conference world record) that the cameramen are in danger of developing carpal tunnel syndrome on their shutter fingers. The billionaire just doesn’t want any of his people to be left out of the moment.

“Congratulations buddy,” Scott Kelly, the astronaut who spent a year in space and doesn’t have to be here if he doesn’t want to be, says simply when he grips Fertitta’s hand on stage. Then, Kelly drifts off to the side and puts on a striking pair of blue sunglasses, instantly becoming the coolest guy in the room again.

Scott Kelly

“We respect the hustle,” Brown says of Fertitta’s drive to do a deal with departing Rockets owner Leslie Alexander both “quicker and higher than anybody else.” Respect the hustle. When is the last time you think anyone said that about one of the NFL’s overlord octogenarian owners?

When is the last time a professional sports owner openly talked about the fans as customers who need to come first and sounded like he actually meant it?

“I’m in the service business,” Fertitta says. “I’m in the hospitality business. The saying I preach every day is ‘There are no spare customers.’ ”

It is not hard to see where Fertitta gets this from. His father Vic, who owned a seafood restaurant in Galveston that Tilman used to work the floor at, comes over to me after the press conference and introduces himself with a still strong handshake. “Let me know if there’s anything you need,” he says.

Needless to say, this isn’t how reporters are usually treated at these types of events. Usually, we’re cast a wary eye at. But the Fertittas reach out.

Houston’s NHL Reality

Tilman Fertitta knows that some of his customers say they’re dying for Houston to have its own NHL team too. But he wonders if Houstonians love hockey enough to put 16,000 to 18,000 people in the stands every night — and issues something of a challenge there.

“I would put an NHL team here tomorrow, but it has got to work,” he says. “Do I want to see Toyota Center filled up 300 nights a year? Definitely. We’ll do whatever we can do, but it’s got to make sense. But we will be aggressive. That’s my nature.”

After the press conference is long over, Tilman Fertitta is still up there on that stage, taking pictures, telling stories and cracking jokes. He notes how lucky he is that both the Rockets and his beloved University of Houston share the color red. He makes a crack about wishing he could buy UH too (he’s kidding.) He poses with his sons — Michael, Patrick and Blakeand tells everyone to blame them for any bad Rockets decisions with a wink.

“I’m just going to be Tilman,” he says. Houston sports fans should only hope. If you’re smart, you don’t want this guy to change.

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