American Way 20.11.2004
He may be Jersey-born, but this gridiron-loving rocker
picked the City of Brotherly Love for his new arena football team.
Just 11 blocks from the Philadelphia site where John Hancock put his, uh, John Hancock on the Declaration of Independence, Jon Bon Jovi is doing some signing of his own. The rocker whose hair band filled stadiums in the '80s is autographing 500 packets being sent to season ticket holders of the Philadelphia Soul, the Arena Football League team Bon Jovi co-owns. He's sitting at a conference table in a nondescript office in a downtown high-rise. Though history is palpable almost everywhere else in Philadelphia, there's not much of it around the Soul's headquarters. Then again, at the Turf Club downstairs, you can not only wager on the ponies but enjoy a nice mushroom Swiss burger. So there's that.
Bon Jovi won't be having the mushroom Swiss, though. He's working through lunch. He's been in meetings all day, and has a charity event this afternoon once the autographs are finished. Besides, given that this 42-year-old's physique is as chiseled as some of his players', he probably doesn't eat greasy cheeseburgers. Bon Jovi's still got the lead singer looks, too. He's tan and ruggedly handsome, his eyes brilliantly Sinatra blue. And it's all, of course, topped with That Hair. True, it doesn't stand as high and mighty as it once did, but it's still living large. Given the cover boy mug, not to mention the fact he's wearing a pair of skin-tight, rust-colored pants that only a musician could pull off, anyone could be forgiven for not taking Bon Jovi too seriously when he starts talking about investments, strategies for running a successful company, and his preferred management philosophy. But don't let his appearance fool you.
Consider that in 2003, while on a world tour, Bon Jovi coughed up a reported $8 million to pay half of the start-up costs for the AFL's newest team. And consider that the Soul didn't exactly go the way of the defunct Houston ThunderBears from there. While many AFL teams burn through their start-up cash and more in their first few years, struggling to make a connection with a local fan base, the Soul made a profit and supporters turned out in droves. (The team led the league in attendance last year.) The team also inked NFL-style sponsorship and marketing deals that were unprecedented in the 19-year history of the indoor league. The Soul may now be the most popular of all AFL franchises. Its merchandise already outsells all other Arena League teams.
The bottom line: Yeah, he's good-looking and can carry a tune, but Bon Jovi is also a talented entrepreneur. His band, after all, has sold 100 million albums and has managed to knock out a few hits well after the Guns N' Roses of the world bloated away. If credit for that success goes to the self-managed Bon Jovi, credit for the Soul's success probably goes to Bon Jovi as well. And there's probably a link between the two. Bon Jovi believes his team has benefited from the long-standing goodwill between his band and the city that birthed both the Declaration of Independence and Rocky. "The band has played a lot of shows in Philly over the years," says Bon Jovi through those razor-cut bangs. "I did my first radio promotion work here. We made an album here, 7800 Degrees Fahrenheit. Before we even had a record out, we started coming down here and playing clubs.
"You know, when the radio jocks have played your music for 20 years and people have memories of coming to all those Philly shows over the years, it becomes part of the patchwork of their lives. There's a kinship between us. So I know that many people who were supporters of the band now support our team."
Then again, the team was an anemic 5-11 last season. And in a town known both for packing stadiums and for booing the home team more loudly than the opposition, Bon Jovi is well aware that warm memories and "You Give Love A Bad Name/Wanted Dead or Alive" medleys over the Wachovia Spectrum's sound system won't appease Philly fans forever. The City of Brotherly Love loves a winner, and Bon Jovi and the rest of the Soul organization are hard at work trying to give them one. "There was a honeymoon period because we were new and I was the co-owner of the team and there are die-hard football fans here," he says. "But we didn't win. We have to win for them now. And we will."
Besides ensuring future victories, here's what else Bon Jovi has to say about his team, his band, his adopted city, and more.
Why an Arena Football League team?
What was intriguing to me about the AFL was that, for a football junkie like me, it was an opportunity to be around the game more often. As an entrepreneur, there were opportunities with a merchandising deal, a uniform deal, and putting something together that was grass roots and that we could make bigger than anyone had ever dreamed of.
What kind of fans are the folks in Philly?
The fans are so loyal. They are in love with their teams. The people here are different than the New York fans because New Yorkers have the Jets and the Giants, the Knicks and the Nets, the Mets and the Yankees. These people live and breathe Eagles, Sixers, Flyers, and Phillies. They always want a champion.
You once had Al Gore and Bruce Springsteen in your owner's box at a game. When out-of-towners come for games, where do you recommend they stay? Opposing teams really enjoy the Loews Hotel. We put our recruits up there, too, sometimes when they're in town for a weekend. My partner with the Soul, Craig Spencer, co-owns The Ritz-Carlton, and it's certainly another first-class hotel.
Philadelphia has a vibrant dining scene that's gotten even more national attention lately. Any favorite restaurants?
The Capital Grille is great. I've eaten with the team at Chickie's & Pete's Cafe near Broad Street in South Philly on many occasions. And the Elephant & Castle is a great place to grab lunch when I'm at the office.
What about nightlife? Where does the team go to celebrate a win?
Chickie's & Pete's also hosts the Soul's post-game party that we have after every home game. Our players, coaches, and staff use it as an opportunity to really get out and meet the fans. We've had some really great times there in the past year.
You've made community involvement a key element of your team's operations, even going so far as to employ a full-time person to do community relations work.
What my partner and I knew from day one was that what was going to differentiate us from not only the big four major teams here but from the minor league teams, which are also successful, was community outreach. We decided our community outreach had to be second to none - not the Eagles, not the Phillies, not the Flyers. So hundreds of thousands of dollars were given to various charities before we even played a single down.
What types of projects have you done?
Today, for example, I'm going to visit a $100,000 playground for disadvantaged youths. This playground has been in development for a year. The players helped build it. I was there in the planning stage. That's what we do. We find out who the charities are that need things and get involved. I didn't come here looking to be a carpetbagger. I came here looking to be a part of a community.
You mention the players get involved as well. In fact, you institute a "no thug" policy for players. What is that?
I want us to have guys who are going to represent myself and this organization off the field as much as on. I told our coach, Michael Trigg, that I would be willing to sacrifice having a better player if he's not going to abide by the role model rules that I want him to live by. I want our players to mean something in the community, to mean something to a kid who might look up to him.
Why is that so important to you?
I've done enough in my life to have seen both sides of that street and to see how easy it is to be a spoiled brat. You're a grown man, so act like it. And if you want to act like a fool around me, forget it. Because unlike a lot of situations in pro sports where these guys get away with everything because they have a lot of money and a guaranteed contract and the owner tolerates it, I have no patience for it. You can leave. I've always had a Henry Ford theory of doing business - if it has your name on it, you better have a great team of people around you to manage your ideas.
Are there any similarities between running a sports franchise and a rock band?
Both are team sports. I can't play a show if Tico [Torres, Bon Jovi's drummer] breaks his arm. We can't win a ballgame if we don't have all our players playing well. But there's been a learning curve here. This isn't a band, and I'm not on the field in the same way I'm up on the stage. You have to allow your coaches to be the voice. So you're relinquishing power, which isn't easy. But it adds a great humility that I'm able to take back to the band.
Your coaches may be the voice, but we happen to know you do plenty of Philly-style screaming from your box on game day.
My wife keeps telling me I need to learn the Steinbrenner face and show no emotion. But I can't do it. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I've been guilty of that in everything I've ever done. Winning is great, losing is murder. When you win, you're over it the next day. When you lose, that hurts all week. I think the fans here relate to that. They want passion. And I am one of them. I'm fan number one.
Running this team, even with a partner and some other investors, is a lot of work. Plus, you've put out a box set and have a new album on the way and are doing a couple of movie projects. Why work so hard?
I'm like Michael Corleone. Every time I tell myself I'm done, they keep pulling me back in. Sometimes with the music, an idea pops out from between my ears and I say, "You know what this means. I'm going to have to tour again. I was planning on sitting around getting fat, but here I go." I keep working on acting, too, because I'd love to have my movie career catch up to my music career. I don't spend enough time in California, though, to do that yet. The team is something I do because I love it. I didn't buy this team to make money, and I think that because we're not afraid to lose money, we haven't. Everyone told me this was a mistake, except my wife. But I believed in this. I told them that the heart can win big battles if you believe, and now they're starting to believe that, too.
You've been all over the world during your career. What makes Philadelphia stand out among all the places you've been to?
It's the birthplace of what is America. And people nowadays, with so many distractions - the Internet, TV, computers, movies, and pop rock - they forget about that history. So coming here, you have a perfect opportunity to see it again. It's all around you when you walk down the street. This is a big city with a small-town feel. It's a city that has often been overshadowed by Washington and New York. But it's those kinds of places - the ones that people don't talk about all the time - that are usually the great surprises.