William Hallissey "Billy" Sullivan, Jr. (September 13, 1915 – February 23, 1998) was an American businessman who owned the Boston Patriots franchise from their inception in the American Football League (AFL, 1960–1969) until their sale, as the New England Patriots of the NFL, to Victor Kiam in 1988.
Sullivan was born in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1915 and graduated from Boston College in 1937. The son of a Boston Globe correspondent, Sullivan himself became a sportswriter after college. He also served as a publicity director for Boston College, the University of Notre Dame, and the Boston Braves, putting out so many press releases that fellow sportwriter Red Smith dubbed Sullivan the "Maître de Mimeograph." Sullivan also served in the United States Navy during this time.
NFL franchise attempt
In 1959, Sullivan, by then involved in business ventures, requested a National Football League franchise in Boston. With Boston's five previous football franchises having folded or moved, the NFL later denied Sullivan's request.
Having not succeeded in starting an NFL franchise, Sullivan then turned to the new American Football League in 1959. For $25,000, he was awarded the league's eighth and final team for their inaugural 1960 season, the Boston Patriots. Sullivan gave his son Patrick Sullivan the title of General Manager for the team and another son Chuck Sullivan the title of Executive Vice President. In 1964, Sullivan helped the AFL negotiate a 5-year, $30 million television agreement with broadcaster NBC.
New England Patriots
For the 1971 season, the Patriots' second in the post-merger NFL, Sullivan changed the team's name from the Boston Patriots to the New England Patriots to correspond with the team's move into Schaefer Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. He was named majority owner of the team in 1975. By 1988, the Patriots had played 28 full seasons, 14 of them with winning records, and had appeared in one AFL Championship game and one Super Bowl. In an attempt to avoid bankruptcy, Sullivan asked the NFL if he could sell 50% of the team in a public offering. The NFL refused the request, and Sullivan sold the team to Victor Kiam for $83 million the same year, with Sullivan remaining as the team's president until 1992. However, the stadium lease entered into bankruptcy and was purchased by Robert Kraft, who owned an option on adjacent land and would eventually own the Patriots.
In 1991, Sullivan filed a $116 million antitrust lawsuit against the NFL and accepted an $11.5 million settlement of the case in 1996.
Class action lawsuit
After being ousted as President of the Patriots in 1974 (despite owning more than 20% of the voting stock), Sullivan sought to regain control over operations. By 1975, Sullivan had repurchased 100% of the voting stock. Once in control of the corporation, Sullivan removed all directors of whom he disapproved. Notably, however, in order to pay back the loans required to purchase the voting-stock (more than $5.3M), Sullivan agreed with lenders to assign income of the corporation and assets of the corporation over to the banks. In order to do this, however, Sullivan needed to eliminate the non-voting public shareholders. Sullivan was successful in structuring a deal that provided the non-voting public shareholders $15/share; this transaction was approved by the shareholder class. A dissenting shareholder (a long time Patriots fan) refused to tender his shares and filed suit. Eventually, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found the merger/elimination of the minority shareholders as illegal and effected for Sullivan's personal benefit. Additionally, the Court found that Sullivan's actions constituted a waste of corporate assets. It was ordered that the shareholders be paid the value of the shares, not in 1975 dollars but as the value would have stood in 1986 (the time of the ruling).
After an 8-year battle with prostate cancer, Sullivan died in his Atlantis, Florida retirement home in 1998.
Notes and references
- Billy Sullivan, 86 [sic], Founder Of Football Patriots, Dies New York Times. Accessed 20 October 2007.
- Billy Sullivan 1998 deaths infoplease.com. Accessed 20 October 2007.
- See Coggins v New England Partriots Football Club, Inc., 397 Mass. 525 (Mass. 1986).
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