George Zoffinger has never had much trouble telling people what he thinks. "Sometimes," says a friend and colleague, "we cringe."
It's not that he's rude or brusque, just candid about his feelings. So when James McGreevey, then New Jersey's governor-elect, asked Zoffinger what he thought of the state's Sports and Exposition Authority--which runs the Meadowlands sports complex, among other endeavors--Zoffinger told him it was a mess. "The Nets and Devils play in the arena in the Meadowlands," Zoffinger said, "and the arena was still in need of a state subsidy because it wasn't making money. If you've got a Stanley Cup champion and a basketball team that's doing well, you should be able to operate at a profit."
It made sense to McGreevey, and soon after taking office, the governor appointed Zoffinger to head up the very authority he'd been criticizing. The new appointee was just as blunt in public as he'd been in private. "Things are going to change around here," he said at a press conference. "And fast."
Zoffinger, who is 54, has had some experience with change. He was the state's commerce secretary under New Jersey's last Democratic governor, Jim Florio, but has made his name as a financier and investor with a specialty of turning around ailing firms, including a prominent New Jersey bank whose valuation had sunk to a pittance. "I think George has a unique opportunity and the background to actually do a turnaround," says Chris Paladino, president of the New Brunswick Development Corp., a nonprofit whose board Zoffinger chairs. "So many people talk about running government like a business, which in many ways is just rhetoric. But the Sports Authority really is a business."
In particular, it's an entertainment business. The authority not only runs the basketball and hockey arena but the football stadium where the NFL Jets and Giants play, plus two racetracks and several convention centers in South Jersey. For many years, horse-racing profits underwrote the cost of all the activities, but that has changed. "The traditional customer base for racetracks is dying, literally," says Zoffinger. "It's older people. And the Authority hasn't done anything to try to change the demographic."
This year, saddled with debt from bonds issued to construct the state aquarium and convention centers in Atlantic City and Wildwood, and losing money on the rest of its activities, the Sports Authority required an $11 million state operating subsidy.
Zoffinger's frank assessment of the authority's operations has done nothing to endear him to his nominal bosses. The organization is run by a board of 14 members, nine of whom are Republicans, holdovers from previous administrations. Several of them vowed to block Zoffinger's appointment after McGreevey joined in the assault by characterizing the authority as "bloated with patronage positions created purely to reward friends and supporters."
But that political tempest is likely to pale by comparison to the other challenges the authority faces. While the professional sports teams are a valuable asset, they "tend to be put in a second tier by people who live here," says Dennis E. Gale, director of the Center for Metropolitan Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. "People grew up Yankees fans or Knicks fans or Rangers fans; they figure, 'Why do I need a Jersey team?'" Besides finding ways to build fan loyalty, Zoffinger must help McGreevey decide whether the Nets and Devils will get a new arena in Newark. A plan to have the state subsidize one died last year in the legislature.
"We want an arena in Newark," Zoffinger says. "I'll do everything I can to assist it becoming reality. But it should not become a subsidy plan for wealthy real estate and sports team owners."