Lamar Hunt, businessman and sports team owner and promoter: born El Dorado, Arkansas 2 August 1932; married 1954 Rosemary Carr (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1964 Norma Knobel Connie (two sons); died Dallas, Texas 13 December 2006.
When he was at high school, Lamar Hunt was known as "Games" for his love of sport, and the epithet might be applied to his entire life. He was born into one of the greatest oil fortunes in the United States, but his lasting - and perhaps unequalled - legacy is as a sports entrepreneur. Soccer, tennis and above all gridiron (or American) football, whose Super Bowl he literally invented, will be forever in his debt.
Lamar was the youngest son of H.L. Hunt, the Texan oil magnate who in his heyday was one of the US's half-dozen richest men. Throughout his life Lamar Hunt was a modest and unassuming man. As president of the American Football League, he would slip quietly into a crowded room where lesser executives and reporters were watching a game on television and sit on the floor in order not to block their view. The headlines referred to him as a "sports tsar", but there was little regal about the man, with his rumpled suits and blazers, often slightly dishevelled. First and foremost, Hunt was a fan. Unlike most sports fans, however, he had the wherewithal to make his fantasies come true.
Football (of the American variety) was where it all began. Hunt had barely left Southern Methodist University in Dallas when he first tried in 1957 to persuade the existing National Football League to grant him an expansion franchise in the city. Repeatedly rebuffed, he ultimately set up a rival American Football League with a group of fellow millionaires and founded his own AFL team, the Dallas Texans. By then, however, the NFL had set up its own team in Dallas, the now legendary Cowboys, and in 1963 Hunt concluded that the city could not support both. He moved the Texans to Kansas City, where they became the Chiefs.
At that point the AFL took off. Prodded by Hunt, the two leagues merged in 1966, and decided to follow the example of baseball's World Series by instigating an end of season play-off between their respective winners. The first such meeting, the following year, was called the "World Championship Game". But Hunt had a better idea - inspired, it is said, by watching his children play with something called a Superball. The match-up, he proposed, should be called the Super Bowl. The annual event is now the biggest single occasion in all American sport - and fittingly the Chiefs won the fourth one, in 1970.
But gridiron was only one of the sports to which he devoted his enthusiasm. Hunt tried to bring a baseball franchise to Dallas in 1964. Although that venture failed, in 1971 the Texas Rangers arrived in nearby Arlington where they remain to this day. A few years later, he set up World Championship Tennis, which helped end the "shamateur" era in the sport. There, too, he stayed in the background. The New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson yesterday wrote of how, after winning the WCT one year, John McEnroe was taking his seat in first class on an aeroplane. He looked up to see Hunt going past, on his way back to the economy section.
Soccer was his third and perhaps greatest love. No-one played a larger part than Hunt in seeking to establish the world's game in the last stubborn outpost of the US. In 1968, he was a founder member of the original North American Soccer League, and when today's Major League Soccer was established after the US hosted the 1994 World Cup, he bankrolled teams in Dallas, Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio - where he also was instrumental in bringing a major league ice hockey franchise to the city. Lamar Hunt is surely the only individual to belong to the US Halls of Fame of three different sports - American football, tennis and soccer. He summed up his contribution in typically understated style: "I always thought that if I had any skills in business, it was understanding how to sell tickets."
His career outside sport arguably bore out that observation. Hunt was involved in at least two outsized ventures that both came to nothing. In 1969, he tried to buy Alcatraz prison island in San Francisco bay, planning to turn it into a theme park with a giant shopping mall. But local opposition killed the scheme. A decade later, he played a supporting role as two of his brothers, William Herbert Hunt and Nelson Bunker Hunt, unsuccessfully tried to corner the world silver market. His name even cropped up in some of the more far-fetched conspiracy theories about the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
Sport, however, was his abiding passion. In his final illness, one of his grandchildren is said to have wondered whether there were football teams in heaven. "If there isn't," the little boy concluded, "I know Pappy will start one."
Rupert CornwellReuse content