Texas businessman John Spano signed a deal to buy the New York Islanders for $US165 million in 1996.
For four months between when he signed the deal and when he was supposed to close the deal, Spano operated the team and sat in the owners box.
He was hailed as a saviour by the fans — a wealthy benefactor who would save the troubled franchise and keep them on Long Island.
But in reality, Spano wasn’t wealthy. He was worth a few hundred thousand dollars, but through a series of forgeries and frauds he was able to convince the NHL and a few major banks that he was worth $US230 million.
When it came time to finally come up with the money and close the deal, his story unravelled and he ended up serving 71 months in prison.
The entire story of the Spano saga was told in the ESPN documentary “Big Shot.” It aired last night, and it’s great.
The most fascinating part of it is how, exactly, a middle-class guy managed to get so, so close to buying an NHL team for $US165 million real dollars.
Spano lived in Dallas and ran in circles with some seriously wealthy people. While he had a small business with a few employees, he told people he had a trust fund and the money was overseas in the Cayman Islands.
To justify that story, he began falsifying documents to make it look like he was worth well over $US100 million.
He told ESPN that he told different people different things to conceal the truth:
“I set it up so other people couldn’t talk to other people, or they didn’t have enough knowledge to put two and two together. The guy at the bank knew one thing. The guy at the NHL knew another. My attorney knew something else. If they would have all got together, they would have realised something wasn’t right.”
Spano decided he wanted to buy an NHL team. After failing to purchase the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers, he moved on to the Islanders, who were desperate to sell the team.
Everybody — accounting firms, banks, the NHL, the previous owner of the Islanders — thought Spano’s financial documents were legitimate. But still, the NHL clearly didn’t do as much digging as it should have before they approved the sale.
Spano talked about how he convinced the NHL he was rich:
“I was on a phone call with myself, my attorney in Dallas, and someone from the league. He talked to my attorney to verify if my net worth was X. And my attorney based on me telling me it was X, told him, ‘Yes.’ … I was sh***ing my pants because if that blew up it would have all fallen apart. That was the extent of their due diligence. They didn’t ask for anything after that.”
Spano’s story didn’t begin to unravel until it came time to close the deal.
Amazingly, he was able to get a $US80 million loan from Fleet Bank in Boston. He says he just walked in with forged documents and got it. It was easier than getting his first car loan, he told ESPN.
But the rest of the $US165 million wasn’t as easy to come by. Spano tried to get the money from a Long Island hotel owner, Cablevision, and contractors who would potentially build a new arena. All those attempts failed.
At one point after he missed the close deadline, it came time to make a $US17 million payment. He sent a wire transfer for $US1,700, claiming he messed up the number of zeroes.
Eventually, he began to slip up. He faxed a phony document from his home fax machine instead of a bank in Dallas, and people began to put the pieces together.
Spano technically had title to the team even though the deal wasn’t closed. As his world began to fall apart and the Long Island paper Newsday starting publishing stories about his real finances, he agreed to give the team back.
He “owned” the team for four months, and got halfway to closing the $US165 million on the strength of fraud.
The entire documentary has a bunch more great anecdotes, here’s the trailer:
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