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Sports Then and Now

The Strange Saga of John Spano

Posted on November 25, 2013 by Martin Banks

New York Islanders fans have uttered many a profane word in the last few decades regarding the failures of their beloved team, but none so vile as “Spano.” It is rare, in sports history, to find such a bizarre story of deceit, grandstanding and unabashed bravado as you’ll find in the saga of businessman John A. Spano Jr.’s attempt to purchase the New York Islanders. Recently ESPN has chronicled the tale in one of their incredible “30 for 30” documentaries entitled “Big Shot.” Let’s take a look back at one of the NHL’s most embarrassing follies.

In the 1990’s, there was nothing left of the brilliant Islanders dynasty teams of the 80’s save for the Stanley Cup banners in the rafters and the memories of depressed fans. At the start of the 1995-96 season, Mike Milbury (whose name also is used as a swear word by Islander faithful) had been placed behind the bench as the team’s head coach. It was also the year of the much maligned “Fish Sticks” jersey, which closely resembled the Gorton’s Fisherman logo.

Islanders fisherman


This should have been a harbinger of bad news for fans on the Island, as ugly jerseys would soon be the least of their concerns.

The Islanders were struggling on the ice, and in the front office, things were grim. Long time owner John Pickett had a tight hold on the team’s expenses, and was looking to sell the team. The aging Nassau Coliseum was in disrepair, and there were talks of moving the team. Enter John A. Spano Jr., wealthy businessman, trust fund beneficiary and overall successful guy. Spano came in like a messiah to the Islander loyal, promising to keep the team in town, renovate the stadium, and loosen the purse strings so the team could afford the top-end talent it lacked. Before the ink was even dry on the sale, Spano had forced Milbury out, added $2.5 million in payroll, and gotten the team in talks in the free agent market. If it all sounded too good to be true; it was.

Something was a little fishy (pardon the pun) when the payments for the team and the lucrative cable rights were supposed to start coming in. Promising John Pickett $5million for his first payment, Spano only ended up wiring $5,000 to the would-be seller of the team. When a $17 Million check bounced, he sent a measly $1,700 to cover. Pickett was owed $16.5 Million for the cable deal, which was due before the deal was closed. Having not received it, he got a letter from Spano’s bank saying the money would be on its way, giving Pickett enough confidence to sign the team over. Bill after bill went unpaid, or underpaid, resulting in Pickett only receiving $26,200.

Soon, the NHL commissioner was called in to mediate, to figure out what was going on, and what they found was right up there with Enron or an oil scam.  Upon further investigation, everything John Spano had been telling the world about his wealth was a lie. His “6,000 employee company” only employed 22, and was worth $3mil, which was a long shot from the $230mil he was claiming. The trust fund from his grandfather? Surprise! Didn’t exist, and neither did dear old grandpa. Spano had somehow believed that if he got control of the Islanders, he could make enough money fast enough to pay off the debt of buying the team without anyone noticing.

In the end, he was arrested on federal charges of Bank Fraud and Wire Fraud, and was sentenced to 71 months in jail, and forced to pay restitution of $11.9 million. The Islanders were even worse off than before, and it has taken another decade for them to shake off this fiasco. While sports drama comes and goes, nothing will ever parallel the bold attempt to buy the Islanders by John Spano Jr.

Oh, and apparently Spano didn’t learn his lesson. Less than a year from getting out of jail, he was arrested again… for fraud.

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