The Super Bowl Coin Toss Has a Dark Secret
The company that makes the coin and sells replicas has a past it would rather forget.
Just before the start of Super Bowl XLII, as he stood on the 50-yard line of the University of Phoenix Stadium in front of 70,101 impatient fans, head referee Mike Carey was nervous. Not about reaching the highest honor his profession has to offer. Not about blowing a call before a TV audience of 100 million people. What worried Carey on Feb. 3, 2008, was the coin toss.
Although he’d already run through an NFL-mandated dress rehearsal of the flip the day before, other referees had told Carey that, of all possible outcomes in the big game, the prospect of screwing up this short ceremony haunted them the most. (In 2014, celebrity flipper Joe Namath would send the coin up before players even made their call.) “Everything else we’d trained for,” says Carey, now an analyst with CBS Sports. “But the toss is this singular moment. The inauguration of the premier event in sports. There’s a lot of anxiety.”
At least, Carey figured, he’d come away with a collectible. During his 26 years of officiating, he’d made a habit of keeping the coins he flipped. But when the Super Bowl toss he oversaw went off without a hitch (for the record: coin tossed by four-time champ Ronnie Lott, tails, New York Giants ball), Carey didn’t even make it back to the sideline before an NFL representative took the coin from him, hustling it toward its ultimate destination, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where all such pieces are kept.
Flipping a metal disk to determine which group of muscle-bound men gets to play with a football first may sound like a nonevent. But like everything else about the Super Bowl, the simple act has evolved into one of the rites of that pseudoreligious ceremony. The first nine coin flips, like the first nine Super Bowls, featured relatively little pomp, just a referee and the competing teams’ captains. From there the stakes grew with the TV ratings, gaining honorary coin-flippers from sitting presidents (Ronald Reagan, via satellite) to military heroes (David Petraeus) and becoming a popular wager for casual gamblers and junkies alike. The betting site Bovada offers more than 500 bets on the Super Bowl—How long will the national anthem last? What color Gatorade will be dumped on the winning coach?—and says the coin toss is among the top five most active.
For all the attention paid to the flip, what’s mostly unknown is the story of the company that for 23 years has made the coin itself—and will sell you a limited-edition replica, encased in acrylic along with a certificate of authenticity, for $99.99. Highland Mint operates out of a palm tree-ringed warehouse in Melbourne, Fla., and has been owned by Michael Kott, 58, since 1993. That’s the same year the NFL decided it wanted to turn a profit off the ceremony that started its biggest game. Highland Mint, then a small memorabilia seller, bought the exclusive license to create a collectible coin, and has since acquired licenses for framed photos and replica tickets for the other three major sports leagues, the NCAA, and events such as the Kentucky Derby. A tour of the mint in January finds some 120 employees in room after room, designing and constructing collectibles that are sold online and at retailers such as Bed Bath & Beyond and Neiman Marcus.
A month before the Super Bowl 50 kickoff, and long before it’s known the game will pit the Carolina Panthers against the Denver Broncos, Highland Mint has at least 20 Super Bowl 50-marked pieces of memorabilia for sale, ranging from a $9.99 coin key chain to a framed collection of all 50 flip coins for $1,500. The company melts its own steel on the premises, and Kott points out a hulking machine recently purchased from the U.S. Mint that workers have dubbed Dr. Doom. Highland Mint appears to be a nifty small business with a piece of the biggest game in America, and that’s true. But when it comes to coins, there’s always another side.
In April 1993, Highland Mint was owned by a man named James Meadlock, and the company’s only products were licensed Major League Baseball memorabilia. Meadlock received an unsolicited call from Kott, who introduced himself as the owner of a Montreal-based collectible company called Madison Avenue Sports. According to a civil suit Meadlock would later file, Kott told Meadlock that he was interested in becoming Highland Mint’s sole Canadian distributor.
Meadlock flew to Montreal to meet Kott and his father, Irving. According to the suit, the Kotts almost immediately offered to buy the entire company. Meadlock agreed to a simple deal. In exchange for Highland Mint, he accepted 120,000 shares in a company called Hariston, the parent of Madison Avenue Sports. The Kotts portrayed Hariston as a company on the rise. They told Meadlock that it owned a successful supermarket chain in Poland that would soon make a killing by expanding into other Eastern bloc countries in the post-Cold War gold rush. Even more enticing, according to Meadlock’s suit, was Hariston’s proprietary technology, which the Kotts claimed could turn contaminated groundwater into valuable precious metals, a process they said was already employed at a mine in Butte, Mont., and would eventually be used worldwide.
The lawsuit Meadlock filed in Brevard County, Fla., in 1996, alleged that almost everything the Kotts told him wasn’t quite true. There were a few Polish grocery stores but no plans to expand. The groundwater cleanup technology was a bust in Butte. And Meadlock alleged that merchandise sold by Madison Avenue Sports had been artificially overvalued by a fake newsletter produced, in secret, by Madison Avenue Sports itself, and the company had been forced to buy back the products to pacify irate customers. (Irving Kott died in 2009. A motion to dismiss Meadlock’s suit was filed, but Michael Kott declined to comment on the matter.)
Meadlock discovered that Irving, a Montreal native, was well-known to securities regulators around the world. By the time of their initial meeting in Montreal, the elder Kott had survived two assassination attempts, including a prematurely detonated car bomb, described in the Canadian press as mob-related, and had received what was then the largest civil fine in Canadian history, for stock fraud. Irving had also run what Dutch authorities described as the most successful boiler room in the world.
According to FBI records, Irving first caught the attention of U.S. authorities in 1964, when he hosted a cocktail party in New York City to impress a mark who would later invest in a mining company secretly run by Irving. Thus began a pattern that would continue for the rest of Irving’s life. Shares in highly speculative companies sold by teams of brokers under his control would see their stock price rise spectacularly before falling off a cliff—classic pump-and-dumps. Irving excelled at theatrics. His greatest triumph occurred in Amsterdam in the 1980s with a company called First Commerce Securities. According to Contrepreneurs, a book by Canadian journalist Diane Francis, Irving employed a multicultural sales force that worked the phones in two shifts seven days a week, every day of the year. He hired foreign nationals to target their countrymen; according to Francis, at one point he hired an entire theater troupe from London to sell worthless stocks to their fellow Brits. First Commerce was an Amsterdam phone company’s largest customer, running up long-distance bills that approached a half-million dollars per month. Dutch prosecutors broke up the operation in 1986, alleging Irving and his sales force had destroyed $4 billion of investors’ money. (Time magazine estimated the amount was closer to $400 million.) Irving, who had fled to Canada, never faced trial because the Dutch had no extradition treaty with Canada at the time. He settled the case against him with a $4 million fine.
According to Contrepreneurs, Michael Kott was a paid consultant to First Commerce, and on the day Dutch authorities raided his father’s Amsterdam offices, he met police at the door holding a newspaper that had already run a story on the impending investigation. “What took you so long?” Francis quotes him as saying.
Following the dissolution of First Commerce, Michael became the head of a Florida-based broker-dealer called Greentree Securities, and Irving moved to Los Angeles, where he began renting a $22,000-a-month Beverly Hills home once owned by Cary Grant and running a brokerage called J.B. Oxford Holdings. One of his clients included a then-unknown New York broker named Jordan Belfort, who needed someone to process trades related to his soon-to-be-legendary stock frauds. “Without Kott, The Wolf of Wall Street never gets made,” says retired FBI agent Michael Switlyk, whose investigation of J.B. Oxford led to a 48-count indictment of Irving from the U.S. Department of Justice. All the claims were dismissed except for two, for inaccurate reporting to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Irving agreed to pay a $250,000 fine and make $750,000 in charitable donations.
In 2004, Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, invested in a promising Canadian Internet company called Mamma.com. Shortly after, Switlyk and others told Cuban that Mamma was secretly controlled by Irving. Cuban sold his stock—a trade that led to his being accused of insider trading by the SEC in 2008. By the time Cuban won his case in 2013, Irving had died peacefully in his Montreal mansion. Inspired by his experience with Irving, Cuban started a fraud-focused website called Sharesleuth that recently made Michael’s Highland Mint a target, accusing the company in an article of selling footballs and helmets with forged signatures, including those of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, for as much as $2,500 apiece. Michael Kott, as well as Michael Goldfarb, the president of Who’s Who Productions, a company that supplied the goods, say they’re legitimate.
It can’t have been easy to run a small business for two decades with Kott for a last name. While his father was making enemies with the U.S. Attorney’s office and a billionaire reality TV star, Michael spent his time growing Highland Mint from nearly nothing into a leader in a market where authenticity is essential. So it’s understandable that Kott seems slightly uncomfortable with the idea of a visit from a reporter. “Is there any reason why you didn’t just call?” he says when I show up at the mint in January.
Kott relaxes a bit once he starts answering questions about his company, its flagship product, and the Super Bowl. The company was on the verge of failure when he bought it, he says, with just 20 employees. This year he expects to produce 10,000 Super Bowl coins, and he’s rooting for Denver, unsentimentally, because he thinks Broncos fans will buy the most coins. This is also the first year in the game’s half-century history that the official logo, featured on the coin’s obverse, will feature standard numbers. “The Roman numeral for 50 is L,” he says, “and L connotes loser.”
It isn’t until after a tour of Highland Mint’s deafening factory floor that I mention Irving Kott. “I don’t really want to discuss that,” he says. When asked about his own presence at First Commerce in Amsterdam during the raid, he suggests the Contrepreneurs author has “watched too many movies.”
Meadlock withdrew his suit against the Kotts in 1996. He now owns a barbecue restaurant in nearby Port Canaveral, Fla. Reached by phone, he’s reluctant to talk about his relationship with Michael Kott. When asked whether he dropped his lawsuit after receiving a settlement, Meadlock says, “I can’t talk about this” and hangs up. The NFL did not respond to a request for comment on the Kotts.
Kott presents himself as simply a business owner who’s constantly reinventing his company. Under Meadlock, he says, Highland Mint’s main products were replica trading cards sold via “little ma-and-pop stores.” Now it’s his hunk of metal that will be tossed skyward for a global TV audience on Feb. 7. As far as Kott is concerned, there are coins to be made, a Super Bowl to attend, and a past to leave right there, in the past. Or, as he frames it before putting an abrupt end to the conversation, “The sins of the father have nothing to do with the son, right?”