Rex Tillerson. Jeffrey Immelt. Alan Mulally. W. James McNerny. James Skinner.
Mark Cuban. Jerry Buss. Jerry Jones. Robert Kraft. Hal Steinbrenner.
I’m guessing that, unless you’re a total business geek, you at most know only one or two of the names in the first group. But you probably know all of the names in the second group, and even non-sports fans (who at least are minimally aware of current events and have a pulse) know three or four of them.
Nonetheless, those 10 men have something in common. They’re all filthy rich. The big difference that separates the famous rich guys from the non-famous rich guys is that the famous ones own sports teams. The non-famous ones are chairmen and/or CEOs of some of the world’s biggest companies (in order, Exxon Mobil, GE, Ford, Boeing, McDonalds), each of which is worth more than every NBA franchise put together.
It would be silly to deny that ego isn’t one of the biggest reasons, if not the biggest, a rich guy would buy a sports team. If you’re not satisfied with having a personal net worth of around the same size as a small island nation, then you can enhance your public profile and get famous by buying a sports team. Even if you’re just a super-rich sports fan, you know you’re going to become more famous if you buy a team, so you don’t buy one if you’re not cool with having a higher profile. Maybe you won’t be Mark Cuban famous … but, well, most Thunder fans (and all DT readers, for sure) know what Clay Bennett looks like, right? What about the major shareholder in Love’s, a major corporation that also calls Oklahoma City home? Can you name him or identify him if he was pumping gas next to you at Love’s?
Malcom Gladwell’s excellent column for Grantland discusses the growing assumption that sports teams should be run like for-profit businesses, while in past decades they were run as if they were either expensive toys or, if the owner was a little less egotistic and a little more community-oriented, practically a public trust. Gladwell illustrates the point with the legendary (and legendarily racist) former Boston Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey. Yawkey didn’t care about losing money and losing games without an integrated team because the Red Sox were a luxury purchase to him, and he did as he saw fit without regard for maximizing profit. But the NBA’s lockout is primarily driven by the owners’ desire to ensure they get the maximum profit Yawkey eschewed.
This is something I’ve long thought about, and I was glad to see a writer as astute as Gladwell bring it up in a widely read forum. Wouldn’t we as fans and sports consumers be better off if sports owners treated their franchise more like trophy wives and less like the business that got them rich in the first place? Trophy wives are expensive to maintain, and in financial terms are money-losing investments. But they, uh, bring a lot of enjoyment in a few select arenas in life, make you look good in public and are fun to show off. A business is something you run with the sole purpose of making money. That’s not fun, that’s a livelihood.
Sports owners should stop kidding themselves. None of them are paying their mortgages with their team. Their children won’t be coming home to an empty fridge if the team makes only a modest profit or outright loses money. It is, or should be at least, more like the gambling portion of a Las Vegas trip’s budget. It’s the money you can afford to lose, and if it turns out differently, that’s just icing on the cake. The money for food, lodging and transportation comes from somewhere else.
Sports owners were only able to buy a hugely expensive team because they’ve got more money than is possible to spend in a lifetime. And if their livelihood depends on that sports team making money, or if they can’t make debt payments on the loans they use to buy the tam, they shouldn’t be wasting the money on that franchise in the first place and the league should deny the sale. I think we can all agree on this.
If I ever make the kind of money where I can afford a second car of my own (which would likely require going back in time and changing my major in college), I want to buy a badass sports car. Maybe a Porsche, or an Aston Martin if we’re talking truly big bucks. But that wouldn’t be my only car. I’d have my daily driver for trips to the grocery store, but I’d spend time staring at my second, more awesome car as it sat in the garage but nonetheless looking like it was going at 120 mph. I’d enjoy the stares at stoplights, the meaner-than-hell sound coming from the engine, laying strips of rubber in abandoned parking lots and generally calling attention to myself. Why not? But the dude whose only car is a Corvette is the one you need to worry about. It’s not at all practical, it’s a sign he’s trying a little too hard to be the center of attention and he’s going to call you for a ride to work if it snows.
And if I ever get Mark Cuban rich (which is not going to happen no matter how far back in time I go), I’m going to buy a sports team and probably be exactly like Cuban, whom I’ve always admired. He’s who I would imagine myself being like if I had his kind of money. I’d buy the team but sit in the front row instead of a box. I’d yell the refs and bring a checkbook with me to the game so I could drop off my fine money in the mailbox on my way home. I’d buy the six-figure bottle of champagne after I won the championship just because that’s a badass thing to do. But I would also only buy that team if I had no problem losing money. I’d have other ways to make sure I was able to make my private jet payments and pay off politicians to keep my tax loopholes open.
The only way to make this kind of owner more common is to change the culture of the sports leagues, specifically of course in this case the NBA. Let’s just have David Stern and everyone below him stop pretending that the NBA is a regular business. It’s not. It’s a sports league, and the team owners are incredibly wealthy guys who want to put their money to work on making them famous and feel like badasses. If a team is for sale, make sure that every owner knows that unless he’s buying a mega-market team, he’ll probably lose money more often than not, and he needs to be OK with that. If someone isn’t OK with it, then they shouldn’t buy the team. It’s that simple.
Is that realistic? Why shouldn’t it be? The biggest difference between sports today and sports of several decades ago is the exponentially larger pool of money that’s in play. But just because a team’s gross income has expanded beyond what once seemed possible doesn’t mean the team now must to operate at a profit. The net profit can still be slim or nonexistent, and the owner still has a scorching hot trophy wife (the team … and probably his actual wife) with all of the accompanying benefits.
The sports world doesn’t need more profitable teams. The sports world needs more deep-pocketed, ego-centric owners who care more about being high-profile playboys than making yet another dollar they’ll never be able to spend.