Published March 2, 2015
Billionaires own 49% of the major professional sports teams in America. Long-tenured owners are becoming billionaires thanks to soaring team values, while the pool of prospective buyers is increasingly limited to the super-rich.
The NFL has the most valuable teams but not the most billionaire owners. That title goes to the NBA, where billionaires own 20 of the league’s 30 franchises. The NFL comes in second (17 of 32) followed by the NHL (13 of 30) and Major League Baseball (10 of 30). In total, billionaires own 60 of America’s 122 major professional sports teams.
The richest team owner is also one of the newest. Onetime Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, worth $21.5 billion, bought the Los Angeles Clippers for a shocking $2 billion in August, after former owner Donald Sterling went on a racist rant and was banned from the league. Coming on the heels another expensive sale, the $550 million Milwaukee Bucks transaction in May, team values soared across the league. The average NBA team increased in value by 74% over the last year, the largest year-over-year increase for any of the four sports leagues since Forbes started counting in 1998.
Rising NBA values added three names to the Forbes billionaires list.The most famous newcomer was Michael Jordan, the greatest player to ever touch a basketball and one of the best businessmen to play any sport. His iconic Jordan brand brought in an estimated $2.25 billion of business for Nike last year. Jordan gets payouts on those sales, amounting to an estimated $75 million in 2013. Add in his other endorsement deals with companies like Gatorade and Hanes, and Jordan earned an estimated $90 million.
But it was his timely purchase of the Charlotte Hornets that solidified Jordan’s position in the billionaires club. The NBA star bought most of the team in 2010, then doubled down on his investment three years later, not long before Ballmer’s outsized purchase boosted all NBA values. Now Jordan owns 90% of the Hornets, a stake worth some $500 million.
Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander owes a thanks to both Sterling and Jordan. Alexander bought the Houston Rockets for $85 million in 1993. Jordan suddenly retired from the NBA to play baseball the following season, and Alexander’s Rockets won NBA titles the next two seasons. When Jordan returned for his first full NBA season in the fall of 1995, the Rockets run was over.
No one was happier about Jordan’s return than his boss Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, who also joined the billionaires club this year. Reinsdorf’s Bulls won six titles with Jordan and haven’t won one since, but Reinsdorf hasn’t stopped making money. Big-market teams continue to increase in value, thanks to supersized purchases in the country’s marquee markets. In addition to the Clippers’ sale, finance billionaire Mark Walter led a group that bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for $2 billion in 2012. Walter also joined the billionaires list for the first time this year.
Like Ballmer and Walter, most billionaire owners initially made their money outside of sports. But there are notable exceptions, like Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who bought his team for $150 million in 1989. Today the Cowboys are the NFL’s most valuable sports team, worth $3.2 billion.