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Keith Strudler: Money And Sports

It was hard to tell former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling what to do, when the NBA and collective America wanted him to sell his team because of racist commentary. That’s because Donald Sterling was, and is very wealthy. In fact, at a net worth of $2.8 billion, he’s the 223rd richest person in America. So making Donald Sterling do something is like getting the chief of police to move his car. He just doesn’t have to. That is, until he’s replaced by, say, the secretary of defense. That’s essentially the case for the NBA, which strong armed the sale of the Clippers to Steve Balmer, who at $22.5 billion is the nation’s 18th wealthiest. It’s cliché, but Balmer could essentially buy and sell Donald Sterling – eight times, in fact. Which made it much easier for the league to strongly encourage this transaction, equipped with the knowledge they’ve got the biggest kid on the block in their corner. That, more than anything, made it much easier to get rid of one aging racist bully.

While Balmer might now be the richest owner in sports, even wealthier than his cross country colleague and Nets Owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who’s worth a meager $10.2 billion, Balmer does have plenty of elite company on the recently released Forbes 400 list, which ranks the nation’s wealthiest. Much of this comes in the NFL, where 14 of 32 owners made the cut, led by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at #119 with $4.2 billion. And in case socialists are looking for some solace, it’s should be noted that only of the top five wealthiest NFL owners made the playoffs last year. So perhaps in a league built on salary caps and revenue sharing, the insanely rich can in fact compete with the obscenely rich. That, my friends, is the true American dream.

Sports owners have made their money through a wide range of industrial success. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made his $2.7 billion fortune through online media, although I like to think he’s making his real money investing in flavored lip gloss and online pretzel companies on Shark Tank. Lots of owners made their primary killings through tech as well, like Balmer and fellow west-coaster Paul Allen. Others hail from media, including of course the Dolan family from New York. Others from real estate, like baseball owner Ted Lerner, and some from energy, including Houston Texans’ owner Bob McNair. It’s a diverse group in that sense, if really no other. But if you wish to know which industry these owners are titans of, the answer is ‘yes.’

It shouldn’t be altogether shocking that the select group of people that own major professional sports teams in this country are also independently and fabulously wealthy. It is beyond cost prohibitive to buy and maintain a team these days, where valuations far exceed a billion in many, if not most cases for some sports. Long gone are the days when team ownership was buying an expensive yacht. Luxurious, but more guilty pleasure than masters of the universe type stuff. Where owning a sports team might have once been a fun hobby for rich folks, now the people who buy sports teams are the same folks who buy islands. It was once a game, but now it’s a scoreboard.

Which, coincidentally, should tell us more about how and why professional sports leagues in this country operate as they do, and perhaps not as we wish they did. If there’s a common thread amongst the fabulously wealthy Forbes 400, it’s that they don’t like losing, and they don’t like being told what to do. So, when the general public demands that Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, #369 by the way, change his team’s name, he might not be so willing to comply. That same group think goes for the entire NFL organization, whose collective owners have little interest in being pushed around by neurologists or law enforcement or any of the others who might have taken umbrage with the organization. The same goes for Major League Baseball, whose ownership essentially fought the US Congress on steroid testing. That’s either power, hubris, or most like, a cocktail of both.

In this country at least, power and money are fairly synonymous. Which makes the collective ownership of pro sports in the US very powerful. Consider that the next time you wonder why owners don’t seem to listen to their fans. And why telling Donald Sterling to get out of town was a very hard thing to do.

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler


The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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