Pro sports, the billionaires’ club
- October 1, 2020: Vol. 7, Number 9

Pro sports, the billionaires’ club

by Mike Consol

I’m a big basketball fan. During my youth I played the sport with considerable skill. Now I watch, especially the NCAA tournament (euphemistically known as March Madness) and the NBA playoffs. The NBA has also become a playground for billionaire owners, such as Philip Anschutz (Los Angeles Lakers), Micky Arison (Miami Heat), Steve Ballmer (Los Angeles Clippers), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks), Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers), Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons), Stanley Kroenke (Denver Nuggets), Robert Pera (Memphis Grizzlies, and the list goes on. At last count, there were 20 billionaire owners of NBA teams.

NBA franchises are real assets, and these are super-high-net-worth investors who find value in those franchises both because NBA team values seem to endlessly rise, making them an outstanding investment, and because the owners of professional basketball teams become very public, giving them a measure of celebrity, as well as a public megaphone if they choose to use it.

The market value of NBA franchises has continued to soar even in the face of the coronavirus and a season of empty seats at their games, rising 14 percent during the past year to an average $2.12 billion. By way of comparison, NFL teams, according to Forbes, have risen in value by 11 percent during the same period, and Major League Baseball teams by 8 percent, with average values of $2.86 billion and $1.78 billion, respectively. During the decade, NBA franchise value is up nearly sixfold.

One of the most valuable franchises in professional sports is the love-’em-or-hate-’em Dallas Cowboys, for which Jerry Jones paid $140 million in 1989 and were valued at $5.5 billion as of 2019. Jones was quoted this past year in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram saying, “I haven’t worked a day in 30 years,” when asked to reflect on his 30-year anniversary as owner of the team.

Clearly, it’s hard to beat investments in pro-sports franchises, which explains why some owners buy franchises in other professional sports. Of course, the barriers to entry are stratospheric, which is why it has become a billionaire’s playground, and none more financially well-endowed than former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who is worth roughly $70 billion. Once bitten by the limelight of professional sports ownership, billionaires often look to expand their involvement. The late Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, used his tens of billions in net worth to buy the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and the professional soccer team the Seattle Sounders. Add the flamboyant Mark Cuban to that mix. He has spent some of his $4.2 billion net worth to buy both the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and MLB’s New York Mets.

Jerry Jones and Mark Cuban are but two examples of professional team owners who have heightened their profiles by making themselves visible at their teams’ games, sometimes to the annoyance of players, coaches or league officials.

All sports have taken a major hit because of the coronavirus, yet the pro sports have returned to the courts and playing fields, and none with more aplomb than the NBA. The NBA has proven better suited to effectively handling games without fans in the stands. It has placed all of its players and personnel in “the bubble” to avoid coronavirus infections and suspension of play, and it has effectively simulated cheering or crowd noise, in part with a app that fans can use to cheer or jeer from their smartphones while watching games from home, which creates an appropriate type and level of crowd noise based on the situation. What’s more, video screens surround the court with simulated fans, and above that empty seats are invisible because the venues have been darkened, strategically lighting only the court. The absence of fans has also given broadcasters better camera angles, bringing viewers right down to court level at times.

I like that there is really no home-court advantage for the teams, as all of them are basically playing on neutral courts. This has resulted in a more balanced situation and many upsets. As of this writing both the Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat have advanced to the championship rounds of their respective conferences, which neither team was expected to make. Yes, I’m a sucker for underdogs. It’s good for the sport, too.

While empty stands for the NBA and other pro sports represent a major financial loss, they still have TV contracts to fulfill and profit by, as well as merchandise sales. It would have hurt every professional league to be absent for a full season and run the risk of their fans deciding they found other pastimes they consider more rewarding or entertaining. The teams’ billionaire owners are well aware of that and are willing to innovate and take calculated financial losses for the short term.

They didn’t become billionaires for nothing.

Mike Consol ( is editor of Real Assets Adviser. He is also the author of the college basketball novel Hardwood

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