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Ranking the 9 Best Businessmen Among Pro Sports Owners

These rankings are for success in business, not the success of each respective owner’s team on the field. Nepotism is also very common in pro sports ownership and we punished it aggressively in these rankings. We also tended to value owners who created real businesses (with real jobs and products that people actually use) over paper-pushing Private Equity and Hedge Fund managers, like Joshua Harris, who owns the NJ Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers.

Honorable Mentions:

Mark Cuban – Dallas Mavericks

He has been remarkably impressive in all his business dealings since buying the Mavericks, but he could only afford them because his company (Broadcast.com) was purchased by Yahoo for an absurd amount (nearly $6 billion in stock) at the top of the dot com bubble. Talk about a lucky stroke. If this was a list of best owners or people we would trust to run something, Cuban would be on it, but when your fortune is based on such a fluky event, you don’t crack the top nine.

Stan Kroenke – LA Rams, Arsenal FC, Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche

The mustachioed billionaire real estate magnate has an impressive array of properties under his control, both in and out of the sports world, but the fact that he married a Wal-Mart heir at the age of 27 is enough to bump him from our list.

Philip Anschutz – LA Kings, Multiple MLS teams, Assorted Sports Arenas

Anschuntz is a reclusive billionaire who owns LA Live and the O2 arena in London, among other prime locations. He is probably the most powerful person in sports that you have never heard of and he deserves plenty of credit for building his business into the true conglomerate it is today. However, his father was an oil tycoon, so he doesn’t quite make the list.

Mikhail Prokhorov – Brooklyn Nets

His wealth is staggering and he certainly didn’t inherit any of it, but the way wealth was created in post-Cold War Russia (become friends with people in the government, bribe them, buy valuable companies at fixed auctions for artificially depressed prices, kill your enemies) leaves us a little hesitant to put him in the top nine. Plus, part of the reason he is so wealthy is that he was caught with a group of prostitutes (he says models) on vacation in France in 2008 and Putin forced him to sell all his assets in Russia as punishment. Which left him ALL in cash for the financial crisis. It’s hard to get a break any luckier than that.

 

No 9: Robert Kraft – New England Patriots, New England Revolution

New York Jets v New England Patriots

Yet another owner who was docked for nepotism, Bob Kraft only makes the cut because it was his father-in-law, not his father, who started the paper-and-packaging company (Rand-Whitney) that ended up fueling Kraft’s fortune, and rather than inheriting it, Kraft had to raise money and buy it from him. This was also in 1968. So everything from that point on – turning Rand-Whitney into an international behemoth, founding International Forest Products in 1972 to go alongside it, buying the Patriots and Foxboro stadium at the perfect time, turning the Patriots around and building Gillette Stadium with no public money, leading the way on NFL TV deals and labor negotiations (what, you thought it was Goodell?), and turning the land around Gillette Stadium into a prime mixed-use commercial development featuring offices, restaurants, a movie theater and a hotel – should be credited to Kraft, and as a result, he sneaks into the #9 spot on our list.

No 8: Henry Samueli – Anaheim Ducks

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You probably haven’t heard of him. In fact, some of his own players probably couldn’t pick him out of a lineup or tell you what the company he founded (Broadcom) does. Well, the company is a fabless semiconductor company, which basically means they make products that enable modern Internet technology (wireless modems, VoIP, cloud computing, etc) to exist. Go any deeper than that and you may give yourself a headache, but just know that the company has been fabulously successful and that Samueli founded it in a garage with one of his students at UCLA, where he was an Electrical Engineering professor (the school is now named for him, as you can see above). No nepotism involved: just a lot of IQ and (now) a couple billion dollars.

No 7: Ted Leonsis – Washington Wizards, Washington Capitals, Washington Mystics

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If AOL hadn’t erroneously bought Time Warner in 2000 (and had instead focused on, say, buying Google, or even just internal development), Ted Leonsis might be sitting atop this list. However, instead of taking advantage of their huge lead in various Internet-centric businesses (search, e-commerce, local news, streaming media, etc), AOL went ahead with the disastrous Time Warner deal and Leonsis (who didn’t found AOL, but was a key early executive) ended up leaving his day-to-day role at the company by 2006. Still, despite what might have been, AOL was a hugely successful early Internet player and Leonsis has had success beyond AOL with his ownership of the Verizon Center (that helped revitalize downtown DC), investments in Groupon, Google, Travelocity, SB Nation, and sweetgreen (among many others), and his recent investment in original content production, the Monumental Sports Network.

No 6: Jerry Jones – Dallas Cowboys

We tried to base the list purely on business success away from sports, but Jerry (as well as Bob Kraft) has been so instrumental in growing the NFL into a colossus that we had to take it into account. Since Jerry Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, the game has grown tremendously. Someone deserves credit for that, and he is one of the few individuals with a legitimate claim. Jones has been a marketing visionary, increasing eyeballs and revenue at every turn, for both the Cowboys and the league. He bought the team for $140 million and it is now worth $4 billion+. He has also built a huge new stadium for the Cowboys, helped negotiate league TV deals, set up merchandising agreements (Jones more or less invented the concept of each team having their own “official” brands sponsoring them), and recently took the lead in helping the Rams move to a new stadium in LA. All of this is in addition to starting his own successful oil exploration company in his 20’s without any inherited money.

No 5: Stephen Ross – Miami Dolphins

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You know the guy Donald Trump wants everyone to believe he is: a wildly successful Manhattan real estate developer with dozens of prime properties, no debt, and a few lucrative side businesses? Well Stephen Ross really is that guy. Through his Related Companies, he owns more high-end residential real estate in New York City than anyone else, including the Time Warner Center, now a Columbus Circle landmark. Ross is also developing the Hudson Rail Yards (above) on the west side of Manhattan, the largest private real estate development in the US. Throw in substantial ownership stakes in SoulCycle and Equinox Fitness Centers – along with the Dolphins and their stadium – and the money really starts to add up. He is worth $7.4 billion according to Forbes, but with his properties bringing in millions of dollars every month in rent and Hudson Yards just starting to bear fruit, the future is very bright.

No 4: Dan Gilbert – Cleveland Cavaliers

A born entrepreneur, Gilbert went from delivering pizza to selling real estate to founding his own mortgage company. That company is called Quicken Loans, currently an industry monster and poised to soon change mortgage lending forever with their “Rocket Mortgage” product (imagine applying for a mortgage and getting an answer right away). Gilbert also owns the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Cleveland, and through his firm Rock Ventures (as well as Courtside Ventures and Detroit Venture Partners) is currently leading the charge to rehabilitate downtown Detroit (and to a slightly lesser degree, downtown Cleveland). This includes investing in real estate as well as companies, in addition to giving away large amounts of money. Gilbert can come off as smug (see Letter, The), but his business success is as real as it gets and he is entirely self-made. He’s also just getting started.

No 3: Arthur Blank – Atlanta Falcons

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Ever heard of a little company called Home Depot? Yeah? Well Arthur Blank (above right) founded it (along with his partner Bernard Marcus). Blank’s position on this list isn’t much more complicated than that. He founded a company (without any family help) that went on to become one of America’s biggest brands, and then ran that company (along with Marcus) for over 20 years, making a couple billion in the process. Check, check, and check.

No 2: Hasso Plattner – San Jose Sharks

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Plattner’s name isn’t familiar in the US, but in Germany he is widely known as the successful co-founder and longtime executive of enterprise software giant SAP. If you aren’t familiar with SAP, they are the German version of Oracle. And if you are familiar with Oracle, but don’t really know what they do, they make the software that big companies run on. You think Wal-Mart tracks their worldwide sales on an Excel spreadsheet? No way. Which is where Oracle and SAP (and others) come in. Plattner was a co-founder, and then stuck around for years after his other co-founders left, leaving him with a fortune of more than $10 billion and a spot as an eminence grise of the international business culture. Somewhere along the way he also decided to buy the Sharks, which is how he found his way onto this list. He has been the majority owner since 2013.

No 1: Steve Ballmer/Paul Allen – LA Clippers, Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers

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Allen and Balmer were the second and third most important people behind Microsoft. They are also the richest owners on this list, with respective net worths of $28.4 billion (Ballmer) and $19 billion (Allen). Allen literally invented Microsoft with Bill Gates in the late 1970s and is considered the technical brains behind the original software. It is safe to say the company wouldn’t exist without him. Once Bill Gates turned that original software into a business in the early 80s, he and Allen decided they needed a third person to head up a sales force. That person was Ballmer and he did so successfully for more than two decades. Although both men have holes in their respective resumes (Allen left the company in 1982 after a health scare and hasn’t had much success in business since, while Ballmer once famously predicted the iPhone would be a flop and did very little to set Microsoft up for the future during his tenure as CEO), Microsoft was such a massive success and important part of the digital revolution that the two of them deserve to share the top ranking.

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