Baseball has short list of billionaire owners
If you had a billion dollars, would you buy a Major League Baseball team?
Actually, not many have. Only seven of MLB’s 30 clubs are owned by people worth ten figures. Some billionaires have tried and failed to land membership in baseball’s ownership club – Mark Cuban went for it twice, with the Cubs and Rangers, before failing a third time with the Dodgers. Cuban wasn’t the only billionaire to lose out on the Dodgers, who were ultimately sold to a group fronted by Magic Johnson. Hedge fund manager Steve Cohen and Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley also threw hats into the ring.
Why the lack of billionaires in baseball’s boardrooms? Basically, it’s not a good fit. Most billionaires get where they are by taking charge and calling the shots in business, not the ideal formula in a sport where complex issues from player payroll to stadium building to multiple marketing platforms call for a corporate approach with shared responsibilities.
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In their day, Charlie Finley, Walter O’Malley and Cal Griffith were the king fishes in small ponds. They ruled their glorified mom and pop operations with iron fists. But the last owner representing a link to that era, the Yankees’ George Steinbrenner, passed away in 2010. Hal Steinbrenner, who runs the franchise these days, clearly isn’t the table pounder his dad was. Hal still has the last word, but he’s inclined to give top execs like Randy Levine, Lonn Trost and Brian Cashman a little more room to operate.
While the all-powerful boss can be effective in the NBA (14 billionaires), where a couple of players can make or break the franchise for a decade, he has a tougher time getting his hands around all that goes into running a baseball team.
Even some of those qualifying for the club aren’t particularly into it, opting for the passive approach. That includes Hiroshi Yamauchi, who essentially controls the Seattle Mariners as the largest individual shareholder of Nintendo, which owns the club. There’s also Liberty Media chief John Malone, whose company owns the Atlanta Braves. Both Malone and Yamauchi leave day-to-day operations of their clubs to top executives. The same is largely true of Oakland A’s partner John Fisher, the Gap heir who leaves the team in the hands of co-owner Lew Wolff, and the Texas Rangers’ Ray Davis, content to hand the keys to Nolan Ryan and stay in the background.
Missing are a pair of familiar names from last year: the Astros’ Drayton McLane, who sold his club last year to Houston businessman Jim Crane, and the Angels’ Arturo Moreno, whose net worth is now pegged below $1 billion by Forbes.
That leaves a grand total of three billionaire owners who could reasonably be called owner-operators. The wealthiest of the group: 86-year-old shopping mall magnate Ted Lerner (worth $3.3 billion), who bought the Washington Nationals in 2006, a year after Major League Baseball took control of the franchise and moved it from Montreal. The other two: Little Caesars pizza maven Mike Ilitch of the Detroit Tigers, and futures trader and all-around sports guru John Henry of the Boston Red Sox, whose Fenway Sports Group also dabbles in NASCAR and European soccer. Incidentally, we passed on anyone with a very small stake – a criterion that fits Cohen, the failed Dodger bidder who owns less than 5% of the Mets.
Speaking of Ilitch and Lerner: both exemplify the risks of a billionaire owner in his 80s, itching for a championship. Werner signed outfielder Jayson Werth last year to a $126 million deal in one of baseball’s most wasteful contracts ever. Ilitch may have equaled him this year by exceeding $200 million for Prince Fielder, a top slugging first baseman but also overweight as he approaches 30. Fielder is a bad fit for a team that now needs to shift its incumbent first baseman, Miguel Cabrera, to third, where his own girth-related challenges will be that much more exposed. Most likely, the corporate approach would have yielded different decisions.
1. John Malone, Atlanta Braves ($5.1 billion)
2. Ted Lerner, Washington Nationals ($3.3 billion)
3. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Seattle Mariners ($2.5 billion)
4. Mike Ilitch, Detroit Tigers ($2.4 billion)
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