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How Sports Owners Made Their Money

Owning a professional sports franchise is my dream job. (I'm willing to relocate.) Of course, I could never afford my own team, except maybe in the NHL. Clearly, you have to be exceedingly wealthy to become an owner. But have you ever wondered how all those owners made all that money? Hopefully so, because I went ahead and did the research. Here's a list of seven billionaire owners and how they built their fortunes.

1. Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (NFL)

I'd never really given it much thought, but I'd always assumed Kraft bought the Patriots with big cheese money he'd inherited. But Kraft got his start in the paper business. His wife, Myra, is the daughter of Massachusetts philanthropist Jacob Hiatt. After Kraft finished Harvard Business School, he went to work with his father-in-law's packaging company. In 1972, Kraft founded International Forest Products, which is now part of the Kraft Group "“ a diversified collection of companies ranging from Gillette Stadium to the New England Revolution (Major League Soccer) to Carmel Container Systems (Israel's largest packaging plant). Kraft is seen as a savior in New England "“ before he bought the team in 1994, the Pats seemed destined for relocation to St. Louis. Plus he's made them really, really good, winning three Super Bowls this decade.

One drawback to owning your own sports team? Run-ins with foreign heads of state. In 2005, Kraft met Vladimir Putin, who walked off with one of Kraft's Super Bowl rings. Kraft now claims it was a gift, but that might just be what you say when a Russian leader steals your jewelry.

2. Robert L. Johnson, Charlotte Bobcats (NBA)

Lower on my list of dream jobs is running a cable network that caters to urban youth. So I'm all kinds of envious of Robert L., who founded BET and sold it to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. His fortune was depleted by an expensive divorce, but Johnson's estimated net worth is still $1.1 billion. His resume is full of firsts — BET was the first African-American owned company traded on the NYSE. He was the first African-American billionaire in the U.S. And, in 2002, he became the first African-American majority owner of a professional sports franchise.

3. Hiroshi Yamauchi, Seattle Mariners (MLB)

Despite America's strong resistance to Japanese ownership "“ and despite his admitted lack of interest in baseball "“ Hiroshi Yamauchi became majority owner of the Seattle Mariners in 1992. Yamauchi is the man credited with transforming Nintendo from playing-card company to video game giant. His 55-year tenure saw incredible growth. But that doesn't mean there weren't a few bumps along the way. Forays into instant rice, taxi service and short-stay hotels (also known as "love hotels") did not pan out.

4. Rich DeVos, Orlando Magic (NBA)

In 1959, DeVos and high school friend Jay Van Andel started selling all-purpose cleaner. Their business grew to become Amway, which now brings in $6 billion each year under the ominous-sounding Alticor name. Whether you see Amway as an empowering direct sales company or as something resembling a cult, it sure was good to DeVos. Forbes estimates his wealth at $3.5 billion, making the paltry $85 million he spent on the Magic in 1991 a minor investment.

5. Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks (NBA)

Power blogger and dance icon Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks. In 1990, the 32-year-old Indiana University alum sold his software company, MicroSolutions, for $6 million. Ten years later, his internet radio startup, Broadcast.com (formerly Audionet), was acquired by Yahoo! for almost $6 billion in stock. Since he purchased the Mavericks from Ross Perot in 2000 for $285 million, the team has improved its regular-seasoin winning record from 40 percent to 69 percent. Which is to say, everybody in Dallas loves him.

6. Malcolm Glazer, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL), Manchester United (English Premier League)

Malcolm Glazer inherited a small jewelry repair business from his father. But it was Malcolm's investments in Florida trailer parks that started his financial ascent. He went on to become president and CEO of First Allied Corporation, which now owns 6,700,000 square feet of retail space. He was also chairman of Gilbert/Robinson, Inc., which managed over 100 restaurants, including Houlihan's and Darryl's. Today, the Glazer family oversees strip malls and nursing homes throughout the land. Glazer also has a large stake in Zapata, an oil company founded by George H.W. Bush.

Glazer made five previous attempts to join the elite ranks of NFL ownership, including a failed 1993 bid to bring an expansion team to Baltimore. The New York Times said Glazer had "a reputation as a franchise window shopper, one who looks at virtually every team that comes up for sale." But in 1995, he outbid George Steinbrenner for the downtrodden Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Under his leadership, the franchise was righted, earning a Super Bowl title in 2003. Glazer also bought Manchester United, and fans weren't exactly pleased.

7. Stanley Kroenke, Denver Nuggest (NBA), Colorado Avalanche (NHL), St. Louis Rams (NFL -partial owner)

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Stanley Kroenke is a self-made man who also married mega-rich. He earned an estimated $2.1 billion fortune in real estate, developing shopping centers across the country. Then he went ahead and married Ann Walton -as in Sam's niece. She's worth another $3 billion or so. A sports junkie, Kroenke also owns a Major League Soccer franchise, the Colorado rapids, and a share in the Arsenal Football Club, part of the Premier League in England. 

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The article above, written by Jason English, is reprinted with permission from the January-February 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

Be sure to visit mental_floss' website and blog for more fun stuff!


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