Ballmer emerged on the scene several weeks ago as a potential buyer of the Clippers as his tenure at Microsoft was coming to an end and, simultaneously, the ownership of the National Basketball Association franchise was unraveling after owners Donald and Shelly Sterling got caught in the controversy created by his racist remarks.
And as Ballmer headed into his first day on the new job last month with an L.A. Clippers hat on his head, he had the reaction that many business chiefs do once they’ve actually purchased their new “toy” in the form of complete or controlling interest in a pro-sports franchise. “I don’t have the first clue about being an owner” of a sports team, Ballmer thought, according to The Wall Street Journal.
Ballmer might have asked Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who bought the Seattle Seahawks in 1997. But few business chiefs come to this pursuit with such an understanding, unless they’ve been a member of one of the great family dynasties in sports ownership, such as the Steinbrenners who control the New York Yankees, or the Bidwill family that owns the Arizona Cardinals, or the Halas family that owns the Chicago Bears.
And yet entrepreneurs who have scored huge successes in other lines of work often are the only individuals who can summon the vast amounts of money required to buy and own the sports franchises of today. Tom Benson made a fortune in what is arguably one of the toughest businesses around, selling cars. He owned NFL’s New Orleans Saints for a long time before buying the NBA team that now is known as the New Orleans Pelicans. Arthur Blank built Home Depot into one of America’s most successful retailers and has been trying to get his NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, a Super Bowl championship since 2002.
Then there is the most valuable NFL franchise—the Dallas Cowboys—which is worth $3.2 billion, the highest valuation of any U.S. pro-sports team, according to a Forbes estimate. Independently wealthy, they also are among the narrow class of Americans who can stomach the big bets on athletes, stadiums, cities and other factors required to participate in professional sports in this country.
Also, their success in previous entrepreneurial ventures often helps make business owners particularly successful in running a professional sports franchise, or at the very least keeps them from becoming a bench-warmer in the progress of their team and their sport.
On the list of ‘toys’ CEOs can buy themselves, a sports team is the one gift that keeps on giving. Unlike a car, a vacation home or even an airplane, a team can be shaped and built, and can add to a CEO’s legacy, which makes the return on this investment, as MasterCard says, priceless.