“Sports franchises are how we knight people in this country.” – Bobby Axelrod, on Showtime’s hit show, “Billions.”
Michael Jordan’s decision to sell the Charlotte Hornets isn’t just ending his unsuccessful 13-year run owning and leading one of the NBA’s worst, most depressing teams. It also marks the end of a Black American holding the majority ownership of a professional sports franchise in North America.
Including Major League Soccer — there are 151 professional sports teams across the five major sports in North America. However, only five are owned by people of color, a list that includes: Vivek Ranadive (Sacramento Kings), Marc Lasry (Milwaukee Bucks), Kim Pegula (Buffalo Bills and Buffalo Sabres), Arte Moreno (Los Angeles Angels) and Shahid Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars).
In pure basketball terms, Jordan was an abject failure as the Charlotte Hornets owner. After acquiring the team in 2010, Jordan’s consistently inept decision-making led to a 423-600 win-loss record overall (which ranks 26th out of 30 teams in that time frame,) zero playoff series wins and no trips to the postseason in the last seven years.
But in pure capitalistic terms, Jordan executed a slam dunk in selling the team at a time when sports franchise valuations were exploding. Back in 2010, when Jordan bought the Hornets, the sticker price was $275 million. In a transaction heavily influenced by the late David Stern, former NBA commissioner, Jordan only put up $30 million in cash for the transaction while assuming about $150 million in debt for a team hemorrhaging cash at the time.
Such a deal would never happen in today’s NBA.
Although the official sale price in Jordan’s deal to sell the Hornets hasn’t been announced, ESPN, citing sources familiar with the matter, said the franchise had been valued at $3 billion. (Forbes noted last fall in its annual ranking of NBA team valuations that the average NBA team is now worth $2.86 billion, up 15% from the prior year.)
If we’re reducing the matter of Jordan selling the Hornets to a simple issue of dollars and cents, there’s no question that Jordan has once again demonstrated himself to be as lethal from a business standpoint as he ever was on a basketball court. And he certainly cannot be begrudged for cashing in a smart investment at the right time. This is the object of the game in our capitalistic society, right? Buy low and sell high.
But Jordan selling off the Hornets — which we can reasonably assume the fans are justifiably thrilled about — again places the spotlight on an uncomfortable truth for the NBA.
Although Black players account for more than 70% of the talent on NBA rosters, with Jordan’s sale of the Hornets, no more Black majority owners are left to call the shots for teams. In fairness, the NBA has made significant progress in hiring Black talent into prominent leadership roles in recent years, with 14 of the 30 head coaches and 11 of 30 general managers identifying as Black. The gap in the Black leadership-to-player talent ratio is far starker in the National Football League, where although 56% of the players are Black, there are no Black owners, just three Black head coaches and five Black team presidents.
In fact, a report published by Revelio Labs earlier this year contends that the NFL “has a significant disparity between the diversity of its players and that of its coaching staff — the largest among men’s major leagues — and this has not changed despite a large pool of diverse former players that could meet a demand for coaching talent.”
These data points illustrate a power dynamic in which Black sweat is a crucial part of the engine driving multibillion-dollar profits for sports leagues and media networks, while the decision-making largely rests in the hands of a predominantly white leadership structure that includes ownership and extends into the press, the TV network C-suite, player agents, sports advertisers, corporate sponsors and season ticket holders.
Magic Johnson, who recently joined the ranks of Black minority owners of NFL franchises as part of billionaire Josh Harris’ $6.5 billion purchase of the Washington Commanders, seems to want to be part of the solution to this challenge for the NFL. Following the closing of Dan Snyder’s sale, Johnson told NBC BLK that he hopes his position with the club will lead to more Black executives elevating into leadership positions both within the organization and beyond.
Additionally, the NFL has taken steps towards diversifying the ranks of coaching and front office personnel, having completed its third Accelerator Program in May, which seeks to connect prospective coaching and executive talent with ownership representation from all 32 clubs.
But only time will tell if this program will succeed in the long run, and for now, people of color largely remain shut out of the social networks that run both the NFL and American professional sports overall.
An unwitting practitioner of diversity, equity and inclusion?
As one of only two Black Americans to hold majority ownership of a major professional sports franchise — with Jordan’s predecessor, Charlotte Bobcats owner Robert L. Johnson being the other — Jordan established a solid, albeit uninspiring, track record of hiring people of color into prominent, high-profile roles. In 2011, he hired Richard Cho as general manager, following Cho’s history-making stint with the Portland Trailblazers as the first Asian-American GM in the history of the NBA.
Overall, 40% of Jordan’s head coaching hires and 50% of his general manager hires were racial minorities, according to a research paper published last fall by University of St. Thomas Law Professor David Grenardo. At a minimum, this demonstrates that Jordan possessed an open-mindedness towards hiring the right person for the role, regardless of their background. However, to achieve the goal of more equitable representation on the sidelines and in the executive suite in the NFL and NBA, the makeup of the people making those decisions must change.
Simply put, a change of this scope requires more Black people of extreme wealth to line up to buy sports franchises when they come on the market. Beyond that, it also requires the commissioners of the major sports leagues to see Black majority ownership as a goal worth pushing for and then taking steps toward making that goal come to fruition. Stern did it once before in using his influence to help Jordan acquire the Hornets. Could Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner, play a similar role in helping LeBron James do the same as the NBA looks to expand to new cities in the coming years?
LeBron ― you got next?
Even as the debate rages on in barbershops and group chats across America over who was the better player — James or Jordan— the former has surpassed his legendary predecessor in one key respect. He’s the first active NBA player, according to Forbes, to achieve billionaire status. (A long-retired Jordan didn’t become a billionaire until 2014, thanks to a jump in the Charlotte Hornets’ valuation.)
James has made no secret of his desire to bring an NBA franchise to Las Vegas as a majority owner, with the NBA reportedly eyeing an expansion into additional markets in the near future. With his beyond-Jordan-esque ability to create wealth off the court, it’s certainly realistic for James to raise the necessary capital to become the majority owner of an NBA franchise. (He currently owns minority stakes in two sports teams: the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC.)
And given James’ proclivity for advancing social justice causes, it’s not unreasonable to expect that if he succeeds — he’ll go even further than Jordan did in hiring minority talent to run the team.