It has been said that with great power comes great responsibility.
It’s true in the world of business, it’s true in the world of politics and it’s certainly true in the world of sports. And when it comes to power in the world of sports, it invariably and disproportionately falls in the hands of franchise owners.
In addition to managing budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, franchise owners are responsible for overseeing countless operations, hiring all the right people, producing a winning team and keeping their fans happy. And they’re expected to do it all while turning a profit.
Add to that the fact that the elite class of 100 or so owners spread across the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB enjoy lavish lifestyles featuring fleets of sports cars, multimillion-dollar mansions, private luxury boxes and corporate jets, it’s no wonder the public has such an intense interest in their affairs. Whether they like it or not, owners of professional sports teams are oftentimes the face of not only their franchise, but of their city as well. And like it or not, they are always held to a higher standard of professionalism than the average citizen.
So while it may be the players and coaches who dominate the day-to-day headlines, the media will jump at the opportunity to expose any morsel of controversy involving an owner. And while some owners manage to dodge the spotlight for decades, others (a la the late, great Al Davis) can’t seem to avoid it.
Love them or hate them, here are the 10 most controversial sports franchise owners in America.
10. Jim Irsay, Indianapolis Colts, Net Worth: $1.4 Billion
Growing up in the shadow of his father, Bob, Jim Irsay is no stranger to controversy. After all, his dad is the one who infamously moved the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in the middle of the night in 1983. When the senior Irsay died in 1997, Jim experienced some controversy of his own; already acting as senior executive vice president, general manager and chief operating officer, he wanted full ownership of the team and engaged in a legal battle with his stepmother to get it. When the dust settled, Irsay controlled 100 per cent of the franchise and, at 37, became the youngest NFL team owner at that time. Today, his net worth is estimated at $1.4 billion. Since taking over, Irsay has never been afraid to voice his opinion. Most recently, he found himself in the spotlight after releasing Peyton Manning, arguably one of the greatest quarterback to ever play in the NFL, and making some ambiguous comments about his former QB. What ensued was nothing short of a media storm, as Irsay used Twitter to battle ESPN’s Chris Mortensen and bash sports journalists in general. The climax came when his Colts defeated Manning’s new team, the Denver Broncos, and he all but gloated about it via social media. The reaction from reporters, coaches and fellow GMs were far from favorable. You know it’s bad when the conservative and soft-spoken Tony Dungy speaks out against you.
9. James Dolan, New York Knicks & New York Rangers, Net Worth: $1.5 Billion
James Dolan is the president and CEO of Cablevision Systems Corporation (which his father founded) and executive chairman of The Madison Square Garden Company, which has majority control of not only the NBA’s Knicks and NHL’s Rangers, but also the WNBA’s Liberty and the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League. Needless to say, the man has money. And while the 58-year-old Dolan has been instrumental in supporting pancreatic cancer research and organizing benefit concerts to raise money for the victims of 9/11 and natural disasters, he has also received his share of criticism for the way he runs his sports franchises. In 2007, NBA commissioner David Stern summed up Dolan’s management of the Knicks in one sentence: “They’re not a model of intelligent management.”
Despite the Knicks and Rangers consistently having one of the highest payrolls in their respective leagues – a result of Dolan handing out massive, long-term contracts like candy on Halloween – the teams’ lack of success has made it hard for fans to justify the spending. Dolan has also fallen out of favor with the media over the years; despite owning two of the biggest sports franchises in North America’s biggest city, he rarely speaks to reporters in lieu of prepared statements and limits his players’ contact with the media. He is also known for excommunicating writers who openly criticize his teams and allegedly did not renew the contract of longtime Knicks broadcaster Marv Albert because of his less-than-glowing coverage of the team.
8. Ted Leonsis, Washington Capitals & Washington Wizards, Net Worth: $1 Billion
A former senior executive with America Online, Ted Leonsis has spent the past 15 years or so establishing one of the biggest sports and entertainment empires in America. In addition to owning the NBA’s Wizards and the NHL’s Capitals, Leonsis controls the Mystics of the WNBA and the Verizon Center, where all of his teams play. And while it’s difficult to argue the 57-year-old’s business acumen (he is also a successful venture capitalist investor, a film producer and a published author), he’s created more than his share of controversy over the years.
Shortly after purchasing the Wizards, he was fined $100,000 by the NBA for criticizing the league’s salary cap. Then, only three years after awarding hockey star Jaromir Jagr with what was then the largest contract in NHL history, he upset fans by trading him away. Several years ago, Leonsis got involved in an altercation with a fan who was mocking him during a game, resulting in another $100,000 fine and a one-week suspension. After continually raising ticket and parking prices, and announcing the expansion of billboards around the Verizon Center, Leonsis has also earned himself the undesirable nickname “Leon$i$.” Over the years he has also allegedly bribed bloggers for favorable coverage of the Capitals and created a computer program to prevent visiting teams the ability to buy tickets to Capitals playoff games.
7. Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys, Net Worth: $2 Billion
As synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys as the team’s navy lone-star logo, the 71-year-old Jerry Jones has been making headlines since he bought the franchise in 1989. Unfortunately for Jones, it’s usually been for the wrong reasons. His personnel decisions first caused ripples shortly after he took over, when he fired beloved coach Tom Landry and replaced him with former Arkansas teammate, Jimmy Johnson. Soon after, he axed longtime general manager Tex Schramm and took over football operations himself. And while his moves apparently paid immediate dividends – the Cowboys won three Super Bowls between 1992 and 1995 – he publicly credited the team’s success to his own eye for talent. And while Jones will always have those championship rings, he will always be remembered more for his ensuing feud with Johnson, which ultimately led to Johnson’s firing in 1993.
While Jones has admitted he regrets the way he handled the situation in recent years, he has found other ways to stay in the spotlight. One is his numerous appearances on television shows and commercials, adding to his reputation as a money- and attention-craving egomaniac. Another is his history of being fined by the NFL, most famously for violating league policies regarding labor issues and criticizing official Ed Hochuli after a game his team wasn’t even involved in. While Jones has been relatively quiet in recent years, history shows it’s probably just the calm before another storm.
6. Mark Cuban, Dallas Mavericks, $2.3 Billion
When Mark Cuban bought the NBA’s Mavericks in 2000, he played a huge role in redefining what it means to be a professional sports franchise owner. Instead of watching from a private box, the avid sports fan became a staple on the sidelines at home games and traveled to road games aboard his private Gulfstream V. Sometimes, however, the 55-year-old’s enthusiasm boils over, earning him a reputation as a hothead – and costing him a lot of money to boot. Over the years, Cuban has accumulated 13 fines – for everything from criticizing officials and cursing at opposing players to bashing the league itself – totaling more than $1.6 million. With a net worth of over $2 billion, however, Cuban can more than afford it.
In addition to portraying himself on multiple television programs and starring on several reality shows, Cuban has also attracted media attention for calling the Denver Nuggets team a bunch of “thugs” and starting a booing campaign against former Maverick Michael Finley when he returned to Dallas as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. Cuban is no stranger to legal issues either, as he was the focus of insider trading allegations and a civil law suit, though he was ultimately found not guilty.
5. Daniel Snyder, Washington Redskins, Net Worth: $1.2 Billion
Like many owners on this list, Daniel Snyder showed an interest in sports at an early age. When he was only 17, his first business venture was shuttling Philadelphia Flyer fans to watch hockey games in Washington. While that company failed, along with others, Snyder eventually hit the big-time and used his profits to purchase the NFL’s Redskins in 1999. Today, at 49 years old, Snyder is worth $1.2 billion. Despite his deep pockets and financial turnaround of the team, however, he has frequently been vilified by the media and fans alike. Thanks to his reputation for overpaying for free agents and trading away valuable draft picks, Snyder and his one-time GM, Vinny Cerrato (who resigned in 2009), were refereed to by sportswriters as “Dumb and Dumber.”
Not one to do himself many favors, Snyder sued season ticket holders who could not afford to pay for their packages in the midst of the 2008-09 recession and filed a libel suit against a local sportswriter for his piece entitled “The Cranky Redskins Fan’s Guide to Dan Snyder”, though he eventually dropped it. Most recently, Snyder has faced the ire of fans, politicians and advocates who believe the name “Redskins” is derogatory to Native Americans. Snyder’s response? “We’ll never change the name. It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”
4. Fred Wilpon, New York Mets, Net Worth: $500 Million
Fred Wilpon’s ownership of the Mets began way back in 1980, when the New York-based real estate developer bought a one per cent stake in the team. In 2002, he and his family bought out publishing giant Doubleday for $135 million to gain full control. While the 77-year-old Wilpon has faced criticism for the way he runs the Mets and manages its payroll for years, his most publicized scandal was his alleged involvement in Bernie Madoff‘s infamous Ponzi scheme. While it was originally reported that the Wilpon family lost money investing with Madoff, it was eventually revealed that they made about $300 million. While Madoff has always denied that Wilpon knew about the scheme, Wilpon was named in an ensuing lawsuit, forcing him to seek loans and consider selling shares in the Mets to offset his legal costs. He eventually settled the lawsuit for $162 million and has been closely monitored by the MLB ever since.
3. Charles Wang, New York Islanders, Net Worth: $925 Million
Since becoming the majority owner of the NHL’s New York Islanders in 2004, Charles Wang has become one of the most polarizing figures on the Big Apple’s sports scene. On one hand, the 69-year-old is actively involved in numerous philanthropic projects including the World Childhood Foundation, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Smile Train, which helps children with cleft lips and palates. On the other hand, he has frustrated fans and angered politicians with his business decisions for the past decade.
While Wang originally seemed intent on spending money to once again make the Isles a contender, he failed to invest wisely (see the long-term signings of Alexei Yashin and Rick DiPietro) and effectively made the team’s front office the laughing stock of the league. When the team continued to lose, however, Wang tightened the purse strings and pushed the team even further down the standings (they failed to make the playoffs from 2006 through 2012). Wang has also been accused by Forbes of excluding cable earnings, and his former company, Computer Associates, was charged by the Justice Department for violating accounting and securities laws; while eight company executives ended up in jail, Wang was not prosecuted. Most recently, Wang created an uproar when he pleaded with the public to help fund his vision for the Lighthouse Project, a new arena and sports complex in Nassau County. When the proposal was rejected, however, Wang refused to spend his own money on a new home for the Isles and instead worked a deal for the team to play out of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn beginning in 2015.
2. Donald Sterling, Los Angeles Clippers, Net Worth: $1.5 Billion
With more than 30 years at the helm of the Clippers, Donald Sterling is the longest-tenured owner in the NBA. He is also the most controversial. Since buying the team in 1981 (then based in San Diego) for a measly $12.5 million, the 70-year-old real estate tycoon has been called out time and time again for transgressions ranging from poor management to racial discrimination. Despite Sterling’s personal worth (over $1 billion) and the value of the Clippers (more than $400 million), he has always had a reputation for failing to invest in talent and make his team a contender. He has also burned through countless coaches, making it difficult for the club to establish any kind of identity or continuity.
In 2005, Sterling faced claims of discriminatory rental practices against Hispanics, blacks and families with children and reportedly agreed to pay a fine of $2.73 million to settle. Four years later, in 2009, he was sued by former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor, who claimed he was discriminated against on the basis of age and race when his salary remained frozen for five years. The lawsuit also alleged that Sterling said he wanted to fill his team with “poor black boys from the South and a white head coach.” That same year, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Sterling for housing discrimination, as he allegedly refused to rent to non-Koreans in a “Korean” neighborhood and to African Americans in Beverly Hills because “black tenants smell and attract vermin.” Furthermore, despite Sterling’s pledge to spend $50 million on services for Los Angeles’ homeless population back in 2006, the foundation he set up has yet to deliver on its promises. As if to prove that his discrimination isn’t discriminatory, Sterling has even been known to heckle his own players during games.
1. Jeffrey Loria, Miami Marlins, Net Worth: $500 Million
Born and raised in Manhattan, Jeffrey Loria attended Columbia Business School before going on to become a successful art dealer and, eventually, purchasing MLB’s Montreal Expos. Loria, who immediately demanded a new stadium for the team, quickly lost favor with the fans when he failed to secure television and English-speaking radio coverage for the Expos. Things went from bad to worse when, in 2004, Loria agreed to sell the Expos to the MLB so it could relocate the team to Washington. Not only did Loria make more than $100 million profit on the sale, but he was also given the opportunity to buy a team in Florida with an interest-free loan from the league. It is still the belief of many Canadians that Loria never intended on keeping the team in Montreal. Fast forward nearly a decade and the Marlins are now valued at $520 million and have a new 37,000-seat stadium. According to fans in the sunshine state, however, it came at the expense of not only the taxpayers (to the tune of $2.6 billion), but also that of the team; before the new stadium deal was in place, Loria purged the team’s payroll and fans were forced to watch an uncompetitive team as it “rebuilt.” Before the 2013 season, Loria had journalists and fans shaking their heads once again, when – despite the team earning 100 per cent of revenues from the new ballpark – Loria made a blockbuster deal with the Toronto Blue Jays to further cut expenses on his players. Not surprisingly, the team finished the 2013 season last in their division with a 62-100 record.