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The Future of Black Ownership in North American Sports

With the exit of Michael Jordan, there are no sports franchises with majority Black owners. But change may finally be on the horizon.

I recently finished reading Jason Reid’s book, “The Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means For America”. Reid does a great job of telling the history, struggle, and path of Black athletes that play American sports' most glamorous position. It is a story that is weaved with the ugly truth of America’s racism against Black men that stretched well into the 1980s and 1990s. Even after the acceptance of Black men playing the position, Reid reminds us that even now Black quarterbacks deal with a different level of scrutiny than their white counterparts.

The timing of me finishing this book was peculiar because of another sports story that highlights the lack of access for Black people that recently happened. Michael Jordan is arguably the greatest basketball player who ever played the game. But for as great as he was on the court, it can be argued that he is a greater magnitude of inept when it came to being the owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Jordan recently sold his majority stake in the NBA franchise for $3 billion, and ended a 13-year nightmare for fans in Charlotte. But with Jordan’s exit, North American professional sports no longer has a majority Black owner. And we are once again left to wonder why ownership in sports lacks so much diversity.

Losses, Misses, and Disappointments

There is no sugarcoating it, the Hornets were one of the worst franchises in the NBA during Jordan’s tenure. The team went an abysmal 423-600, winning only 41% of its games. During that time, they made it to the playoffs twice and lost in the first round on both occasions. Playing in a smaller market like Charlotte makes it challenging to attract marquee free agents, but even by those standards the Hornets were abysmal. Their most notable swings in free agency were the following:

  • 2016: Nicholas Batum 5 years/$120M

  • 2018: Tony Parker 2 years/$10M

  • 2019: Terry Rozier 3 years/$56M

  • 2020: Gordon Hayward 4 years/$120M

Batum is largely considered one of the low-lights of a historically bad and overpaid 2016 free agency class. Parker was well beyond his prime years with the Spurs when he came to Charlotte. Rozier and Hayward have been effective for the Hornets but have not impacted winning in any meaningful way, as the team has only finished with a winning record once since Rozier signed in 2019.

The draft is supposed to be the elixir for the bad small market team to acquire high-end talent to at least compete and attract better players. Despite all the losing, even this has been a mixed bag during Jordan’s tenure as owner of the team. There have been some good players they have acquired through the draft such as Kemba Walker in 2011 and LaMelo Ball in 2020. But they have also had a parade of underwhelming lottery selections and passed up on great players. Here are some examples of the Hornets mismanagement of the draft:

  • 2012: Draft Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at #2 over Bradley Beal and Damian Lillard

  • 2013: Draft Cody Zeller at #4 in a draft that featured CJ McCollum and Giannis Antetokounmpo

  • 2014: Draft Noah Vonleh at #9 over Zach LaVine

  • 2015: Draft Frank Kaminsky at #9 over Myles Turner and Devin Booker

  • 2017: Draft Malik Monk at #11 over Donovan Mitchell

  • 2018: Draft and trade the rights to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to the Clippers for the rights to Miles Bridges (in fairness, before Bridges’ legal troubles he seemed to be on an All-Star trajectory)

  • 2021: Draft James Bouknight at #11 over Alperen Sengun and Trey Murphy III and proceed to not even play Bouknight

The amount of missed opportunities that the Hornets experienced over the last decade have simply been staggering. A team that simply has not been able to get out of its own way. Every time they seem to have righted the ship, something happens to set them backwards. Like most things, accountability starts at the top and the decisions and hirings that Jordan made as an owner were just bad. He is the textbook case study in why being a great player and being a great owner are two separate games altogether. All told, Jordan is profiting on the deal by selling the team for over 10 times what he paid for it over a decade ago. But as Jordan leaves the ownership ranks, a fact remains abundantly clear: diversity in North American sports ownership is severely lacking.

A Lack of Diversity

There is a term that is used a lot when describing the balance of power in college football, and that term is the Old Boy Network. The idea is that wealthy men of similar economic wealth and background help each other in personal and business matters. In the context of sports, it generally means that these men in power (typically older white men) will make sure that someone that they are “comfortable” with gets hired for a job. It is, in the most racist way possible, gatekeeping.

Currently, North American sports ownership is overwhelmingly white. Some exceptions include Shad Khan (owner of the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars), Kim Pegula (co-owner of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills), and Joseph Tsai (owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets). The reasons behind this are rooted in the past of this country. Black men and women have often been disenfranchised by the greater establishment and faced numerous roadblocks in accumulating land and wealth. This has excluded them from countless opportunities to build wealth. For decades, Black families were denied the opportunity to purchase homes and land due to discriminatory practices in the lending industry. This has meant that Black people were at a disadvantage from their white counterparts from the very beginning.

In addition to this, years of slavery and segregation after the abolishment of slavery has further crippled the wealthy aspirations of Black Americans throughout the decades. When one considers that a substantial amount of the wealth that was accumulated to be able to purchase sports franchises came from decades ago and in many cases during the segregation era, it is easy to understand why there is such a scarcity of Black ownership in North American sports.

Beyond all of these roadblocks, Black athletes currently are making more money in salaries and endorsements than ever before. The foundation of wealth is there, which is how Jordan was able to acquire the Hornets (then the Bobcats) in the first place. But the lack of success of other Black owners has perhaps made the path for future success seem murky. Perhaps the criticism that Jordan, a beloved figure for people that grew up in the 1990s, faced as an owner makes this current generation of athletes reconsider ownership. That could have been true up until very recently, but perhaps the tide is finally turning towards meaningful change.

More Than an Athlete

In the neverending debates of LeBron James versus Michael Jordan and their greatness, I have always had one conclusion. Both are undoubtedly great players, but where they differ is what their careers meant for the generations to follow. Jordan was truly the first spokesperson megastar. From Hanes to Gatorade, Jordan was on ads everywhere. He made so much of his wealth from his endorsement deals as opposed to his basketball salary. His influence was so great, it can be suggested that he made the game global.

In the case of LeBron James, it can be argued that he made being an athlete and an entrepreneur the new standard. James has ownership in the restaurant business with the Blaze Pizza chain, he is involved in media with UNINTERRUPTED and Spring Hill Entertainment, and has also done countless philanthropic ventures such as his I Promise school in Ohio. But LeBron has also set the trend when it comes to buying into sports franchises. James and his business partner Maverick Carter have a minority stake in Fenway Sports Group, the collective that owns the MLB’s Boston Red Sox and the English Premier League’s Liverpool FC.

Since LeBron did this, we have seen other athletes begin to invest in sports franchises. Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo and his brothers have bought a stake with Major League Soccer’s Nashville FC, and Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade has bought a stake in the NBA’s Utah Jazz and the WNBA’s Chicago Sky. These athletes are showing the next generation of athletes that owning a team is not a pipe dream but instead an attainable goal. A previous generation of athletes was characterized by frivolity and excess (as documented by the excellent ESPN documentary “Broke”). But it seems that this current generation and future generations after it, are more aspirational.

The exit of Michael Jordan from the ownership ranks is a blow to the aspirations of Black majority owners in sports, but it could merely be a short-term one. With the likes of James, Antetokounmpo, and Wade paving the way forward we may finally see positive steps toward Black ownership in sports. And it goes without saying that this next step is many years overdue.

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