There is a growing problem in professional sports leagues that has gone largely unreported, even as it has begun to cripple some of the most important franchises in MLB, the NBA, and the NFL. That problem is the growing number owners of major market teams who inherited the team from their parents or grandparents instead of purchasing them with their own money. In some of the biggest sports markets like Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, hereditary owners are in the process of driving some of the most prestigious and most valuable teams in the league straight into the ground.
34 year old Jed York was appointed as president of the 49ers by his parents when he was 28 years old. York’s uncle, a real estate mogul originally bought the team and oversaw all of its Super Bowl victories before being forced cede control to his sister after some legal troubles. Mr. York made headlines this year by effectively running the team’s best coach in years out of town, then badly mishandling a coaching search the ended up selecting their little known defensive line coach for the head job. Jim Harbaugh had led the team to three straight NFC championship games and a Super Bowl appearance, but York still wanted him out. Someone who had built a successful organization from the ground up would have always put performance ahead of any personality clashes. Not so for someone who had a formerly successful organization dropped in his lap.
In the NBA, two of the three most important teams in the league are currently being slowly poisoned from hereditary ownership. Jerry Buss bought the Lakers and turned them into the most exciting and successful teams in all of sports for over 30 years. During his tenure, the team not only developed young stars like Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, but also attracted big names like Shaquille O’Neal and Phil Jackson. Since his son Jim assumed control of the team, the Lakers have been in steady decline, changing coaches every year or so, failing to attract big name free agents, and even being unable to retain a big name player like Dwight Howard.
The New York Knicks, though they have nowhere near the pedigree of the Lakers or 49ers, have traditionally been perennial playoff and occasional championship contenders for much of their history, but in recent years under the control of James Dolan, who was put in charge by his father, the team has been known mainly for its losing seasons, scandals, and terrible contracts. The management of the team has been so bad that even David Stern at one point publicly questioned the intelligence of management decisions and new commissioner Adam Silver even made some jokes at the Knicks’ expense.
In the business world, the presidency of billion dollar companies are rarely handed down to a son or daughter. They quite often own shares and benefit financially, but since the business world is so competitive, most company founders understand that the best way to provide for their children and grandchildren is to ensure that the best managers are hired to run the business. They know that inserting an unqualified son or daughter at the top would risk killing the business altogether.
The problem with professional sports teams, particularly those who play in big markets, are essentially monopolies that will fill seats and enjoy millions in television revenue no matter how terribly the team is run. The Knicks and Lakers are among the worst teams in the league but yet have among the highest ticket prices and best attendance. But while even the worst managers could not possibly bankrupt teams like the 49ers, Knicks, and Lakers, the league as a whole suffers when these premier teams are so poorly run. Though owners would be unlikely to agree to it, the best policy for the league would be for the team to be sold to the highest bidder whenever an owner passes away or chooses to cede control of the team.