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Trailer Parks, Video Games & Amway: How Sports Owners Made Their Money

Owning a professional sports franchise is my dream job. I'm willing to relocate.

I'd be one of the more meddlesome executives fans love to hate. I'd demand a say in who we drafted and redesign our uniforms. I'd deliver dramatic missives via sports-talk radio and send cryptic messages through the press. And I'd encourage local schoolchildren to mail Christmas cards to my dog, who'd have her own luxury box and a cartoon on our cable network.

Of course, not counting the NHL, I could never afford a pro sports team. There's a better chance I'll miraculously develop an unhittable slider, or learn to punt.

You obviously must be exceedingly rich to become an owner. Did you ever wonder how all these people made all that money? I sure hope you did, because we went and did all this research. What follows is a list of ten billionaire owners and how they built their fortunes.

Rich DeVos
Orlando Magic (NBA)

DeVos.jpgIn 1959, DeVos and high school friend Jay Van Andel started selling all-purpose cleaner. Their business grew to become Amway, which now brings in $6 billion each year under the ominous-sounding Alticor name. Whether you see Amway as an empowering direct sales company or a crazy cult, it sure was good to DeVos. Forbes estimates his wealth at $3.4 billion, making the paltry $85 million he spent on the Magic in 1991 a minor investment.

Robert L. Johnson
Charlotte Bobcats (NBA)

robert_johnson.jpgLower on my list of dream jobs is running a cable network that caters to urban youth. So I'm all kinds of envious of Robert L., who founded BET and sold it to Viacom for $3 billion in 2001. His fortune was depleted by an expensive divorce, but Johnson's estimated net worth is still $1.1 billion. His resume is full of firsts -- BET was the first African-American owned company traded on the NYSE. He was the first African-American billionaire in the U.S. And, in 2002, he became the first African-American majority owner of a professional sports franchise.

Robert Kraft
New England Patriots (NFL)

kraft.jpgI'd never given it much thought, but I'd always assumed Kraft bought the Patriots with big cheese money he'd inherited. That's not the case. Kraft made his money in paper. In 1972, he founded International Forest Products, which is now part of the Kraft Group "“ a diversified collection of companies ranging from Gillette Stadium to the New England Revolution (Major League Soccer) to Carmel Container Systems (Israel's largest packaging plant). Kraft is seen as a savior in New England; before he bought the team in 1994, the Pats seemed destined for relocation to St. Louis. Plus he's made them really, really good.

Another reason I'm so keen on owning a team is the access to foreign heads of state. In 2005, Kraft met Vladimir Putin, who walked off with one of Kraft's Super Bowl rings. Kraft now claims it was a gift, but that might just be what you say when a Russian leader steals your jewelry.

Hiroshi Yamauchi
Seattle Mariners (MLB)

Yamauchi.jpgDespite America's strong resistance to Japanese ownership "“ and despite his admitted lack of interest in baseball "“ Hiroshi Yamauchi became majority owner of the Seattle Mariners in 1992. Yamauchi is the man credited with transforming Nintendo from playing-card company to video game giant. His 55-year tenure saw incredible growth. But that doesn't mean there weren't a few bumps along the way. Forays into instant rice, taxi service and short-stay hotels (also known as "love hotels") did not pan out.

In addition to not caring for baseball, Yamauchi also prided himself on never playing a video game.

Jerry Jones
Dallas Cowboys (NFL)

jerryjones.jpgJerry Jones built an oil empire in the early 1970s, striking gas in the first thirteen wells he drilled. His father had given him a head start; Pat Jones sold the Modern Security Life Insurance Company for millions.

An undersized guard, Jones was captain of the 1965 Cotton Bowl-winning Arkansas Razorbacks. Future Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson was a teammate; Johnson's successor, Barry Switzer, was a Razorbacks assistant.

Jones bought the Cowboys for an estimated $140 million in 1989. He immediately made waves by firing Tom Landry "“ the only coach in Cowboys history "“ and replacing him with his college buddy (the aforementioned University of Miami coach, Jimmy Johnson). After a rocky 1-15 start in 1989, the Cowboys went on to win three Super Bowls in the 1990s.

Malcolm Glazer
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFL), Manchester United (English Premier League)

glazer.jpgMalcolm Glazer inherited a small jewelry repair business from his father. But it was Malcolm's investments in Florida trailer parks that started his financial ascent. He went on to become president and CEO of First Allied Corporation, which now owns 6,700,000 square feet of retail space. He was also chairman of Gilbert/Robinson, Inc., which managed over 100 restaurants, including Houlihan's and Darryl's. Today, the Glazer family oversees strip malls and nursing homes throughout the land. Glazer also has a large stake in Zapata, an oil company founded by George H.W. Bush.

Glazer made five previous attempts to join the elite ranks of NFL ownership, including a failed 1993 bid to bring an expansion team to Baltimore. The New York Times said Glazer had "a reputation as a franchise window shopper, one who looks at virtually every team that comes up for sale." But in 1995, he outbid George Steinbrenner for the downtrodden Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Under his leadership, the franchise was righted, earning a Super Bowl title in 2003. Glazer also bought Manchester United, and fans weren't exactly pleased.

Stanley Kroenke
Denver Nuggets (NBA), Colorado Avalanche (NHL), St. Louis Rams (NFL "“ partial owner)

kroenke.jpgKroenke is a self-made man who also married mega-rich. He earned his estimated $2.1 billion fortune in real estate, developing shopping centers across the country. Then he went ahead and married a Walton "“ Ann Walton. Sam's niece. She's worth another $3+ billion. A sports junkie, Kroenke also owns Major League Soccer franchise Colorado Rapids and a share in Premier League's Arsenal F.C.

Daniel Gilbert
Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA)

cavs.jpgWith $5,000 he'd earned delivering pizzas "“ and after a stint as a TV reporter "“ the future Cavs owner started a small mortgage company called Rock Financial in 1985. In 1999, it was bought by Intuit for $532 million. Three years later, Gilbert bought it back for $64 mil, renaming the company Quicken Loans. He bought the Cavaliers for $375 mil in 2005. He also owns Fathead, which makes wall decals and tiresome ads. On the side, Gilbert is working to beat Michigan's steroid-free bench-pressing record.

Stephen Bisciotti
Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

ravens.jpgAt 47, Stephen Bisciotti is the NFL's second-youngest owner. He made his money in staffing "“ specifically, finding talented engineers for the aerospace industry. With Jim Davis, Bisciotti founded Aerotek in 1983 (he was 23). Their staffing company, now known as the Allegis Group, had revenues of $4.4 billion in 2005. Bisciotti bought 49% of the Ravens in 2000, and purchased the rest from Art Modell in 2004.

Mark Cuban
Dallas Mavericks (NBA)

cuban.jpgPower blogger and dance icon Mark Cuban owns the Dallas Mavericks, and is thinking about buying the Chicago Cubs. The Indiana University alum sold MicroSolutions for $6 million in 1990. Ten years later, his internet radio startup Broadcast.com (formerly Audionet) was acquired by Yahoo! for almost $6 billion in stock. Cuban is also a partial owner of HDNet, Magnolia Pictures and 2929 Entertainment.

Many of you probably already knew how Cuban made his fortune. But we like his blog and think he'd make a terrific mental_floss intern. This opens the door.

How other owners made their money: Arthur Blank, Atlanta Falcons (NFL): co-founder of Home Depot; Paul Allen, Seattle Seahawks (NFL) and Portland Trail Blazers (NBA): co-founder of Microsoft; Woody Johnson, New York Jets (NFL): Johnson & Johnson heir; Micky Arison, Miami Heat (NBA): CEO of Carnival (Cruise) Corporation, which was founded by his father; Bill Davidson, Detroit Pistons (NBA) & Tampa Bay Lightning (NHL): family started Guardian Industrial (manufacturing auto mirrors and windshields); Glen Taylor, Minnesota Timberwolves (NBA): Taylor Corp (printing empire).

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If your local owners aren't on this list, please add the story of how they built their fortunes below. Thanks again to my anonymous library scientist friend for all her wonderful research.

Previously on mental_floss:

Spectacular Stories of Storied Spectators
"¢ Quiz: The Most Humiliating Scandals in Sports
"¢ Quiz: The Hall of Fame Game
Sports Too Deadly for Gym Class
Superstars in Super Strange Uniforms

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