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11 Pro Athletes Turned Team Owners

by: Esteban On  Monday, May 14, 2012

pro athletes who are team owners

Do athletes make good team owners? Well, at the very least, pro athletes (successful ones, anyway) do gain a certain kind of experience that very few people have. They know what it feels like to win and, theoretically, what it takes to win. Moreover, you would think that, having played themselves, they could bridge any sort of gap that should happen to exist between players and management. I mean, it’s not like a player on an athlete-owned team could say, “man, that dude doesn’t know what we do.”

Of course, this is all theoretical. It should be abundantly clear by now that great players don’t necessarily know how to run a team. (Yeah, I’m looking at you, Isiah Thomas.) So while it can be great for PR to bring in a former star athlete as part of your ownership group, it’s not necessarily a great idea to give them a lot of authority.

But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a list of 11 former or current pro athletes who have become owners. Some have been very successful, others not so much.

11. Mike Illitch

mike illitch-detroit tigers-prince fielder

Right now you might be thinking, “wait a minute, I thought Mike Illitch made his fortune with Little Caesars?”

Well, he did. But it just so happens that, before he entered the pizza business, Illitch played three seasons of minor league baseball for the Detroit Tigers organization on a $3,000 contract—not terrible money in the 1950s. It was only after sustaining a knee injury that Illitch left baseball, started a pizza joint with his wife, and made a fortune with Little Caesars.

Today, of course, he owns both the Detroit Red Wings and the Detroit Tigers, and he’s probably one of the top 2 or 3 owners in all of pro sports.

10. Jerry Richardson


Jerry Richardson’s story is a bit like that of Mike Illitch: pro athlete for a while, started a fast food chain, made a fortune, bought a sports team.

The key differences? Richardson played football instead of baseball (2 years with the Baltimore Colts), started a burger chain rather than a pizza chain (Hardee’s), and bought a football team (the Carolina Panthers) instead of a baseball team and a hockey team.

9. Dale Hunter

dale hunter london knights owner capitals coach

Dale Hunter racked up 323 goals, 697 assists, and 3565 penalty minutes during his 20 year NHL career. Afterward, he and his brother Mark bought the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. Dale served as head coach until getting a phone call back in November from the Washington Capitals, his old team, asking if he’d like to give coaching in the NHL a try.

Now, I know the London Knights are only a junior hockey team, and thus isn’t true “pro” sports team. But the NCAA considers the OHL semi-professional—because players receive stipends—and OHL players forfeit their NCAA eligibility, so that’s good enough for me.

8. Venus & Serena

Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Stephen Ross

A couple weeks back we brought you a list of celebrity team owners and mentioned how a whole slew of celebs own a piece of the Miami Dolphins. Well, it turns out that Venus and Serena Williams own a piece of the Dolphins pie, too. The sisters bought in back in 2009, becoming the first African-American women to own an NFL team.

7. Warrick Dunn

warrick dunn owner atlanta falcons

Since retiring, NFL running back Warrick Dunn has famous for his amazing charity work. But it turns out that he’s also an NFL owner. After retiring, he purchased a stake in the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he played from 2002-2007. (Apparently there were no hard feelings after the Falcons released Dunn in February of 2008.)

6. Oscar De La Hoya

oscar de la hoya owner houston dynamo

Oscar De La Hoya was one of the most successful boxers of all time. He won 10 world titles in 6 different weight classes, a gold medal, and was named “best pound-for-pound fighter” multiple times. But De La Hoya was also smart and realized he wouldn’t be boxing forever. So, unlike guys like Mike Tyson, he invested his money wisely and formed his own promotion firm, Golden Boy Promotions.

In 2008, Golden Boy bought a 25% stake in the Houston Dynamo of the MLS. It’s not exactly the Dallas Cowboys, but it’s something.

5. LeBron James

lebron james liverpool

Now, when LeBron James™ decides he wants to buy a sports team, he doesn’t settle for an MLS franchise. (No offense to the MLS.) He buys a piece of one of the most famous and successful soccer teams playing in the world’s most famous league: Liverpool FC.

Last year LeBron purchased a stake in the team from its owner, Fenway Sports Group (i.e., John Henry and Thomas Werner). The deal is based more on a global marketing strategy than a particular fondness for “the beautiful game” on James’ part. Fenway Sports Group gets an American superstar trend-setter associated with their soccer club, and thus a chance to grow the English game in North America. James gets to extend his “brand” into Europe.

4. Mario Lemieux

mario lemieux owner pittsburgh penguins

Mario Lemieux made history when he came out of retirement back in 2000. But it wasn’t because he came out of retirement. Players do that all the time. What players do not usually do, however, is buy their team between retiring and making their comeback. And that is what Super Mario did.

Lemieux bought the Pittsburgh Penguins when they went bankrupt in 1999, two years after his last season. The very next season he decided to make like Jackie Moon and become a player-owner. This posed some tricky legal problems the league and the NHLPA—usually the owners and the union are pitted against each other—but because everyone knew the league benefitted from as much Mario as possible, they got it all worked out.

3. Nolan Ryan

nolan ryan texas ranger owner

Baseball’s all-time strikeout king* formed an ownership group called the Rangers Baseball Express that purchased the Texas Rangers in 2010 for $570 million. Nolan Ryan thus became President and CEO of the team for which he threw 2 of his record 7 no-hitters.

*He’s also baseball’s all-time walks king. He gave up 2,795 bases on balls. Number 2 is Steve Carlton…with only 1,833.

2. Michael Jordan

michael jordan charlotte bobcats owner

Earlier I mentioned our list of celebrity owners. Well, if you happened to take a look back at that list, then you probably noticed that rapper Nelly is part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats…along with the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan.

Unfortunately, like Isiah Thomas before him, Michael Jordan is proving that prowess on the court does not make you a good leader off the court. This year the poor Bobcats were one of if not the worst NBA teams of all time.

1. Magic Johnson

magic johnson dodgers owner

Magic Johnson is the newest member of the athlete-owner club. He’s a minority member of the group that just bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for a whopping $2 billion—the largest sale price for any sports team ever, surpassing Manchester United by a whole $500 million. Johnson isn’t the president or CEO of the team—that title belongs to Stan Kasten. But so far he has been the public face of the ownership group, speaking for them at press conferences and such. And this is an extremely smart move, given Magic’s prominent standing among Los Angeles sports fans.