The sports world lost a giant on Monday. Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss died as the result of renal failure brought on by cancer. He was 80 years old.
Of course, anybody who follows the NBA at all knows that, under Buss, the Lakers became what they are today: a championship juggernaut. So today, in honor of the late Gerald Buss, PhD, we’re going to take a look at where he ranks in the pantheon of winningest sports team owners.
Now, this list is as objective as possible. The criteria for “winningest” is simple: how many championships did a guy (and yes, they’re all guys) win as an owner? We’re not talking about “the best” owners (though you would think “best” would have something to do with championships), and we’re not talking about the most “significant” or “important” owners. Championship rings are all that matter here.
How were ties broken, you ask? Well, I tried to be objective there, too. To break ties, I ranked the owners with better championship winning percentages higher. So if a guy won 5 championships in 10 years, that’s a .500 winning percentage, and it would rank him higher than a guy who won 5 championships in 15 years.
And one last thing—you’ll notice that I had to limit the scope of this list to the four major North American sports leagues. Sure, it would have been cool to scan the globe for great owners in any first-tier league. But that wasn’t really feasible and, more importantly, it’s kind of difficult to compare compare winning an NBA championship to a Premier League championship. Not only are they contested differently, but the system in place in English soccer make it pretty much impossible for all but 5 or 6 teams to ever win.
But enough of the introductions and disclaimers. Let’s check out the winningest team owners, shall we?
Ownership: Pittsburgh Steelers, 1933-1988 (56 years)
Art Rooney founded the Steelers back in 1933, but the team didn't win it's first championship until 1974. Of course, after they won that one, they went on to win three more in the next five years to become one of the greatest dynasties the NFL has ever known.
It just goes to show that you've gotta stick with it.
16. Art Rooney
Ownership: Los Angeles Lakers, 1965-1979 (15 years); Washington Redskins, 1974-1997 (24 years)
Championships: 1 NBA, 3 NFL
The Lakers under Jack Kent Cooke became known as a team that was always the bridesmaid but rarely the bride, making 7 NBA Finals appearances but winning just once. The Redskins, on the other hand, were more successful, winning Super Bowls in 1982, 1987, and 1991.
(And in case you were wondering, yes, we're only counting ownership years in which a guy was a majority or sole owner. Cooke purchased a 25% stake in the Redskins in 1961, but he didn't gain control of the team until 1974.)
15. Jack Kent Cooke
Ownership: Detroit Red Wings, 1982-present (32 years)
Here's a perfect example of a guy who might rank a little higher if this were a list of the "best" or "most significant" team owners. When Mike Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982, the "Original 6" franchise was floundering. He committed to resuscitating them, and he did. Today the Red Wings are the class of the NHL with a fan base that's as rabid as any in the league.
14. Mike Ilitch
Ownership: Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers, 1950-1979 (30 years)
Walter O'Malley may have been the scourge of Brooklyn for moving the Dodgers from New York to California for the 1958 MLB season, but he gave one thing to Brooklyn fans no other owner had been able to give: a World Series Championship.
It was under O'Malley's ownership that the Dodgers, winners of 10 N.L. Pennants prior to 1955, finally beat the rival Yankees for a world championship. Then, still under O'Malley's guidance, the Dodgers became the first California team to win the World Series, winning championships again in 1959, 1963, and 1965.
13. Walter O'Malley
Ownership: New York Islanders, 1978-1997 (20 years)
Early in his ownership tenure, the New York Islanders became one of the greatest sports dynasties of all time, winning the Stanley Cup 4 years in a row from 1980-83. After that, it was all downhill. Pickett moved to Florida and let idiots run the team (that's you, Mike Milbury). He tried to sell them to John Spano in 1996, and did...but then it was discovered that Spano had lied about his net worth, and he had to give the team back to Pickett. He then sold the team again for the 1997-98 season.
But hey, the guy did oversee a dynasty, and you can't take that away from him.
12. John Pickett
Ownership: 1993-present (20 years)
Under Peter Holt, the San Antonio Spurs have become one of the best franchises in the NBA. Under his leadership they've missed the playoffs only once, and have won 4 NBA titles.
How'd they do it? By making seamless transitions from one superstar to the next. First it was David Robinson, then Tim Duncan, and now (sort of) Tony Parker. It just seems like this team will never be bad with Holt at the helm.
11. Peter Holt
Ownership: San Francisco 49ers, 1977-1999 (23 years)
Now we're starting to get to the really elite territory, and first up is Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. Under his ownership, the 49ers had one of if not the best decade in NFL history in the 1980s, winning 4 Super Bowls. Then they added another Super Bowl Championship in 1994 for good measure.
10. Eddie DeBartolo, Jr.
Ownership: Edmonton Oilers, 1980-1998 (19 years)
Pocklington acquired the rights to a 17-year-old kid named Wayne Gretzky in 1977, then engineered the merger between the NHL and WHL for the 1980 season, giving Edmonton it's first every NHL team. That right there was pretty good. But then his team won the Stanley Cup 5 times in 7 seasons ('84, '85, '87, '88, and '90).
9. Peter Pocklington
Ownership: Chicago Bears, 1920-1983 (65 years)
Halas took possession of the Chicago Stanleys in 1920, moved them to Chicago, and renamed them the Bears. At that time he was the player/coach/owner. Later, of course, he was just the coach/owner, and in that more limited role he led the team to (pre-Super Bowl) NFL championships in '33, '40, '41, '43, '46, and '63.
Again, if this were a list of "most important" owners, Halas would be at the top, given his role in making the NFL what it is today (the most valuable sports league in the world). But this is only about the winningest owners, so he'll have to settle for 8th place.
8. George Halas
Ownership: St. Louis Cardinals, 1920-1947 (28 years)
It's hard to believe now, but prior to the 1920, the St. Louis Cardinals were the laughing stock of the National League and a second-class team in St. Louis. (The Browns, who are now the Orioles, were the city's favorite team.) But then Sam Breadon bought the team, hired legendary GM Branch Rickey, created baseball's first "farm system," and won 6 World Series titles in '26, '31, '34, '42, '44, and '46.
That's a pretty good record.
7. Sam Breadon
Ownership: Chicago White Sox, 1981-present (33 years); Chicago Bulls, 1985-present (19 years)
Jerry Reinsdorf is our lowest-ranking 7-championship winner. It's not that he hasn't done great things, mind you. And after all, he's still the 6th winningest owner of all time. But he's won 7 championships in a combined 52 years, which makes for a much lower championship winning percentage than the other guys with 7 rings.
Of course, the Bulls could very will win another one in the next 5 years, provided LeBron James suffers a serious injury, and if that happens Reinsdorf will leapfrog into 3rd place.
6. Jerry Reinsdorf
Ownership: New York Yankees, 1973-2010 (38 years)
The Yankees were the greatest team in baseball from the 1920s to the 1950s, but they ran into a rough patch in the mid 1960s. Then Steinbrenner bought the team in 1973, and by 1977 they were winning championships again.
Of course, Steinbrenner did more than win championships. He transformed the face of baseball by exploiting free-agency like no one had ever done before. But there were a couple other 7-championship owners who won at a better clip than "The Boss," so they rank ahead of him on this list.
5. George Steinbrenner
Ownership: New York Yankees, 1915-1939 (25)
If Yankees fans really want to give somebody credit for making the Yankees the most successful team in baseball history, they should look to Jacob Ruppert. The man owned the Bronx Bombers for 13 fewer years than Steinbrenner, but he won just as many championships.
Why the championships? Well, it had something to do with Ruppert's decision to acquire some guy named Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1919.
4. Jacob Ruppert
Ownership: Boston Celtics, 1946-1964 (19 years)
Topping both of the great Yankees owners on this list is Walter Brown, owner of the dynastic Celtics from 1946 to 1964. During his ownership, the team won 7 championships for a championship winning percentage of .368—far exceeding even Jacob Ruppert's .280 mark.
3. Walter Brown
Ownership: Los Angeles Lakers, 1979-2013 (35 years)
Jerry Buss had a PhD in chemistry from USC, but he made his fortune investing in real estate. Then in 1979 he bought the Lakers and turned them into one of the greatest sports franchises in the history of pro sports. They won 5 championships in the 1980s with Magic and Kareem, then they won 5 more after the turn of the millenium with Shaq and Kobe.
Now that is success.
2. Jerry Buss
Ownership: New York Yankees, 1945-64 (20 years)
Though Del Webb and Daniel Topping led the Yankees to 10 championships just like Buss's Lakers, they won them in just 20 years. That's a championship winning percentage of .500, which is absolutely ridiculous.
Sorry, Boston Sports fans. Your teams were outdone by the Lakers and Yankees. I know that stings.
Hat tip to RealClearSports for doing some great research on this subject.