Seeing stars in the owners' box

Jordan-Wizards deal would further trend of players turned owners

January 15, 2000|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

If Michael Jordan succeeds in becoming a part-owner and chief executive of Washington's basketball team, it would represent what some experts predict will be a powerful trend in the new century: multimillionaire athletes taking their cash and knowledge of the game to the owners box.

A handful have taken the plunge. Hockey great Mario Lemieux bought the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins last year. Isiah Thomas helped get the NBA expansion Toronto Raptors off the ground, then sold his stake and last year bought the entire minor league Continental Basketball Association. Magic Johnson briefly held a share of the Los Angeles Lakers, the NBA team with which he gained fame.

Jordan, true to his superstar status, could trump them all, stepping into a top management and ownership position with the Wizards all at once. He has reached an agreement in principle that would allow him to control the operation of the Wizards, according to a source familiar with the talks.

"The organization would be his," the source said.

Still to be settled is how much stock in the teams the retired Chicago Bull would get, the source said. Complicating that is the interlocking ownership of the franchises. The basketball teams, and their MCI Center, as well as the USAir Arena and the region's TicketMaster franchise, are controlled by Abe Pollin's Washington Sports and Entertainment.

America Online executive Ted Leonsis and a few investors own 44 percent of Washington Sports and Entertainment. They own 100 percent of the NHL Capitals and the right to acquire the rest of Pollin's sports empire when he sells, including the MCI Center in the heart of the nation's capital.

Leonsis and the 76-year-old Pollin would probably both have to agree to part with a portion of the team -- assuming Jordan would accept something less than controlling ownership. The men have met face-to-face in Washington, one source said.

At least one source involved with the teams, speaking on condition of anonymity, thinks the ownership issue could easily sink the deal. Jordan would expect a lot in exchange for bringing his prestige to the organization.

"Jordan's not just going to take a job," said the source.

The Capitals, the Wizards and a spokeswoman for Jordan declined comment yesterday.

"We have no announcement planned, and we've got no comment," said Matt Williams, Washington Sports and Entertainment's vice president of communications.

This isn't Jordan's first foray into sports team ownership. Last year, the former University of North Carolina star sought to buy into the Charlotte Hornets but could not come to terms with team owner George Shinn.

In Washington, Jordan is expected to bring his basketball expertise to a Wizards franchise that has not won a championship since 1978, when it was known as the Washington Bullets. The team played in Baltimore from 1963 until 1973.

A front office role with the Wizards would give Jordan a chance to trade, sign and draft players, and to hire and fire coaches. His previous accomplishments in the game were limited to the court, leading the Bulls to six championships. He led the league in scoring in 10 of his 13 seasons and won five Most Valuable Player awards.

He retired a year ago this week, and has, among other things, been running a division of Nike Inc., overseeing a line of Jordan brand clothing and shoes.

"In the last 10 years, the economics of what players are earning has gotten into the range where they can buy into the teams. The players have gotten to the point where they have portfolios with tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars, and also can leverage their popularity with the fans," said Rick Burton, director of the University of Oregon's Warsaw Center for Sports Administration.

He traced the trend back to the dawn of free agency, when players gained the right to bargain for salaries that can now top $10 million a year. The 40 highest paid athletes earned $360 million in salary and winnings -- and $281 million in endorsements -- in 1998, according to Forbes magazine.

Chief among them was Jordan. The magazine put his income at more than $100 million, including his Bulls pay and endorsement fees from Nike, McDonald's and other corporate partners.

Until recently, player-owners were few, usually men such as George Halas who parlayed service with a fledgling sport into franchise control. More recently, former Baltimore Colt Jerry Richardson led a group that bought the expansion Carolina Panthers, but he used money earned in a post-playing business career.

Now, players are looking to get to the top of the organizational chart almost as soon as they hang up their athletic shoes. Less than a year from winning the Super Bowl, retired Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway has expressed an interest in a stake in his old team and joined a group that explored the purchase of the NBA Nuggets and NHL Avalanche. Ex-Brown Bernie Kosar tried, but failed, to assemble an ownership group to buy Cleveland's NFL expansion franchise.

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