The pandemic has caused a world of chaos for the sports industry, but billionaire owners are thriving, with the average value of the world’s top teams jumping 9.9%, to $3.4 billion.
By most measures, the past year hasn’t been a good one for elite sports. Curtailed seasons. Canceled tournaments. And everything from Major League Baseball to global soccer played out in empty venues.
A Super Bowl hailed as “one for the ages” turned into a blowout, with TV viewership the lowest since 2007. Two months later, the NCAA’s March Madness tournament returned but without its four most powerful teams—and four of its biggest draws—its own ratings celebrated for avoiding the steep declines of other events.
Then, with news of the massive financial woes at FC Barcelona still fresh, the world’s most valuable soccer team and 11 other European clubs stunned the sports world by announcing a breakaway Super League that aimed to grab more revenue but fizzled within days as the owners’ rebellion succumbed to global ridicule. Now, as the industry struggles to rebound from the pandemic shutdowns of 2020, there is talk that the Tokyo Olympics are at risk of being canceled, a year after they were postponed.
None of these events, nor the pandemic itself, has done much to hurt the owners of the leading sports franchises.
Yankees at $5.25 billion. The NBA’s New York Knicks round out the top three at $5 billion. European soccer clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, each with a valuation just above $4.7 billion, nudged the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors out of the top five.
It’s not just the games they play that are bringing those returns. The billionaire owners, who pay ever-larger sums for their trophy assets, have proved they are adept at finding ways to mine those trophies for value.
Take Cowboys owner Jerry Jones (net worth: $8.8 billion). He bought the franchise in 1989 for $150 million and has since added a number of big-ticket amenities, including a modern stadium stacked with luxury boxes, a new corporate headquarters and practice facility called The Star, a merchandising business and licensing arrangement with the NFL, and an equity stake in the stadium management company Legends, as well as investments in e-sports and a platform built to support youth sports. The team delivered operating profits of $425 million on revenue of $980 million in the 2019 season, record results for the franchise.
Those numbers look even better for the Steinbrenner family, which bought MLB’s New York Yankees for $8.8 million in 1973 and have since added Yankee Global Enterprises (which owns 20% of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC), become the largest equity holder in YES (the most-watched regional sports network in the country) and picked up a piece of Legends.
The 50 teams on this year’s list come from four sports—football (26), basketball (9), soccer (9) and baseball (6)—all of which are propelled by ever-escalating media rights deals, the single biggest factor to land in the top 50. The Premier League leads the soccer world with a domestic media rights deal worth $2.18 billion annually and is the best-represented soccer league on the ranking, with five teams. The NFL recently licensed a decade of TV rights for $10.3 billion a year starting in 2023, an 80% increase over the current deal. MLB will get an average of $1.84 billion a year from its national media deals beginning next season, a 19% increase, while the NBA will take in an average of $2.6 billion a year through 2024-25 on its current deal. The NHL, meanwhile, inked media deals that will pay it just $625 million a year beginning with the 2021-22 season and has no teams in the top 50. All of the U.S. leagues share that revenue equally among their franchises.
That kind of economic security was at the heart of the plans for the Super League, which had owners eliminating soccer’s tradition of making clubs compete every season for league placement, something U.S. leagues do not do. With that guarantee—and the media spoils that would flow from it—the 12 founding clubs of the Super League would have jumped in value by a collective $12.7 billion, according to Forbes’ analysis, and Barcelona would have knocked the Cowboys out of the No. 1 spot for the first time in six years.
Still, the beautiful game is holding its own. Three soccer clubs rank among the six teams that have more than doubled in value the past five years: Paris Saint-Germain (207%), Liverpool (165%) and Manchester City (108%). The other three—the Los Angeles Rams (176%), the Golden State Warriors (147%) and the Las Vegas Raiders (117%)—owe that appreciation to new stadiums. The biggest one-year change in value among the U.S. franchises—Forbes did not value soccer clubs in 2020—was shared by the New York Jets, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Seattle Seahawks, all of who rose 11% from last year’s ranking.