Fame, Fortune And The Fickleness Of Team Owners

Is it a good situation or a bad situation when the owner of a team has greater name recognition then the franchise he or she oversees?

When LeBron James recently became a minority owner in the Liverpool Football Club of the English Premier League, he brought the franchise to the attention of people in the U.S. who otherwise might have paid attention to the team. But internationally, his presence is likely to have little impact on a squad that already has iconic status.

In fact, when asked about James during a press conference immediately after the deal was revealed, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish responded, "I don't mean to be disrespectful, but I don't know him. And he'd probably say that same about me."

Mark Cuban made his fortune in computers before becoming majority owner of the Dallas Mavericks, then used his strong-willed business acumen to drive the team to national prominence. Although the Mavericks are among the NBA's top-tier franchises led by all-star Dirk Nowitzki, it is Cuban's exuberance on- and off-camera that keeps the team in the national spotlight.

Concurrently, real estate entrepreneur Frank McCourt used his fame and fortune to become principal owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but his ongoing divorce from Jamie McCourt has engulfed the team and moved Major League Baseball to assume day-to-day operations.

In Charlotte, N.C., NBA legend Michael Jordan is principal owner of the Bobcats. Although he has given the franchise a face with global recognition, he has yet to attract high-profile talent to his squad.

In Pittsburgh, NHL icon Mario Lemieux was the face of the Penguins franchise on the ice, then became a savior of the financially troubled team in 1999 when he became co-owner and chairman. Previously on the brink of either folding or relocating, the resurrected Penguins now play in new Consol Energy Center and have a solid backing from fans and marketers. Lemieux himself is among the most vocal of NHL team owners, speaking out on behalf of all players regarding issues of health and post-retirement benefits.

Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders have several high-profile leaders, including majority owner and Hollywood producer Joe Roth, minority owner Paul Allen and minority owner/chairman Drew Carey, who has used his celebrity status to not only help bring marketing partners on board, but also garner national attention for the team. His involvement has even included helping to form the marching band that performs at every home game.

Also in MLS, the first-year Vancouver Whitecaps includes among its owners NBA all-star Steve Nash, a native of Canada who has used his status to help attract marketing partners and fans.

The NBA's Nets have lost 128 games over the past two seasons, but minority owner Jay-Z has helped to keep fan and financial interest in the team high. Not only is he a regular courtside, high-profile presence at games with his equally high-profile wife, Beyoncé, but his involvement with the franchise's planned relocation to his native Brooklyn, N.Y., has helped pave the way for marketing and political alliances.

In Miami, the NFL's Dolphins have been using a celebrity-by-committee approach to garner marketing and fan attention. Although Stephen Ross owns about 95% of the Dolphins and Wayne Huizenga about 5%, the list of "limited partners" includes Venus and Serena Williams, Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Fergie, Jimmy Buffett and Marc Anthony. As Dolphins' CEO Mike Dee has said, "Having these high-profile celebrities owning some of the team will help us get more people to the games and add excitement around the [team]."

However, among those celebrities who currently own a piece of a sports franchise is one of the most devoted -- and eclectic: Bill Murray. Among the minor league teams in which he has interests, via his association with Goldklang Group, a New Jersey-based sports management and consulting firm, are the St. Paul (Minn.) Saints, Charleston (S.C.) Riverdogs, Fort Myers (Fla.) Miracle and Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades. Not only is he listed at various Web sites as Team Psychologist and Director of Fun, he also makes numerous appearances during the season and has sold programs, coached first and third base, been a vendor in the stands and announced at the ballparks.

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