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Earlier this NHL season, as game time neared in Washington, DC, Ted Leonsis, a contented figure in a red parka, took a turn around a sports arena he owns downtown. The 68-year-old spotted popcorn on the floor of an elevator and sent for a sweeper. As thousands of hockey fans poured in to watch the Washington Capitals, Leonsis stood near the turnstiles, handing out thousands of dollars’ worth of rinkside tickets to some kids who caught his eye on their climb to the cheap seats. As the arena filled, not everybody recognized the owner of their team, but those who did patted Leonsis on the arm or else walked up and blurted, “You’re Ted!” the way one might on meeting Santa at the hearth. Outgoing, approachable, Leonsis came over like the grandfather he is, ruddy and gray with a high, papery voice that often dissipates to giggles when he talks about the wonders and absurdities of owning sports teams. He loves owning sports teams. As well as the Caps, Leonsis controls the Washington Wizards of the NBA and the Washington Mystics of the WNBA. “When you leave after the game,” he had told me, “you’ll say to yourself, Gosh! I wish I owned sports teams.”
Of late, the planetary super rich have been subject to many such “Gosh!” moments of their own. Since the turn of the decade, money has flooded into the strange and cramped market for teams, big money, so much money that an owner like Leonsis—the former vice chairman of AOL, who on this night registers as the 1,355th richest person in the world, according to a ghoulish online wealth tracker I keep on my phone—seems poor by comparison to his incoming peers. A group led by some of the Waltons of Walmart recently picked up the Denver Broncos for $4.65 billion. Jeff Bezos is presumed to be coming for one of the Broncos’ NFL rivals, and if he does he will almost certainly pay more. When the Phoenix Suns of the NBA were on the block in 2022, as a group, the rumored bidders put in mind an alumni gathering of Billionaires U: Larry Ellison, Laurene Powell Jobs, Peter Thiel. The Ottawa Senators of the NHL recently sold in a fevered many-way auction that included the Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds and resulted in a final sale price of $950 million. For the Ottawa Senators.
The night I met Leonsis, Manchester United of the English Premier League, one of the most beloved franchises in global sport, was being advertised for sale through a New York merchant bank. A Qatari sheikh was said to have offered at one point a 10-figure sum to the selling family, the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Lately, “high-net-worth individuals,” to use the phrase of the bankers and lawyers who buzz around them, have been collecting teams like Monopoly cards, with private equity getting involved in the action—also celebrities, corporations, whole countries. For the past couple of years, Chelsea and AC Milan, two jewels of European football, have belonged, at least in part, to American private-equity firms. McLaren, the famed British F1 team, is controlled by the royal family—of Bahrain. Patrick Mahomes has a piece of an F1 team too. LeBron James is a minority owner of the Red Sox. Tom Brady bought in to pickleball.
Amid this frenzy I recently traveled to four cities in three countries, meeting owners old and new, as well as brokers, bankers, lawyers, and all the other deal-sniffing matchmakers who try to pair buyers with stakes in available teams. Leonsis was my first appointment. He used to joke that he bought in to the Capitals for free back in 1999, because the shares he sold to raise the funds—peak AOL stock—would plummet in value. Leonsis didn’t even haggle when he got the chance to transform himself from a first-generation internet executive into a team owner. He paid the $85 million asking price with a cheerful “Okay!”
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