As one high net worth individual said to us a few weeks ago, the purchase of a sports franchise in the U.S. is like buying a Picasso; they ability to buy one is rare, and the value never goes down. So we have seen recently with the pending sale of the Florida Marlins and the announced sale this week of the Houston Rockets to businessman Tilman Fertitta for a record $2.2 billion dollars. The price keeps going up, which might surprise some (Miami and Houston are major markets, but not of the media impact for some of NY, LA or Chicago) but not many in the bigger stakes world of sports business.
However one interesting thing to note that was swept up into the Rockets sale. While Fertitta is known perhaps more for his CNBC spots and Landry’s Restaurants (Morton’s steakhouses and the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. among many others) he is seen regularly on the airwaves in the New York area, hawking online gambling for his Golden Nugget Casinos. While in years past the direct connection to a gambling outlet as large as Golden Nugget could have been a nonstarter for team sports ownership in the United States, the fact that it was hardly noticed and not questioned at all is another move forward in the eventual acceptance of legalized sports gambling down the road in the U.S., a potential major revenue stream for sports teams, leagues and brands.
Now Fertitta is not the first casino owner to move into the owner’s suite, but he is the biggest and the most visible at a time when sports betting, what was once taboo, is now becoming viable in the US. The Maloof Family owned and made great strides with the Sacramento Kings, and the NBA/WNBA changed the conversation for good when they opted to let the WNBA Sun move to and be owned by Mohegan Sun a few years ago with no detrimental effect to the brand or the league. In other sports, the Rooney family of Pittsburgh has been involved with racing for years while owning the Steelers as a separate business (although the NFL still does not allow ownership with direct ties to gambling). Others have owned or been around dog tracks and horses as well, but casino ownership is another level, with the NBA once again leading the way in opening doors for high net worth and savvy new blood to come in at the top of the leadership pyramid. Taking casino money, and where legal, even online poker dollars for marketing partnerships was also once taboo but is now accepted pretty much across the board in sport to varying levels, but having a casino owner at the table, as the NHL and potentially the NFL move teams to Las Vegas is a subtle and steady evolution in testing the public opinion and governance waters and then moving on to a next step of legalization for fan engagement and revenue.
When all this happens is still anyone’s guess (ironically life is imitating fiction, as HBO’s Ballers has the ongoing storyline this season with casino owner Wayne Hastings Jr. ..Steve Guttenberg… trying to work to bring an NFL franchise to Las Vegas) but if the NBA wants to have another insiders voice as to how and what works, they only need to look a little further down the table at owners meetings, as one of “those guys” now has a seat at the table, and for business that’s not a bad thing at all.