Sports fans knew George Steinbrenner for 37 of his 80 years, ever since he bought the New York Yankees in the early 1970s. But the legacy Steinbrenner leaves behind will permeate throughout the offices of sports owners for years to come. George Steinbrenner set the standard for just about all of today’s franchise owners.
Embodied within one man were many different qualities; not all flattering. Charitably, he’s been described as complex. But he was always larger than life, and not to be forgotten.
George Steinbrenner was bombastic when lesser inclined owners sat quietly behind the scenes. He spent millions on players while his peers failed to successfully utilize free agency like he did. Most importantly—he was a winner. He demanded it. But the ways he went about winning were often over the top, cartoonish at times, and occasionally even cruel. Steinbrenner was regularly lampooned by Jerry Seinfeld and Saturday Night Live for his antics. But he didn’t mind being made fun of because it only enhanced the big Boss brand.
Without Steinbrenner, there is no Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, or even Dan Gilbert. Steinbrenner took sports ownership to the ultimate level.
The sports owner is a unique being, who can have a special relationship with a community. Some are flamboyant, and many extravagant. Others are stingy and greedy. Some are isolated in small markets, just glad to be in the league and hoping not to lose too much money. Some have transformed their sports by making them more accessible, like the Rooney family in Pittsburgh. Others, like Bob Irsay and Art Modell, have been vilified for uprooting and relocating their teams.
In other words, there are all types of owners in sports. But without them, there are no games. They spend millions to make a name for themselves and sometimes even their cities.
It takes big ones to own a team and actually win—your way. It’s your money, your team. Which is why Jesse Jackson thinks Cleveland’s angry owner Dan Gilbert acted like a “slave-master” when LeBron James left his “plantation.” That, of course, is just one interpretation.
Then there are others, like the late Abe Pollin, who owned the Washington Wizards. Pollin, with little fanfare, and even less credit, built TWO arenas for his fans with his own money. That was Abe’s way.
Sports owners indeed have impact. But among them all, George Steinbrenner was genuinely unique. More than just about any owner before or since, he changed the dynamics and economics of his sport and other sports as well.