RICH PICKINGS: The men who own sport

Tiger Woods went close, but no athlete has ever broken through the billionaire glass ceiling. Yet off the track there are plenty of people who have become billionaires through sport.

The march of professional athletes into the Olympic Games village has had many impacts on global sport, some good and some bad.

But for a rich list watcher, the main impact is obvious: There are now several people worth hundreds of millions of dollars competing at the greatest amateur sporting event in the world.

Forbes magazine has compiled a great list of the highest-earning Olympic athletes, a list that has been buoyed in the last decade by the inclusion of professional tennis players (such as Roger Federer, who earned a cool $US54.3 million last year and Maria Sharapova, who pocketed $US27.1 million) and the stars of the National Basketball Association in the US (led by LeBron James, who took home $53 million).

Indeed, these two sports contribute the six best-paid athletes in the village, and a staggering 19 of the top 20. Usain Bolt is the only athlete from outside these sports on the Forbes top 20; he is ranked seventh with annual earnings of $US20.3 million.

Calculating the actual wealth of an athlete isn’t easy. The common rich list approach involves combining their gross earnings and then subtracting a big percentage for expenses. It’s rough and ready, but it has helped a number of Australian athlete’s make it to the young rich list.

This includes a select group of international sportspeople such as Harry Kewell (who was valued at $55 million in 2011’s BRW Young Rich list), Chad Reed ($37 million), Mark Webber ($37 million), Lleyton Hewitt ($35 million) and golfer Adam Scott ($35 million).

However, Australia’s richest sportsperson is a guy who doesn’t play a lot of sport anymore: The Great White Shark, Greg Norman.

Norman may have been the first player ever to earn more than $10 million in prize money, but he reached the rarefied air of the BRW Rich 200 list 1986 on the strength of his work without club in hand. His Great White Shark Enterprises spans a range of interests, from Greg Norman Golf Course Design and the Greg Norman Collection clothing range through to Greg Norman Eyewear, Greg Norman Estates Wine, Greg Norman Turf, the Greg Norman’s Australian Grille restaurant chain, the Greg Norman Production Co which stages gold tournaments and the a Waygu beef company called Greg Norman Australian Prime.

Those many and varied business interests – and for the best part of the last decade, a weak Australian dollar – helped propel Norman to a rich list peak of $325 million in 2007. Since then, the struggling US property market and the stronger Australian dollar have seen his fortune fall gently to $235 million.

But for all the success of the Greg Normans and Roger Federers of the world, it is worth pointing out that we are yet to see an athlete grab the title of billionaire.

Forbes had Tiger Woods close back in 2009, but the scandal surrounding the breakdown of his marriage is likely to have bought him back to the pack. The top athlete on Forbes’ billionaires-in-the-making list was German Formula One hero Michael Schumacher, who was valued at $US520 million.

No, the best way to become a billionaire out of sports isn’t to star on the field. You’ve got to own a slice of the action off it.

Here are five of the richest sports billionaires in the world:

Phil Knight – $US14.4 billion

Nike might not be an official sponsor of the London Olympics, but a cheeky ambush marketing campaign and a multitude of apparel and footwear sponsorships have ensured the brand’s awareness has remained high. That’s good news for company founder Phil Knight, who became one of the 20 richest people in America earlier this year when Forbes estimated his fortune at $US14.4 billion. Knight, who started out selling imported Japanese shoes out of the boot of his car before creating the famous Nike swoosh in 1971, is known for his marketing prowess, particularly in the way he attached the Nike brand to famous athletes such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. Paying them $50 million a year makes sense when they help boost your global sales to more than $25 billion.

Stanley Kroenke – $US3.4 billion

Playing in a team won’t guarantee you a rich list berth, but owning one can get you there. US-based billionaire Stanley Kroenke is one of the most prolific sports investors in the world. He owns the Denver Nuggets basketball teams and the Colorado Avalanche ice hockey team as well as stakes in the St Louis Rams football team and the English Premier League soccer club Arsenal. The latter club is currently causing Kroenke some problems, with the second largest shareholder, Alisher Usmanov, attacking Kroenke over the decision of star player Robin van Persie not to extend his contract at the club. Kroenke made his fortune developing commercial property and still retains a substantial shopping centre portfolio.

Bernie Ecclestone – $US2.8 billion

Former car salesman Bernie Ecclestone is best known as the man behind the Formula One racing competition, but he’s now been in the billionaire ranks for seven years. The key to his empire is television rights. Ecclestone grabbed control of the business in 1997 and turned it into a global franchise than now turns over more than $1.5 billion a year. Ecclestone still controls the F1 business, but sold out in 2006 to private equity firm CVC. However, that deal has attracted controversy; Gerhard Gribkowsky, a banker who oversaw the sale, was recently jailed for taking what he claimed was a $44 million bribe from Ecclestone to push the deal through according to the billionaire’s plans. Ecclestone has not been charged with anything and has says he paid Gribkowsky after the lawyer threatened to give false information about his tax affairs to regulators.

Malcolm Glazer – $US2.7 billion

Glazer is another sporting team owner who straddles both sides of the Atlantic; he owns the NFL team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the English Premier League team Manchester United. The latter is weighed down with debt of $647 million and in the last few days the Glazer family have revealed plans to raise about $360 million by floating the club on the New York Stock Exchange. While the Glazer family has not been a popular owner of the club, they are likely to get a decent return – they bought the club for $1.4 billion in 2005 and the float would value it at $3 billion.

Kevin Plank – $US1.1 billion

Kevin Plank’s name will not be familiar to many followers of the Australian Football League, be the distinctive logo of his company Under Armour probably will be – the company is the official "high performance apparel” partner of the league and its umpires wear Under Armour gear each weekend (although it’s not clear whether it helps protect them from the barrage of abuse they routinely receive). Plank’s idea for the business came from seeing how cotton T-shirts became heavy when drenched with sweat during exercise. He created a prototype moisture-wicking shirt and used the funds from some credit cards and his flower distribution business to launch Under Armour. Today the business turns over $1.5 billion and Plank’s worth has surged.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.

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