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When Players Become Owners: Who Scored Off the Field Before Beckham?


Two of sport history's greatest players, Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan, were less consistently successful when they began making business plays.

Last week, recently retired footballer (that is, soccer player) David Beckham confirmed that he (that is, an investment group of which he is the most prominent member) will be launching a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in Miami.

In 2007, after success with some of the most famous soccer clubs in Europe, Beckham (seen at center in photo above) was lured to MLS with a contract that not only made him the league's highest paid player -- with the Los Angeles Galaxy -- but also included the option to buy a team for the below-market price of $25 million. (For comparison, last year an expansion team based in New York City was purchased for $100 million.)

Even with the deep discount, Beckham will be facing challenges greater than willing a sphere to defy the laws of physics and gravity or selling underwear for H&M (STO:HM-B). South Florida is home to the most fickle sports fans in the country, the previous MLS franchise in Miami folded in 2002, and the new club hasn't yet built or bought a stadium to call home.

Still, Beckham is in rare company, and we don't mean people married to former Spice Girls. Though MLS Commissioner Don Garber crowed at Wednesday's press conference that Beckham represents "the first time in the modern era that an ex-athlete is joining the ranks of ownership," athletes-turned-owners exist in every major North American sports league. Here are a few examples.

Jerry Richardson, Carolina Panthers (NFL): Soon after Richardson won an NFL title as a receiver with the Baltimore Colts in 1959, he was denied a request to round his $9,750 salary to an even ten grand, and he quit the sport. He joined a former college teammate in ownership of a Hardee's franchise in South Carolina, and his business acumen lead him to several fast food successes, including the CEO role at the company now known as Denny's Corporation (NASDAQ:DENN) When he was awarded the expansion franchise Panthers in 1993, he was the first former NFL player to own a team since George Halas, whose family has owned the Chicago Bears since 1921.

The Panthers have made the play-offs five times and appeared in Super Bowl XXXVIII, a nail-biter of a loss to Tom Brady and the Patriots. This season the team won the NFC South with a 12-4 record. The team, according to Forbes, is worth $1.075 billion, good enough for 18th out of 32 teams, which probably isn't bad considering that the Carolinas are better known for collegiate sports, particularly basketball, and not bad for a $205 million investment. According to a recent Charlotte Business Journal article, Richardson (seen in photo below) is pretty successful from a business point of view, even if the team isn't winning every year.

Nolan Ryan, Texas Rangers (MLB): Even the most casual baseball fan has heard of the Hall of Fame pitcher (seen at right in photo below) whose legacy includes the all-time records for career strikeouts and no-hitters, as well a Texas highway and a coin issued by Liberia. Ryan's post-pitching business interests have included ownership of a couple of minor-league teams, a bank, and a beef company, and from 2009 until last Halloween he was part of the group that owned the Texas Rangers, steering them to consecutive World Series appearances.

Wayne Gretzky, Phoenix Coyotes (NHL): The Great One dabbled in sports-franchise ownership even before he retired from a legendary career. From 1985 to 1992 he owned the Gatineau Olympiques (as they're known now), a team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League that were two-time regional champions under Gretzky's watch. As co-owner (along with the late actor John Candy) of the Toronto Argonauts, he won a Grey Cup, the Canadian Football League's championship trophy, in 1991.

In 2000, shortly after he retired, he bought 10% of the Phoenix Coyotes, a struggling team looking for some of that Greatness to rub off. In 2005, after serving the team in a few different executive roles, Gretzky (standing, right, in photo below) became the head coach. After four seasons coaching a squad that never qualified for the play-offs, and with the team entering bankruptcy (the NHL would eventually have to take over), Gretzky cut ties with the organization -- which still owed him $8 million, a debt that was only settled last month.

Michael Jordan, Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets (NBA): Air Jordan didn't just unretire as an NBA player; he also unretired as an NBA owner. In 2000, after he hung up his Chicago Bulls uniform for the second time, he bought a share of the Washington Wizards and became team president. When he returned to the league as an on-court Wizard the following year, he sold his share in compliance with NBA rules prohibiting players from becoming owners (he still kept his front-office job). After completing his second not-very-Jordan-like season as a Wizard, he retired again, and was surprised to learn he had also been fired (by majority owner Abe Pollin) as team president.

In 2010, Jordan (seen at left in photo below) became the first former NBA player to be a majority owner of a franchise when he bought the Charlotte Bobcats (renamed the Hornets starting this season) for $175 million. According to Forbes, the team scored the lowest average TV rating and lowest average audience size last season. The season before that, the Bobcats achieved the lowest winning percentage in NBA history. Even though he's 50 years old, Jordan is probably considering returning to the hardwood. At least he can still dunk.

Honorable mention: On the day of Beckham's MLS-ownership press conference, an investment group that includes LA Lakers legend Magic Johnson (at a press conference in photo below) was approved to buy the Los Angeles Sparks.

Dishonorable mention: Isiah Thomas (seen in photo below) might still be beloved in Detroit where he won a pair of NBA championships as the Pistons' point guard, but as a basketball coach and executive he's leveled a Godzilla-like swath of destruction across North America. His stops have included Toronto (where he owned 9% of the Raptors), Indiana, and New York. Oh, and Florida. But Thomas might be the only former professional athlete to not only own an entire league -- the Continental Basketball Association, which served as a minor league for the NBA -- but to make decisions that led to its bankruptcy.

Anthony Zumpano has written for the New York Post, America Online, Bank Systems & Technology, and Brandchannel. Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyzumpano.
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