By Derek Seidman / Truthout
[Today], tens of millions of people will tune in for Super Bowl Sunday, the most watched television broadcast in the U.S. By design, Super Bowl LVII will be an escapist spectacle — Rihanna’s halftime show and all — that many will sit back and thoroughly enjoy (including this author, though my cherished Buffalo Bills won’t be playing).
But none of this should distract from the fact that the class power of NFL owners is anything but a fantasy. The league is dominated by a small handful of multibillionaires who strong-armed their ways into huge fortunes by swallowing up public subsidies, drilling massive amounts of oil and gas, busting unions and holding down wages, and pushing through wasteful development projects.
Many owners (who are almost all white) have also been big backers of Donald Trump, with no qualms about showering him with millions of dollars even after he called Mexicans “rapists” and praised white nationalists as “very fine people” — and all this, while raking in billions off the merciless physical sacrifice of mostly Black athletes and hiring extremely few Black coaches.
Sports ownership today — in the NFL and beyond — should be seen less as a niche business venture and more as a link in the wider chain of elite class rule aimed at accumulating ever more wealth at the expense of workers and the public.
“These Franchises Are Streamlined Wealth-Extractors”
The old days of scrappy team owners are long gone. Today, you must be a multibillionaire to buy a major sports franchise. Last year, more than 10 percent of Forbes 400 members — the very richest people in the U.S. — owned sports teams.
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Sports ownership isn’t often imagined as a key expression of elite class power, but it should be.
“Team ownership has become a status symbol among the billionaire class,” Sean Dinces, a history professor at Long Beach City College and expert on the history of the sports business, told Truthout.
Dinces said that many ultra-wealthy sports owners revel in their close proximity to celebrity athletes and the “cool factor” that comes with it, which serves as a boost to their own egos and a way to impress their peers. “Social, cultural and political prestige drive a lot of the demand among the super-wealthy to buy major league franchises,” he said.
More importantly, Dinces said, billionaires have transformed sports ownership into an unabashed vehicle for profit-making through the same tricks they use in other sectors — a strategy he wrote about at length in his most recent book, Bulls Markets: Chicago’s Basketball Business and the New Inequality.
“The businessmen who profit enough to afford a major-league franchise invariably made their fortunes in other industries by gaming the tax code, securing preferential political treatment from politicians by strategically greasing their palms with campaign contributions, and ruthlessly suppressing labor costs,” said Dinces. “They’ve imported such tactics into the operation of their teams.”
The league and its owners scoop up huge amounts from fees for rights to broadcast their games. Starting this year, the NFL will collect an average of $10 billion annually from TV and streaming rights, doublewhat it received from its previous deal. But the most controversial way that owners profit is through corporate welfare: billions in public subsidies and preferential tax treatment that undergird owners’ abilities to rake in major profits.
This corporate welfare comes in a range of forms that include subsidized municipal bonds for stadium construction; property and sales tax exemptions; direct payments from state and local governments for stadium construction; tax-increment financing; payment-in-lieu-of-taxes schemes that lead to lower tax payments; and public funding for ancillary infrastructure like new access roads. In 2022, for example, the Buffalo Bills were awarded a record $850 million in public funds to build a new stadium.
Gentrification within stadiums has been another profit-making tactic, Dinces said. Non-premium seating that was previously more affordable for everyday people is increasingly being replaced by luxury boxes, club seating, and high-end food and souvenir concessions.
“By now these franchises are streamlined wealth-extractors at both the local and national level,” Dinces said.
Dinces emphasized that the rewarding of subsidies frequently occurs outside of normal democratic processes by way of quasi-public sports facility “commissions” and “authorities” that have no accountability to voters. These entities are often overseen by local insiders appointed by governors or mayors who fear becoming the politicians who “lost” a beloved franchise by not meeting billionaire demands for subsidies.
And while owners invariably tout the “economic impact” of new stadiums in their respective cities, economists debunked this notion long ago. Typically, increased local spending on teams with new stadiums comes at the expense of spending elsewhere in the area, effectively canceling out any positive effects on local growth.
This is all the more egregious because many football players come from those very low-income areas that go underfunded: schools strapped for cash, job opportunities slim while billionaires get handouts. All of which feeds into the pipeline that channels poor and Black youth into the sport, with all the serious risks — especially head injuries — that it entails.
To make it worse, Dinces said, owners also use philanthropy as a cynical tool to cover their tracks — for example, donating a few million dollars to open a local charter school, ultimately diverting even more funds from the public.
“It’s the classic capitalist bait-and-switch,” Dinces said. “Look at this paltry sum we are bequeathing to the public, but ignore the much larger sum we are pilfering from public coffers.”
Wall Street Billionaires, Oil Tycoons and Trump Backers
NFL owners represent a cross-section of the U.S. ruling class, with the total wealth of the top stakeholders of the 31 privately owned NFL teams adding up to over a quarter of a trillion dollars — greater than the GDP of New Zealand, Hungary or Qatar.
The net worth of the seven richest individual owners — Rob Walton(Broncos), David Tepper (Panthers), Robert Kraft (Patriots), Stephen Ross (Dolphins), Jerry Jones (Cowboys), Shahid Khan (Jaguars) and Stan Kroenke (Rams) — is around $140 billion. Rumors are flying that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, worth $125 billion, is interested in buying the Washington Commanders.
Rob Walton, heir to the Walmart fortune, is worth $59.4 billion, though he’s not the only retail billionaire to own an NFL team: Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, worth $8 billion, owns the Atlanta Falcons. Several owners made their billions through fossil fuels. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones owns Comstock Resources, one of the top gas producers in Texas. Bills owner Terry Pegula made billions by selling his fracking business to Shell. The billionaire Hunt family that owns the Kansas City Chiefs — one of the teams playing in this year’s Super Bowl — is awash in petro-wealth, while the fortunes of Tennessee Titans owner Amy Adams Strunk and Houston Texans owners Janice McNair also come from oil and energy empires.
Others reaped fortunes through Wall Street and real estate. David Tepper founded the hedge fund Appaloosa Management while Robert Kraft oversees a diversified, multibillion-dollar investment empire. A range of real estate and development billionaires — from the Dolphins’ Stephen Ross to the Rams’s Stan Kroenke to the Buccaneers’s Glazer family — own teams, and have built their wealth through gobbling up billions in public subsidies.
Some NFL owners openly support far right politicians. Even after Donald Trump called Mexicans “rapists” in 2015, at least nine owners splurged millions on his campaign and inaugural committee. Stephen Ross personally hosted a massive fundraiser for Trump in August 2019, well after Trump praised white nationalists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017 as “very fine people.” Trump appointed Jets owner Woody Johnson as ambassador to Britain in 2017; Johnson responded with a massive donation in 2020.
These political allegiances shouldn’t come as a surprise given the NFL’s own clear racial hierarchy. It’s a league dominated by powerful white owners who hire mostly white coaches all while profiting in the billions off the sweat and injuries of Black men who make up the large majority of the league’s players and who are disproportionately impacted by the game’s violence. Meanwhile, there have never been more than seven full-time Black coaches in a league of 32 teams. (As of now there are three.)
All this has led former Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who was fired after two straight winning seasons, to declare in a lawsuit that the NFL “is racially segregated and is managed much like a plantation” in which mostly white owners “watch the games from atop NFL stadiums in their luxury boxes, while their majority-Black workforce put their bodies on the line every Sunday, taking vicious hits and suffering debilitating injuries to their bodies and their brains while the NFL and its owners reap billions of dollars.”
Not surprisingly, given their treatment of Colin Kaepernick after he knelt during the national anthem to protest police violence, NFL owners also help bankroll police departments through donations to police foundations that purchase weapons and surveillance tech for cops. According to reports by LittleSis and Color of Change that I contributed to, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks have all supported police foundations in their cities.
The Denver Union Busters
DeMaurice Smith, head of the National Football League’s players union, once said that the NFL “has probably been the largest group of bullies in the labor market in the history of labor in America.” While NFL players have a powerful union that owners have been forced to coexist with, it’s a different story in other areas of their profit-making.
A range of owners — from the Jaguars’ Khan and the Dolphins’ Rossto the Browns’ Jimmy Haslam and the Panthers’ Tepper — have faced scrutiny over their attacks on workers and unions. But perhaps no other NFL ownership team has an anti-worker track record as notorious as that of the Denver Broncos.
Rob Walton and his family paid a record $4.65 billion to buy the Broncos in August 2022. Walton, by far the NFL’s richest owner, is the son of Walmart founder Sam Walton. He served as chairman of Walmart’s board from 1992 through 2015. Walton still sits on the board while his son-in-law is the chairman.
Rob Walton oversaw the governance of Walmart — the nation’s top private employer— as it held down the wage floor across the nation and engaged in years of union busting. Walmart remains a poster child for low wages, though the company’s massive profits have helped Rob build up a boutique car collection worth nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.
Joining the Waltons in the Broncos ownership team is Mellody Hobson, a super-wealthy business celebrity who chairs the Starbucks board of directors. As chair, Hobson has overseen Starbucks’s governance throughout the company’s historic union-busting campaign against Starbucks Workers United, the baristas union that has succeeded in unionizing nearly 300 Starbucks locations since late 2021.
Hobson also runs a Chicago-based asset management firm and sits on the board of JPMorgan Chase, the biggest U.S. bank. She is married to Star Wars creator George Lucas, worth $5.3 billion.
Under Hobson, Starbucks has been accused of hundreds of labor violations and of using an “expansive array of illegal tactics” that includes firing union leaders.
Truthout spoke to Len Harris, a shift supervisor at the Rock Creek and Parkway Starbucks in Superior, Colorado, just outside of Denver. Harris helped lead the effort to win the first unionized Starbucks in Colorado in April 2022.
Harris said that Starbucks workers in Colorado have faced extensive intimidation from management. After talk of unionizing began, Harris’s store was suddenly flooded with partners, and their hours were drastically cut. Baristas faced “2-on-1” meetings with district and store managers and were given “a lot of crap” for wearing union pins, she said.
Harris said she was fired for “absolutely ridiculous” reasons — with management invoking policies that “we had never heard before” — the day after she and other baristas striked on Red Cup Day. She is appealing the termination. Harris also said that Starbucks has stalled the bargaining process with the union.
Harris’s Starbucks store is about a 30-minute drive from the Broncos stadium. It’s “very frustrating” to “be completely disregarded and disrespected” by company leaders like Hobson “as one of the partners of their company that helps make them so wealthy and allows them this power and this influence,” she said.
“This is antithetical to everything Starbucks says that they stand for,” she went on.
Union members went to the Broncos stadium early in the season to pass out leaflets to “draw attention” to the fact that Hobson “has expressed very little empathy to the situation of union busting, which is illegal.” Harris noted that Starbucks keeps a symbolic empty chair for its employees at its board meetings and said they should actually fill that chair with a partner.
“Keeping an empty chair at the table is nothing,” said Harris. “You don’t have to talk with somebody who isn’t there. So fill that chair, give it a voice. Then we can talk.”
Starbucks Workers United and the NFL Players Association recently announced that they will rally together in Arizona on February 11 — the day before the Super Bowl — “for an end to union-busting, whether it’s on the field or in our cafés!”
Another Super Bowl Is Possible
While today’s professional sports leagues are dominated by billionaire owners, Dinces said things could be done differently.
Some progressives look to the “nonprofit” ownership structure of the Green Bay Packers, which allows members of the public to buy shares in the team and vote on the team’s board of directors. But Dinces says nationalization of professional sports franchises represents a more effective approach.
“This would allow for more parity in resources for teams, as well as preclude the race-to-the-bottom competition between local and state governments to attract and retain teams by concocting obscene subsidy deals,” he said.
There is some precedent for more public accountability and oversight over sports. During the New Deal, for example, the federal government became closely involved in the production of sports infrastructure. This ranged from funding local sports leagues and building community pools to constructing major league caliber stadiums. In fact, the Works Progress Administration built Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium, where the NFL’s Bills played until the early 1970s.
“Of course, we don’t live in a political moment in which the nationalization of a high-profile industry has a realistic chance of success,” says Dinces. “Accomplishing this would require a genuinely national movement that brings together socialists, organized labor, anti-gentrification activists, and many others.”
At the very least, more assertive regulation could prevent owners from gouging the public. Dinces said the most realistic strategy today would be a campaign to compel Congress to pass legislation that strictly limits the ability of every level of government to dole out subsidies to private sports teams.
“A good starting point would be to outlaw any subsidies, including tax breaks, for facility construction costs, maintenance and operation,” said Dinces. “Short of that, it would also be a step forward to pass and implement legislation to guarantee that teams share stadium revenues with their cities in proportion to the public’s share of funding.”