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THE MOST POWERFUL MAN IN SPORTS ... YOU HAD NO IDEA, DID YOU? STAN KROENKE
L. Jon Wertheim
November 19, 2012
SPORTS' ULTIMATE KINGPIN IS AN UNASSUMING REAL ESTATE TYCOON FROM CENTRAL MISSOURI WHOSE PROPERTIES, FROM THE NFL'S RAMS TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S ARSENAL, ARE WORTH SOME $4 BILLION. HE BOUGHT THEM FOR SHEER LOVE OF THE GAMES—AND BECAUSE THEY PAY OFF
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November 19, 2012

The Most Powerful Man In Sports ... You Had No Idea, Did You? Stan Kroenke

SPORTS' ULTIMATE KINGPIN IS AN UNASSUMING REAL ESTATE TYCOON FROM CENTRAL MISSOURI WHOSE PROPERTIES, FROM THE NFL'S RAMS TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE'S ARSENAL, ARE WORTH SOME $4 BILLION. HE BOUGHT THEM FOR SHEER LOVE OF THE GAMES—AND BECAUSE THEY PAY OFF

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Kroenke's next foray into sports ownership came in 2000. After a number of offers fell through—including one launched by his brother-in-law Bill Laurie, husband of Ann's sister, Nancy—he bought the Nuggets, the Avalanche and their arena for $404 million, using only private funds. A year later the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup.

Never, though, did Kroenke interfere in matters of team strategy or personnel. In both the NBA and the NFL offices, he is regarded as a solid and conscientious partner, a good corporate citizen, easy to work with and easy to find. At league board meetings he does not seek an active role in shaping policy. Though he still considers himself principally a real estate developer, he is a regular (if inconspicuous) presence at the games of his teams, the Nuggets and the Rams in particular. Tellingly, his clubs tend to operate safely under the salary cap—the Avalanche have one of the NHL's lowest payrolls—but Fisher and the Nuggets' George Karl are among the best-paid coaches in their leagues.

"He's not a guy telling the coach whom to play," says Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis. "He's not a self-promoter." Players say he's not often in the locker room. When they see him, the conversations often have little to do with the game. "He had a great personality, he was very versatile, he could talk to you about anything," says former Nuggets center Marcus Camby.

After basketball and hockey, Kroenke turned his attention to soccer, one of the few sports he didn't play as a kid. "We just didn't have it," he says. But Josh was a serious winger until his mid-teens, traveling all over the Midwest for soccer tournaments before committing himself full-time to basketball. In 2004, Kroenke bought the Rapids from Philip Anschutz, the reclusive Denver-based billionaire who had almost single-handedly propped up MLS in its early years.

One of Kroenke's first decisions as owner of the Rapids was to buy land and build a soccer-specific stadium, Dick's Sporting Goods Park. This is one of his signature business moves. Kroenke prefers to own the venues where his teams play. "The real estate—we call it the dirt—is what makes it all possible," says an employee of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment (KSE), the company that officially owns the Denver sports properties. "If the NBA stopped operating tomorrow, [Kroenke] would still own a big piece of real estate in downtown Denver."

Kroenke also runs his franchises, like, well, self-sustaining businesses. His teams carry little or no debt, while he withdraws virtually no money from them. Shortly after buying the Colorado teams, Kroenke wondered, Why stop at just owning the venue? So he launched Tickethorse, which would become the ticket vendor for all the Kroenke-owned teams and venues. And why cut a broadcast deal with a local media company when he could simply start his own? So he launched Altitude, then Altitude Authentics, which sells branded jerseys and team gear. "A lot of people in sports have watched his business models," says one NBA executive. "If Stan were in New York or L.A., everyone would know him as this sports visionary."

Kroenke also looked at how his teams and properties could work together. So it was that Altitude began producing the Rams' preseason games; the Rapids' staff makes an annual trip to visit the Arsenal coaches; Avalanche tickets are available for purchase at Nuggets games; trainers and facility managers from his various teams discuss best practices; and back-office staff works with multiple teams. When, for instance, a labor dispute threatens the season of the hockey team, the ticket office can sell seats to the NBA and lacrosse games.

This kind of sensible, efficient use of resources—vertical and horizontal integration, the MBA crowd would call it—doesn't get you notoriety the way calling plays and incessant tweeting do. But it makes for good business. Kroenke points out that he's never sold a team, a polite way of saying that it's a fool's errand to try to put a valuation on his sports properties. But suffice it to say that his investments have done well. If there's social value in sports for Kroenke, so too is there economic value. His share of Arsenal is worth more than $1 billion, as is the package of the Nuggets, the Avalanche and the Pepsi Center. The Rams could be worth close to $1 billion. Then there's the MLS team and its facility, together worth about $150 million; the sports network, as much as $300 million; the lacrosse club and the ticketing company. "Put it this way," says Demoff. "When you own an NFL team and it's not even the crown jewel, fiscally, of your sports empire, that's saying something."

"[Kroenke is] certainly not owning for the consumption value—ego and psychological benefits," says Scott Rosner, assistant professor of sports business at Wharton. "I think of [him] as someone who owns for the financial benefits—operating profits and capital appreciation of the various assets—and there's absolutely nothing wrong with it."

Or is there? The former MBA student drawn to international business saw the Premier League as precisely the kind of enterprise that would benefit from the dual revolutions of technology and globalization. He claims the light bulb was illuminated during a trip to Hong Kong about 10 years ago. "I walk up to a newsstand on the waterfront, pick up a magazine, and it's all about the English Premier League," he says. "Maybe we have something here."

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