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Asian Owners Show Their Presence in US Pro Sports

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Asia Life

Asian Owners Show Their Presence in US Pro Sports

Each of the four US major sports leagues now has an Asia-born owner, albeit with varying levels of success.

Vivek Ranadive has had a quite a ride in his first year as the owner of an NBA team.

He saved the Kings from certain relocation from Sacramento, putting together a group to purchase the franchise and preventing it from moving to Seattle last May. And lately, he’s one of the most visible owners in the wake of the Donald Sterling scandal that’s rocked the league.

Adam Silver, the NBA’s new commissioner who took over only in February, leaned heavily on Ranadive’s advice after Clippers owner Sterling’s racist comments in a private conversation were leaked to the public. As the only non-Caucasian NBA owner not named Michael Jordan, Ranadive has taken the lead role in the league’s efforts to force Sterling to sell his team.

Ranadive’s story has been well-told in the U.S. since his acquisition of the Kings, including a feature on HBO’s Real Sports. Born in Mumbai, Ranadive came to the U.S. as a teenager with less than $100 in his pocket but a burning entrepreneurial spirit. After graduating from MIT he moved to the Silicon Valley and eventually founded TIBCO, a leading software company with substantial involvement in the sports industry.

But Ranadive, 56, isn’t the first Asian-born owner of a major sports franchise. In fact, when he became the Kings’ majority owner last May, it marked the first time that each of the four major North American sports leagues had an Asia-born owner.

Hiroshi Yamauchi became the first Asian-born owner of an American sports franchise when Nintendo bought the Seattle Mariners in 1992. Major League Baseball first vehemently opposed the sale and put forward xenophobic rules against ownership of the club by the Nintendo president and chairman.

But thanks to strong local support, Yamauchi was able to acquire the club and made good on his pledge to keep the team in Seattle. A new ballpark was built to replace the dilapidated Kingdome in 1999 and the franchise turned a profit in 2000. Yamauchi’s ownership also helped to open the floodgates for Japanese stars to enter MLB after the Mariners signed Ichiro Suzuki in 2001.

Just like Yamauchi, who died last September at 85, Charles Wang became the New York Islanders’ owner also with a promise to keep the NHL team on Long Island.

Born in Shanghai, Wang and his parents fled China after the end of the Chinese Civil War and settled in New York in the early 1950s. He founded Computer Associates at the age of 31 and turned it into one of the leading software companies. He became the principal owner of the Islanders in 2004, two years after retiring from CA.

Known for both his philanthropy and eccentricity, Wang’s decade-long ownership of the Islanders can be described as rocky at best. A once-proud franchise that won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-83 has not found success on the ice of late, qualifying for the playoffs just twice in the last nine seasons.

But Wang’s biggest issues were from off the ice. While he’s desperately trying to keep the team on Long Island, his efforts to build a new facility to replace the rundown Nassau Coliseum have been met with fierce local resistance. His last proposal for an arena project was defeated by the voters in 2011.

With no future on Long Island, Wang, 69, has decided to move the team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season and also put it up for sale. The team will keep the Islanders moniker as it’s technically still located on Long Island.

Just like Wang, Shahid Khan might ultimately have a hard time keeping the Jacksonville Jaguars where it is, but at least he’s trying. After purchasing the NFL franchise in 2012, the Pakistani-born Khan has made a valiant effort to turn around the fortunes of the NFL team in the small media market.

Khan, an engineer by trade who made his fortune in the automobile manufacturing business, has sought to expand the Jaguars’ brand by volunteering to play one game in London annually. It also helps that he bought Fulham, a London-based English Premier League soccer team, in 2013.

Whether Khan, 61, will succeed in keeping the team in North Florida remains to be seen. The Jaguars are constantly rumored as one of the teams destined to move to Los Angeles, the U.S.’s second-largest media market and a city that has been without an NFL team since 1994. And of course, there are talks of the Jaguars heading to London.

For now, Khan is focused on turning around the woebegone franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007. As the only ethnic-minority boss in the history of the NFL, he, like the other pioneer Asian-born owners of sports teams, realizes ultimately his legacy will be defined by wins and losses.