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Is Winning in Sports an Essential Part of Business?

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A detail of a helmet and yard marker during the NFL game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday, October 18, 2012 in San Francisco, California. Photo: AP

By Dr. James Mattern |

In American culture, there is a large importance placed on being successful. This lesson is often instilled at a young age as children begin schooling or through participating in sports. Through sports, they are taught that winning correlates to success – if they win, they are successful. So, in theory, a successful sport franchise is one that wins, right? For the athletes, coaches, and fans, this absolutely makes sense. But what about for the owners? Sure, the owners want to win on the playing field, but do they care more about winning in a business sense – running the most profitable business as possible? Afterall, these owners consist of the wealthiest, and most successful businessmen of them all.   

So, how important is winning in professional sports? Does winning on the field equate to more revenue for the owners? I did a little research to find out the answer to our question and the first result is quite astounding. During the Houston Astros 2013 season, the Houston Astros earned an estimated $99 million in profit, making them the most profitable team in MLB history (1). This was during a season in which the Astros lost over 100 games! Now, let’s fast-forward to last year’s MLB season. Last year, the San Francisco Giants finished 22nd overall with a record of 73-89 (2). However, the team did much better in terms of total revenue, earning $462 million, the fourth highest in the league. Further, the Los Angeles Angels finished 17th overall in the standings but still earned $348 million, eighth best in the league (2).    

Similar trends may also be occurring in the NFL. Entering last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had the most Super Bowl rings of any team – the pinnacle of success. In a year that they would end up missing the playoffs, the team earned $102 million in operating income, one of the highest in the league (3). Now for the eyeopener. The Dallas Cowboys, with the highest value of any professional sport franchise at $5.5 billion, earned a league best $420 million in operating income, $180 million more so than the next contender and Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots (3). Though the Cowboys went 10-6 that year, there were 7 teams that boasted more wins.

After a quick analysis of selected MLB and NFL team’s wins and losses in comparison to their revenues, it appears that running a successful sport franchise may have to do with much more than just the team’s success on the field.

Dr. James Mattern is an Assistant Professor of Sport Studies at Lock Haven University and an alum of the United States Sports Academy, where he earned his Ed.D. in Sport Management.

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