The true story of pro sports includes massive flows of cash beneath it all. The often mercurial owners — uniformly billionaires these days — are mostly left out of any good sports narrative. Often, it’s because they simply aren’t that interesting. But Jack Kent Cooke, former owner of no less than five major sports organizations, was fascinating.
He owned the Los Angeles Lakers, Kings, and Wolves, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs and Washington Redskins. Cooke rose from next to nothing, a story increasingly rare for ultra-rich Americans. He was at once adored by his fans and vilified by many of those close to him. This is the strange, wild story of Cooke’s rise in business and sports.
How Jack Kent Cooke went from poor kid to billionaire
The Baltimore Sun reports that Cooke started his working life as a teenage encyclopedia salesman in 1934. His first $20 went straight to his mother, and he said he never felt prouder. Not long after, he rose up the ranks to a more lucrative business, selling soap.
That salesmanship led him to a job as a runner on the floor of the New York Stock exchange, but selling soap was still his big earner. Media magnate Roy Thomson took note of Cooke’s fast-talking, efficient style and gave him a $25 a week position managing a radio station in Cincinnati. It is in this industry where Cooke eventually built his empire.
When Cooke’s media empire turned its attention to sports
The Washington Post reports that Cooke worked his way up to a powerful executive position, and a massive salary to match. In 1951, on the lookout for a hands-on investment, he purchased the minor league Maple Leafs hockey team. He grew revenue in that small but lucrative space. By 1965, the windfall was enough to buy the Lakers, setting up the version of that team that landed Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
A year later, he put up the winning bid for the Kings, an NHL expansion franchise. In 1967, he built The Forum, a multi-purpose stadium for his L.A. franchises. Then, in what became the definitive choice of his career, he became the majority owner of the Washington Redskins in 1974.
The Redskins became the center of gravity of his life. In 1978 he moved to the Washington area, losing interest in his L.A. projects. His first marriage collapsed. He took over day-to-day operations of the team, pushing aside his personal life according to a Sports Illustrated profile. He rarely interacted with his children, including newborns with his later wives. One daughter, he only spoke to once. The Redskins became all that mattered.
In terms of success on the field, Cooke provided the model that owners like Jerry Jones follow today, to varying degrees of success. His three Super Bowl wins lured other sports magnates to try their hand at involving themselves in day-to-day operations. That includes the man who succeeded Cooke.
Where are Cooke’s sports franchises today?
Cooke died of cardiac arrest in 1997, following two years of declining health, according to a New York Times death notice. The Redskins ended up in the hands of another hands-on billionaire, one Daniel Snyder. Unlike Cooke’s golden touch, Snyder has presided over declining fortunes for the once-great franchise.
The Lakers, sold off to the Buss family in 1979, are today in a renewed period of success. Their likely path to the 2020 NBA Finals builds on a bedrock of high expectations set back in the Abdul-Jabbar and Johnson days of the team. Today’s duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis could be the best pair of superstars of the current era.
As for The Forum, Cooke’s enduring physical monument to his empire, it’s in the hands of another odd duck billionaire. Steve Ballmer, current owner of the LA Clippers, bought the “Taj Mahal of Sports.” The former Microsoft executive, by far the richest owner in American sports, made the $400 million acquisition simply to clear through some very expensive red tape. He’ll build his own new stadium near the site.