Team ownership: Better or worse to keep it in family?

The Buss family has found itself even more so in the spotlight as of late, with the focus less on its basketball decisions and more on its inner workings. On Aug. 8, Jeanie Buss went on an ESPN Radio affiliate and discussed her father’s passing and its effect on the Lakers’ business structure, and then early this week the Hollywood Reporter ran an in-depth profile of both Jeanie and her brother, Jim Buss, spotlighting their relationship as they look to transition the Lakers back into a winner.

It’s been just six months since the February death of Jerry Buss, and in that time, his beloved Lakers have clawed their way to an eight seed before being swept in the playoffs’ first round and lost out on their biggest free-agent conquest in years. It’s been a tough year in Lakerland, and that’s only been highlighted by Buss’s gradual lessening of impact on the team and his eventual death.

In that Aug. 8 radio interview, Jeanie Buss went so far as to say that had her father been running the show, the team would have had a better chance to keep Dwight Howard. “When it came time to try to convince Dwight to stay, we lost the best closer in the business in Dr. Buss,” she said. “Putting up a billboard probably wasn’t the right thing, but we have to learn how to do things differently because Dr. Buss isn’t here.”

Differently is the key word, and the Lakers’ transition of power in some ways could not have come at a worse time. Not only will Buss’s children have to continue to learn to simply run a team without him, they’re also forced to adapt to a radically different set of financial rules in the NBA and the aging of their team’s biggest star of the past two decades, Kobe Bryant.

It’s a steep task, made only steeper by the ownership transition, and it remains to be seen how the Busses will handle the task. That said, there have been plenty of big-name teams passed down from powerful, influential owners to their children, and plenty have seen success in the aftermath. In fact, some of the biggest-name and most successful teams in sports have been passed down from generation to generation among families. So now, a look at a few who have come before:

Jerry Buss, Lakers, d. 2013

Years of ownership: 1979-2013

Successor: The Buss family ownership trust

Record in last full season before death: 41-25 (2011-12)

Record in first full season after death: Remains to be seen

You know the story. There’s a weird dynamic among his children as to who should lead the team, and now, and even though they’re loaded, they can’t pay anyone this season, and who knows about Bryant’s Achilles? Keep in mind, though, that we’re still speaking in the very near term, and sometimes a transition can take more time than a few measly months.

Al Davis, Raiders, d. 2011

Years of ownership: 1972-2011

Successor: Son, Mark Davis

Record in last full season before death: 8-8  (2010)

Record in first full season after death: 4-12 (2012)

Davis was pretty much the face of the Raiders, even more so than Buss was with the Lakers. After all, he not only owned the team, but had also coached it, served as its general manager and served as the commissioner of the AFL. However, by the time of his death, Oakland’s record had been dismal for years; the last time it made the playoffs was when it lost the 2002 Super Bowl. As Davis’s health declined, he became more and more desperate for another title, and he was criticized for selling off the future of his team for instant gratification. He also failed to draft well in the later years of his life. Since his son took over, it’s been a matter of rebuilding, and as the team modernizes, it should start seeing some success in the years to come.

George Steinbrenner, Yankees, d. 2010

Years of ownership: 1973-2010

Successor: Sons, Hal and Hank Steinbrenner

Record in last full season before death: 103-59, World Series champions (2009)

Record in first full season after death: 97-65 (2011)

When Steinbrenner died, it amounted to a day of mourning in New York, similar to what unfolded in Los Angeles when Buss passed away. Steinbrenner was perhaps the biggest owner in sports in terms of his team’s success and the massive size of its market, but the Yankees have kept humming along since his passing – apart, of course, from this one mediocre season and the Alex Rodriguez carnival of drama. Steinbrenner ceded much of the control of his team to his sons in 2007, so they had plenty of time to acclimate themselves to the job of running the behemoth franchise, and neither has come under much fire since their father’s death. The Yankees will likely miss the playoffs this season, but unlike the NBA, MLB will continue to let them throw whatever money they’d like at players, essentially, almost guaranteeing a bright future.

Lamar Hunt, Chiefs, d. 2006

Years of ownership: 1960-2006 (He owned the AFL’s Dallas Texans starting in 1960, moving them to Kansas City in 1963.)

Successor: The Hunt family

Record in last full season before death: 10-6 (2005)

Record in first full season after death: 4-12 (2007)

Hunt was another of those larger than life football owners in that his stake in the Chiefs stemmed from the fact that he founded the AFL. However, at the time of his death, his team hadn’t been dominant since the mid-1990s, and even now, seven years later, its success has been measured and sporadic. Of course, Hunt’s death coincided with the retirement of coach Dick Vermeil, which didn’t help, and the team has since been plagued by a revolving door of coaches and a lack of stability. With Andy Reid on board for next season, things might be looking up, but the transition of power – and the past 15 years, for that matter – hasn’t gone as smoothly as the Kansas City fan base would have liked.

Wellington Mara, Giants, d. 2005

Years of ownership: 1959-2005

Successor: Son, John Mara, and Steve Tisch

Record in last full season before death:
6-10 (2004)

Record in first full season after death: 8-8 (2006)

The Mara family not only still owns the Giants, but it also founded the team in 1925. This is a long-standing ownership situation, and so when Wellington Mara, a major NFL power broker, died in 2005, things proceeded almost as usual. (The team has won two Super Bowls since his death.) It wasn’t as if power hadn’t transitioned within the family before – Wellington Mara’s father founded the team and then passed it along – and it’s even been willing to adapt, selling a stake of the franchise to the Tisch family in 1990.

August “Gussie” Busch Jr., Cardinals, d. 1989

Years of ownership: 1953-89

Successor: Anheuser-Busch

Record in last full season before death: 86-76-2 (1989)

Record in first full season after death: 70-92 (1990)

Busch saw the Cardinals through one of the most successful periods in the franchise’s history and managed to make the team a national power despite its small market. In the years just before and after his death, though, St. Louis saw a rough stretch where it failed to make the playoffs for eight seasons. In 1996, then, Anheuser-Busch sold the Cardinals to a group of outside investors, and the team has since won two World Series and made the playoffs in 10 of 17 seasons. Sometimes a transition of power away from a family or ownership group is necessary.

Art Rooney, Steelers, d. 1988

Years of ownership: 1933-88

Son, Dan Rooney

Record in last full season before death: 8-7 (1987)

Record in first full season after death:
5-11 (1988)

Like the Maras, the Rooney family also founded their NFL franchise, the Steelers, but Art Rooney’s death was the first true ownership succession, unlike with the Giants and Wellington Mara. However, the Steelers were ready for the full transition; Rooney relinquished the day-to-day ownership duties to his son, Dan Rooney, 14 years before his death. The team sputtered in 1988, immediately after Art Rooney’s passing, but there was hardly any causal effect, and since then, they’ve been a perennial playoff power.