Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and
No sooner was the Obama administration accused of appeasing the Russians in shelving an Eastern European missile shield plan than the richest man in the former USSR swooped in and announced he was buying the New Jersey Nets last week. At least, that’s how it looks if one is still fighting the Cold War.
More likely, the proposal by 44-year-old tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov to become the National Basketball Association’s first non-North American majority owner is reaffirmation of 21st Century pragmatism: Nets owner Bruce Ratner has been trying since 2005 to build an $800-million Brooklyn home for the team and move it from the Jersey Meadowlands, and he obviously can use Prokhorov’s $200 million investment.
And Prokhorov, whose personal worth is estimated at $9.5 billion and is ranked by Forbes at No. 40 on the world’s most wealthy list, represents a logical progression in the NBA’s pursuit of global status dating to the 1992 Olympic “dream team,” the league’s first star turn on the international stage.
“It’s business as usual in the international economy,” Duke University cultural anthropologist Orin Starn said of the Prokhorov deal. “It’s a borderless world and a world where money talks.
“It’s part of the pattern of globalization of sports ownership, just as corporations have globalized,” Starn said. “It’s also about the old story of sports franchises as a kind of trophy, a plaything of the wealthy. American millionaires and billionaires, from [marketing magnate and Washington Redskins owner] Daniel Snyder to [Microsoft co-founder and NFL, NBA and Major League Soccer team owner] Paul Allen, want their franchises, their sports toys. Russian billionaires are the same.”
Rob Tilliss, who worked with Ratner in the latter’s 2003 purchase of the Nets and now is CEO of the global sports and entertainment advising firm Inner Circle Sports, argued that “the reaction would’ve been similar if it were a wealthy Indian or Malaysian or Chinese buying the Nets. I think any time you have a foreign investor acquiring a major U.S. asset, there’s a lot of interest.”
Tilliss reminded that “it’s not a new phenomenon” to have major cross-border business in sports. “The Blues are about to play the Red Wings in Sweden, there have been lots of NBA games overseas, the NFL has another game coming up in London, the sponsors are more global than ever.”
Though foreign ownership in pro leagues still is rare in the United States — Japan’s Hiroshi Yamauchi, former Nintendo executive, is majority owner of baseball’s Seattle Mariners and a group of Chinese investors are awaiting NBA approval to purchase 15 percent of the Cleveland Cavaliers — it is the fact that Prokhorov hails from the nation once branded by President Ronald Reagan as “The Evil Empire” that adds bite to the Nets’ story.
Not so many years ago, such a deal would have been a clear sign of the apocalypse, especially since sports so often is tied to patriotism. As the old Soviet Union, for decades, threw enormous energy into winning Olympic medals, skin-deep evidence of national power, so do American professional and college teams continue to wrap themselves in the flag, many sewing small Old Glory patches to their uniforms.
The paradox, of course, is that those same teams regularly employ stars from foreign shores, and continually seek foreign fans and foreign investment, blurring the sense of strange bedfellows vs. a brave new world. To the old order, the mingling of democratic Americans and traditionally communist Russians in a capitalistic endeavor still is a bit of a shock — even though Tilliss suggested “looking at what’s going on in Russia, where you can stay in a fancy Ritz Carlton next to the Kremlin for 600 bucks a night; the capitalism has gone both ways.”
Still, only last summer, when South Dakota native Becky Hammon chose to play for Russia’s national basketball team in the Beijing Olympics, it was called “unimaginable” by U.S. coach Anne Donovan “to think of her willingly putting on a jersey for Russia ... ” (Hammon, by the way, was splitting her career between the summertime WNBA and a winter season in Moscow, playing for the CSKA team owned by none other than Mikhail Prokhorov.)
“The idea of Russians in American sports 20, 25 years ago was unimaginable,” Starn said. “They were the enemy that had to be defeated in Lake Placid [in the 1980 Olympic ice hockey tournament], that stole the 1972 Olympics [basketball title in a botched officiating incident]. They were Ivan Drago knocking down Rocky in Rockly IV” — though Drago was portrayed by a Swedish actor.
“So, what’s striking to me about [the Prokhorov news] is that it doesn’t seem to be sending anybody screaming and hollering about the Russians coming and the missiles being on the way. The milestone to this is that the Cold War is really over. I see this as crossing the last border in the Cold War.”
Except, of course, for those who might read too much into Prokhorov’s stated intention of using the deal to have Russia “receive an equal place in the elite world of basketball” and “the placement of Russia’s leading coaches and managers in the NBA.”
But even if there is a secret take-over-the-world plot here, worthy of an old James Bond movie, the NBA could find that appealing: Another territory conquered, another marketplace opened. If not Brooklyn, why not Vladivostok?