It may seem difficult to believe, but the best bet in North American sports over the last two decades has not been the NFL.
That isn’t to suggest that football’s owners aren’t pleased. The league is a behemoth, with its 32 franchises worth about $112 billion in total. The NBA simply outperformed.
NBA clubs have appreciated more than 1,050 percent on average over the last 20 years, the most of the main four sports leagues. MLB teams come in second with an average gain of 700 percent, just ahead of the NFL’s 670 percent. The average NHL franchise has increased by 470 percent. In comparison, the S&P 500 gained 160 percent during the same time span.
“On the short-term and long-term perspective,” says Mark Nagel, a sports management professor at the University of South Carolina, “professional sports teams in the top four leagues will continue to be extremely popular investment choices for people obviously at the very, very highest level of wealth.”
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
Skyrocketing media contracts and a flood of new revenue streams have fueled the massive growth of sports franchises.
Buy-and-hold has definitely been the successful strategy for wealthy team owners. NFL teams had the highest total worth and appreciation a decade ago, up 125 percent since 2001, followed by MLB at 120 percent, and the NBA and NHL at 70 percent and 60 percent, respectively. But, thanks to freshly constructed arenas and renovations, as well as increasing television contracts, team valuations skyrocketed.
The NFL secured media rights deals worth $111.8 billion in March, bringing its total annual rights payment to $10.27 billion. The NBA earns an average of $2.66 billion per year, which is expected to quadruple by 2025, while MLB increased its annual payment to $1.84 billion after renewing its ESPN contract in May. The NHL more than doubled the value of its U.S. media rights in 2021, signing new contracts worth $625 million per year.
And, as we approach the start of a new decade, new cash cows continue to emerge. Investors in the media and gambling sectors have already placed large bets on legalized sports betting, while relaxed ownership regulations are fueling an influx of private-equity money into leagues, and new companies, such as FTX and Crypto.com, are hungry for attention from the sports world, with the latter reportedly committing more than $700 million to end the Staples Center’s 20-year naming rights run.
The new money is coming into a market that has been exceptionally strong for the NBA and MLB over the past 20 years. The two leagues claim all but one of the top ten team gainers since 2001, with six NBA teams having appreciated more than 1,300%. Only one team outside of those two leagues—the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers— cracked the top ten, rising 1,260% to $1.1 billion.
The crown jewel? The Golden State Warriors, which delivered the best return across the 120 teams in all four leagues, up 3,300% to $5.6 billion (expansion teams after 2001 were excluded). The worst performer was the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, who only narrowly outpaced the S&P 500 with a gain of 160%.
Still, the NFL remains on top in total value, $38 billion ahead of the NBA’s combined $74 billion total.