The Dallas Cowboys kick off training camp this weekend as the defending NFC East champions. Last season ended with a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which marked 23 straight years the Cowboys were shut out of the NFC Championship game. Only the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions have longer title-game droughts.
But America’s Team remains the biggest must-see show in sports. Nine of the 50 highest-rated sports TV broadcasts in 2018 were regular season Cowboys games, helping goose ratings for CBS, NBC and Fox (the Patriots were the only other team with more than four games among the top 50). Cowboys fever helps owner Jerry Jonesgenerate an estimated $340 million in sponsorship and premium seating revenue at AT&T Stadium, twice as much as any other team.
While Jones’ team has come up short on the field the past 20-plus years, the Cowboys are the world’s most valuable sports franchise for the fourth-straight year at $5 billion. Jones has capitalized on the insatiable appetite for all things Cowboys.
“On and off the field, in season and out of season, there is a small soap opera going on every day,” Jones told my colleague Mike Ozanian last fall during a taping of ForbesSportsMoney on the YES Network. “Everyone knows that marketing, especially in this day and time, is just another way to promote the circus, so to speak.”
Jones has always been a visionary since he bought the Cowboys for $150 million 30 years ago. He revolutionized stadium sponsorships; broke away from the NFL’s shared merchandise revenue system; launched a stadium-management firm, Legends Hospitality, with the New York Yankees; and opened a $1.5 billion practice facility in 2017.
The result: Dallas sits atop the globe’s richest sports league with profits, in the sense of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, of $365 million in 2017, a record for any sports team.
The cutoff to rank among the world’s 50 most valuable sports teams is $2.075 billion, up $125 million from last year and $1.2 billion from five years ago. The values of sports teams have skyrocketed on the backs of ballooning media rights deals and more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreements that restrain player costs. There are 52 teams across all sports worth at least $2 billion, up from one, Manchester United, in 2012.
The NFL is still the most dominant sports league when it comes to the worth of its franchises. More than half of the top 50 are football squads. Credit the monster media-rights deals with the likes of CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV that paid out more than $260 million per team last year. The TV haul is a nice cushion to easily cover teams’ biggest expense item, player costs, before any tickets, sponsorships, beer or replica jerseys are sold. The cap on player salaries was $177 million last season (each team is also on the hook for $40 million annually in player benefit costs).
The New York Yankees moved up three spots to just behind the Cowboys with a value of $4.6 billion, up 15%. The Bronx Bombers head seven MLB teams that made the top 50. The Yankees are surging on and off the field. They own the best record in the American League this season, after posting 100 wins last year. Attendance at Yankee Stadium jumped 10% last year to 3.5 million fans, the highest for the club since 2012. Viewership of Yankees games on the YES Network was 57% higher than any other baseball franchise in 2018.
Real Madrid ranks third at $4.2 billion and highest among the eight soccer clubs in the top 50. The La Liga club was the last sports team deemed the world’s most valuable before the Cowboys secured the title starting in 2016. Real banked more than $100 million for winning its second-straight Champions League crown last year.
Don’t look for Real Madrid to set any records with regard to the richest sports team sale, currently $2.3 billion for the sales of the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Real is owned by its more than 90,000 members, who elect a club president. It’s a similar structure at rival Barcelona, which ranks fourth overall with a value of $4.02 billion.
NBA teams have made the most dramatic moves this decade. The New York Knicks headline nine hoops teams in the top 50 this year. Their $4 billion value, up 11%, ranks fifth among all sports teams. The Los Angeles Lakers ($3.7 billion) and Golden State Warriors ($3.5 billion) also cracked the top 10. In 2012, the Lakers were the most valuable NBA team at $900 million and ranked 35th out of all sports franchises. The Knicks were the only other NBA team in the top 50 in 2012.
Three NBA franchises have been sold for at least $2 billion since 2014 (Nets, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers). The prior NBA-record sale price was $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks, which closed three months before Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion blockbuster purchase of the Clippers.
Investors salivate at the NBA’s international prospects, with 300 million basketball players in China and annual revenue growing outside the U.S. at a rate in the high teens. The 2016 CBA locked in player costs at 50% of the league’s surging revenue, and league-wide profits are up tenfold over the past seven years by Forbes’ count.
The world’s richest sports teams are almost all swimming in cash these days. Barcelona, which lost $37 million due to excessive player costs, was the only top-50 team to post a loss on an operating basis, and every other team turned a profit of at least $25 million. More than half of the teams made more than $100 million, led by the Cowboys at $365 million.
The franchise values below are based on Forbes’ published valuations over the past 12 months. Team values reflect enterprise values (equity plus debt). No teams from the NHL, Nascar, MLS or Formula One made the top 50. The highest-ranking franchise outside of the NBA, NFL, MLB and European soccer was the New York Rangers at 72nd with a value of $1.55 billion.