According to Major League Baseball's website, George Steinbrenner once said "owning the Yankees is like owning the Mona Lisa." But that was not the case when he put together a group of investors and bought the struggling franchise back in 1973 for about $10 million.
Under his leadership, he slowly restored Yankees pride after they had been in decline following their glory years in the 1950s and early 1960s. They won the first of their seven World Series championships under Steinbrenner's reign in 1977. The seventh came last year. They also won 16 division titles.
Steinbrenner's will to win and willingness to spend money to improve the Yankees were key. Robert Boland, a sports lawyer and a professor of sports management at New York University, says he was the first team owner to embrace free agency, spending high sums of money to buy the most talented players.
"Other owners had either been afraid to or didn't see the revenue benefit from it," he said. "Steinbrenner certainly taught other owners how to deal with free agency and that's certainly one of his lasting legacies, is that he understood his marketing advantage of his big-market team in New York, that he would always have a team that signed better free-agent players and higher priced free agent players."
Boland says one of the key elements in owning any sports entity is what you derive from broadcast revenue. For that reason, Boland said Steinbrenner's creation of his YES network on cable television was revolutionary.
"Regional sports networks with the rise of cable [TV] have become the norm in sports and for baseball, which lacks like [American-style] football a national television contract, it certainly pressed the Yankee advantage to have the YES network to be profitable and be ubiquitous, a symbol of the team," he said.
And while many were upset with Steinbrenner's decision to tear down Yankee Stadium and build an entirely new one for the 21st century, which opened last year. Boland said it was a smart business move.
"Steinbrenner bet big. He never spent small," he said. "He always reinvested in the Yankee brand, and in doing so he was never looking at taking money from the Yankee brand. He was constantly, unlike a lot of other owners in sports, looking to put money back into the brand, constantly reinvesting and conquering new fields. He conquered fans at the gate and success on the field and team building; a magnificent stadium to derive a lot of other amenities and revenue streams from."
George Steinbrenner grew up in Cleveland and his first effort at being a businessman was raising chickens and selling their eggs.
He ran track and played (American-style) football in college, coached high school football and basketball in Ohio and was briefly an assistant football coach at the college level.
He eventually joined the family's shipbuilding business in Cleveland and also operated a short-lived professional basketball team there nicknamed the Pipers. He became a wealthy executive after obtaining stock in another shipbuilding company and merging it with his family's.
Upon his death, the New York Yankees - which in the past few years were run by his sons - were valued at about $1.6 billion. It was just three months ago that Forbes magazine reported the Yankees had dethroned English football club Manchester United as the world's most valuable team brand. That, Forbes says, is the portion of a team's overall value that is derived from its name as opposed to its market and league. The Yankees got a boost by opening their new stadium and winning last year's World Series.
Robert Boland says anybody who is going to study the business of sports will see George Steinbrenner as probably the most important team owners in history.
"His life certainly will provide ample fodder in the controversies that it created," he said. "But I think for the most part if you think about the great successes of his life and his career he's going to be studied for many, many years to come. And owners are ultimately going to say, 'I can't be like George Steinbrenner. My market doesn't support it,' Or 'I can be like George Steinbrenner."
And in what can be viewed as a bit of irony, Steinbrenner's death is timely. A United States law that is in effect only for 2010, there is no estate tax, no matter how large your estate. That means Steinbrenner's family will not have to sell the Yankees to pay what normally would have been a huge estate tax that could have been about three-quarters of a billion dollars.
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