Following his death Tuesday at the age of 80, George Steinbrenner will be remembered by many as the bullying team owner parodied so brilliantly by Larry David on “Seinfeld,” but the Boss’ legacy in media and entertainment will extend well beyond those Thursday nights on NBC.
In taking a team he paid $10 million for in 1973 and turning it into a $1.6 billion sports juggernaut, Steinbrenner, a shipbuilder from Cleveland, possessed from the start a surprising understanding of media. That savvy enabled his Yankees to be at the forefront over nearly four decades of brand marketing, team rights, TV distribution and more recently new technologies.
“At the end of the day, George will be remembered for having the vision to let people around him turn the premier baseball team in the country into a premier media and entertainment franchise, and the first ever to be substantially owned by the team itself,” says Leo Hindery, the cable exec Steinbrenner recruited to launch a Yankees TV sports network in 2002.
Steinbrenner’s forays into entertainment began shortly after he bought the team and began buying up players from Charlie Finley’s Oakland A’s, including Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. By bringing them to New York, he allowed players to shine as megastars and become brands unto themselves.
“The Boss made New York City relevant again by giving them a team that fit the image of Broadway and bright lights,” said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse U.
In doing so, Steinbrenner gave birth to the athlete as a larger-than-life persona. It’s a phenomenon that may have reached its pinnacle a week before Steinbrenner’s death with ESPN giving NBA star LeBron James his own hour in primetime to unveil his future plans.
The idea of stardom was not lost on Steinbrenner himself. His Miller Lite commercials, alongside the most famous victim of his ire, Billy Martin, were among the most popular for the beer brand in the 1970s. “Saturday Night Live” hosting gigs, numerous appearances and depictions in TV and movies would follow as well as other commercials, like a 2004 Visa spot with Derek Jeter where Steinbrenner is unable to sign checks because of an injured arm.
Perhaps his most significant achievement was taking greater control over the distribution of Yankees games by creating the YES Network, the first sports network launched by a professional sports team. (Ted Turner’s TBS was heavily associated with the Turner-owned Atlanta Braves but the team did not own the network.)
Partnered with Goldman Sachs and Providence Equity Partners, YES allowed the Yankees to reap tens of millions of dollars in new revenue from cable distribution fees. Other teams would follow suit, including the Yankees subway series rivals, the New York Mets, which created the SNY network in 2006. The Yankees stake in YES accounts for the bulk of the $1.6 billion valuation that Forbes assigns to the team, say team insiders.
Steinbrenner will be remembered for having ” an unwavering confidence in the notion of the Yankees as more than a baseball team, more than another brand,” said Joe Ravitch, a former investment banker who helped to create the YES Network. Steinbrenner saw his team as “something that was emblematic of New York and America and the indomitable human spirit, which gave him the willingness to take risks and keep saying ‘we don’t have to do business like everybody else — we’re the Yankees,’ ” Ravitch said.
YES in 2009 became the first regional sports network to be distributed beyond its team’s home footprint, striking cable distribution deals in Florida and the Carolinas.
Even as he took on less of an active role running the team, Steinbrenner passed on his aggressive, forward-thinking style to those he left in charge. Last year, the Yankees became the first team to stream games on the Internet in its home market, reaching a deal with Major League Baseball that previously allowed streaming of only out-of-market games. And as the hype of James Cameron’s “Avatar” has given hope to TV executives that 3D will be the next big thing, the Yankees during the weekend of July 10 became the first major league team to broadcast games in 3D in its series with the Mariners.
Steinbrenner was known to be prickly and fickle, but his one consistency that defines his career is how well he understood The Show.