Soccer, not U.S. football, atop Forbes list of most valuable sports teams

Football is still the biggest sports business going in the United States.

But when it comes to the worldwide value of sports franchises, it’s the European brand of “football” that reigns supreme. Soccer teams once again form the upper end of the annual Forbes ranking of the World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams, with Real Madrid topping the 2014 list at $3.44 billion.

Barcelona sits second at $3.2 billion while Manchester United rounds out the top three at $2.81 billion.

For comparison’s sake, the most valuable American franchise is the New York Yankees at No. 4 with an estimated value of $2.5 billion, while the Dallas Cowboys sit at No. 5 at $2.3 billion. NFL teams actually form the bulk of the top 50 list, with all but the Oakland Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars making it on.

The only Seattle franchise in the top 50 is the Seahawks, coming in at No. 28 at $1.1 billion.

But that valuation, as with many of the rankings on the Forbes list, has to be read with skepticism. The Seahawks valuation and all the NFL teams on the list, was first published by Forbes last August and was based off data before the team’s Super Bowl season.

The Seahawks were rated only 15th among the 32 NFL teams, two spots behind a Denver Broncos squad it routed in the most recent Super Bowl.

Similarly, the NBA’s Clippers were just purchased by Steve Ballmer for a record $2 billion. That pricetag would have landed them No. 6 on the overall list in a tie with the Los Angeles Dodgers had Forbes updated valuations.

Forbes uses NBA figures first published last January, when the Clippers were valued at $575 million. Most analysts agree that NBA franchise values will receive at least some boost from that Clippers sale, and an average NBA team now might fetch $1 billion or more.

Yet, the most valuable NBA franchise in the world’s top 50 is said by Forbes to be the New York Knicks, rated No. 13 at $1.4 billion. The only other billion-dollar NBA franchises on the list are 15th-ranked Los Angeles Lakers at $1.35 billion and the 37th-ranked Chicago Bulls at $1 billion.

The Mariners don’t make the list because Forbes only valued them at $710 million in March, when it first published its Major League Baseball rankings. But that highlights what critics contend is a major flaw in how Forbes goes about its MLB rankings: The magazine does not include team-held equity stakes in regional sports networks as part of its criteria.

MLB teams have routinely sold well above previous Forbes valuations — the Padres and Astros being two most recent — because of their TV ownership. The Mariners are said by Forbes to hold a 71 percent stake in ROOT Sports Northwest, but there is no attempt made to determine how much that equity adds to the franchise’s overall value.

In contrast, Bloomberg began publishing MLB franchise valuations last October in which TV equity stakes were included. As a result, twice as many MLB teams — 10 — were valued at $1 billion or more by Bloomberg compared to Forbes.

The latest Forbes world rankings should prompt some interesting discussions, but best not to read too much into them.

Still, it’s safe to say that the world’s top soccer teams hold greater value than the biggest franchises on this side of the planet. Forbes explains some of this with the immense social media followings held by these teams compared to their biggest American counterparts and the marketing potential that goes along with that.

What’s unclear is how many additional MLB or NBA teams would join the top-50 list if Forbes updated its results to include TV ownership stakes or the changed value landscape in the wake of the Clippers sale.


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