Donald Trump’s History of Failed Sports Ventures

There are many stories of non-sports folk attempting to break into the sports world, but none seems to be more prolific than current President Donald Trump. The following is a detailed history of his attempts to purchase, create or completely take over some semblance of a professional sports franchise and how, in many cases, he was unsuccessful.

Team Acquisitions

1981 – Helping Buy the Baltimore Colts

Donald Trump did not go into this one alone as he would do over the next three decades. With a six-man investing group, Trump led the charge to buy the Baltimore Colts for $50 million from then-owner Robert Irsay, who rejected the offer. In what seems like a power play from Irsay to save face and pretend he would keep the team in Baltimore, Trump denied having submitted an offer and not even being a part of a group that would submit an offer. Trump admitted to talking with Irsay, but said he gave no such offer. The paper may have embellished or Irsay could have lied, but this is the first time Donald Trump was associated with buying a franchise and his first sports franchise rejection. Trump did later open Trump National Golf Club: Colts Neck. An homage to his first attempt at entry into the sporting world? Probably not, but you never know.

1983 – Buying the Cleveland Indians

13 million dollars. That’s the amount that Donald Trump’s lawyer initially slid across the table to try and purchase the Cleveland Indians. When Francis O’Neill, Indians owner at the time, balked, Trump reportedly moved the amount up to 34 million. The team eventually sold to the Jacobs family and Trump was without a baseball team. He did purchase a USFL team around this time, but the MLB remained out of his grasp. Dick Jacobs bought the Indians in 1986 for $35 million and kept the Indians in Cleveland.

Donald Trump dons a Yankee baseball uniform as he poses with his children Eric and Ivanka at a Police Athletic League softball game held at Yankee Stadium in 1992. –
Robin Platzer/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

1986 – Buying the San Diego Padres

This report is mainly in here to drive home a point that in most cases where Donald Trump was involved with potentially buying a team, it was believed he would move the team somewhere else if the deal went through. The Trump camp denied the reports, but Steve Garvey who was leading the group that wanted to buy the Padres for $50 million said of Trump, “he wondered if he could take the (Padres) franchise and move it back East, because he really wasn’t on the West Coast at the time.” Understandable that he would want to move the team, but moving a team is moving a team regardless of the reasoning behind it.

New York Yankees manager Billy Martin, right, meets developer Donald Trump at Municipal Stadium in West Palm Beach Sat., March 26, 1988. Seated with Trump are his son Donald, 10, with a ball given him by Martin and Yankees owner George Steinbrenner during the game with the Montreal Expos. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

1988 – Buying the Patriots

When Billy Sullivan was facing bankruptcy in 1988 he looked to sell the beloved Patriots to basically any buyer. Sullivan turned to Donald Trump (now former owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals) to see if he had any interest in purchasing the Patriots outright. Trump was down to make the deal, but there were some snags. Some cited a large debt for the reason the deal fell through, with Trump’s people saying the $104 million in stadium and team debt was too much, while the lawyers closest to Sullivan said that Trump would never get enough NFL Owner support. From the 1988 Boston Globe article:

[Joel Kozol] maintained the reason for Trump’s withdrawal was a dim prospect for NFL approval. “Trump approved the agreement we submitted to him this weekend,” said Kozol late last night. “He was satisfied with the numbers and the deal. But the word was circulating that he could not get NFL approval. And without assurances, informal or formal, of NFL approval, he told me tonight that he could not proceed further with the deal at this time.”

The Patriots would later sell to Victor Kiam for $85 million and is now worth a reported $3.7 billion. The lazy writer would say that Trump really missed out, but after Kiam took the deal for the team, the stadium went bankrupt and was bought by current owner Robert Kraft. In 1992 Kiam sold the team to James Orthwein of St. Louis and made it look as though a move to St. Louis was imminent, but hard-nosed landlord Robert Kraft saved the day for Pats fans, buying Orthwein out in 1994 for a record $175 million. There are heroes and villains in this story and Donald Trump ended up being neither.

President Trump welcomed the New England Patriots to the White House in April, 2017, to celebrate their Super Bowl win. (Image: John Tlumacki/Getty Images)

2011 – Buying the Mets

Rumors swirled about Trump trying to buy the Mets after Fred Wilpon fell on self-inflicted hard times. After he was unable to ensure a majority ownership, Donald Trump put the rumors to bed. Other sides of the story say Trump would not have been approved by the league because of his ownership of casinos, which violates league ownership rules. However, this would have been a small hurdle to jump over, with the ability to sell off his casinos. Overall it seems like Trump was not truly interested in owning without a majority. Fair enough.

Donald Trump throws out the first pitch to Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, Sunday, July 9, 2000, prior to the start of the game between the Cubs and Chicago White Sox at Wrigley Field. (AP Photo/Stephen J. Carrera)

2014 – Buying the Bills

We can say for certain that Donald Trump is the first President to have bid for an NFL team before they became a President. He was less than thrilled with the Pegula’s taking the team for $1.4 billion dollars, but was a good sport, giving the new owners a compliment sandwich of sorts. Trump claimed that he tossed (what we imagine) a briefcase of a billion dollars onto the table, but was outbid by Terry Pegula. He was not salty about it at all saying the Pegula ownership would never have a winning season. As for whether they were winners or not, the Bills were 9-7 in 2014 and 8-8 in 2015.

Bills head coach Rex Ryan shakes hands with Donald Trump at a campaign stop in Buffalo, New York on April 18, 2016.

2015 – Buying Atletico Nacional

This one is not as well documented, but after he lost the chance to buy the Bills, Donald Trump turned his attention to a sporting venture outside the United States, Atletico Nacional, a football team in Colombia. Along with Alessandro Proto, who claimed he was the inspiration for 50 Shades of Grey, Trump offered the team $100 million for ownership. Atletico countered with $150 million, causing Proto and Trump to pull out because they thought the amount they offered was fair and felt slighted that the counter was so high. Rumors spread that the duo would pursue other teams, but no other news was ever revealed. In this case, Trump was either going to get a team for a deal, or he wasn’t going to own one at all.

New Leagues / Sporting Ventures

1983 – United States Football League

This is probably the most well-known sports story in which Donald Trump has played a lead role. It is also the only time he has ever owned a team. The United States Football League (USFL) was a budding new league full of flash and zazz (and large pocketbooks) that gave football fans something to watch in the Spring. The action wasn’t up to par with the NFL, but it gave rise to big names like Jim Kelly and Steve Young. Trump purchased the New Jersey Generals, the Patriots of the USFL, in 1983 for between six and ten million dollars. After the purchase Trump said “We don’t have to stay in New Jersey, but I have every intention of doing so,” more evidence that in many cases, Trump wants total control of a team and the ability to move them anywhere.

One of the first big moves Donald Trump made as owner of the New Jersey Generals was to bring in Doug Flutie, the five-nine quarterback out of Boston College. With his signing, Flutie became “the highest paid pro football player and highest paid rookie in any sport with $7 million over 5 years” and when his career did not pan out as Trump hoped, Trump wanted other owners to pay for the failure, something that doesn’t happen in any professional sport.

Trump: People wanted me to get him for the good of the league. I told them I would sign him, but at some point I wanted partial reimbursement for the cost.

April 2, 1985

While all of this was going on, Trump was pushing for the USFL to move to the fall, saying “If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball.” The USFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL claiming they were hogging all of the fall football airtime and won. Many have noted that due to the high-profile of Donald Trump, the judge awarded the USFL only $1.00 in damages. In 1986, the USFL folded after failed ratings, team mergers, and owners who could not continue to pay for their teams.

Donald Trump made a splash by signing Doug Flutie to the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, who were coached by Walt Michaels, left. AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler

1989 – The Independent Baseball League

On the heels of the MLB’s bargaining agreement expiring in December 1989, Donald Trump found himself as a backer for another potential Professional Baseball League. The League was set to start in the Spring of 1990 with “eight to 12 franchises valued at approximately $15 million apiece.” Some thought the league was being used as leverage for bargaining with the Player’s Union, but that aspect was never confirmed. David LeFevre was the head honcho with Trump used mainly as a financial backer and a part-owner of a potential New York-New Jersey franchise. The main franchise was set to call Washington D.C. home, with local businessman Jeffrey Gildenhorn creating Washington Senators Baseball Inc., a registered company in D.C. so he could sell “Senators” wares.

There was a lot of smoke, including a $2 million offer to an Orioles pitcher, but nothing ever came of the league. Deadspin has a great read on all the ins and outs of what the league could and would have been.

1989 – Tour De Trump

This was a big idea. A bike race in the United States that would rival the Tour de France. Donald Trump was one of several casino owners in Atlantic City that basketball commentator Billy Packer approached about the idea for the race. Trump was the only one to go all in and did so to the tune of $750,000. Touting the commercial value of his name, Trump had the interest of cyclists and teams, but the fan interest was never quite there. The inaugural race from Albany to Atlantic City featured over 100 riders, with the winner getting a $250,000 purse. Facing financial troubles, Trump removed himself and his sponsorship from the race after two years. The race would continue as Tour DuPont until 1996. Well-known cyclist Lance Armstrong won the final two races.

1989 – Trump Castle World Offshore Power Championships

In the midst of Tour De Trump, Donald Trump was also pulling some strings to bring a premier boat race to the Jersey Shore. After a fierce bidding war with Hawaii and Key West (who typically hosted the event), Trump snagged the 1989 APBA World Championships to the tune of $160,000, just $10,000 more than the other two bidders. If you’re unfamiliar with the water off the coast of Florida, they are much more calm than the waters at Atlantic City. When power-boaters heard the news, Errol Lanier (tied to a previous championship) was quoted saying:

Lanier: I hate to hear this, people who have to race there next October will find it atrocious.

Lanier was right. When October rolled around and it was time for the race to begin, the weather went south. Day one of three was completely scrapped because of wind and rain, day two saw less than half of the racers finish due to the choppy waters, and day three proved to be fatal for one boat operator. While the third day had the calmest waters of the three days, racer Kevin Brown sped ahead of the pack and, even though he was well ahead of everyone else, continued at speeds above average from the rest. Brown’s boat caught some air, barrel-rolled and proceeded to sink when it landed. Brown was killed instantly from head and neck injuries. The accident led to improved cockpits including the hat behind the seat and lids on the canopies, but the Trump Castle World Offshore Power Championships wave did not recover. Other races were held in the north like the 1990 race on the Hudson River, but overall, most races moved back to the Florida Coast.

A Legacy of Sorts

Throughout his many attempts to get a majority stake of any sports franchise, Donald Trump made a few things clear. He wants total control, he wants a good deal and if the deal falls through, it does so on his terms. From the early days of a potential Cleveland Indians acquisition to just coming up short with the Buffalo Bills, Trump has been persistent, even when met with roadblocks from other owners or organizations. Trump is looking at the bottom line and if it doesn’t seem right, he bails. At age 71, it appears Donald Trump may never own another professional sports team, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a few more attempts after he is finished in his current position.

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