Every team has a mascot. In high school, our mascot was a wolverine, and every Friday one unlucky cheerleader would hop in a costume that resembled a giant furry wolf and sweat for four hours. I remember my friend Abby ended up wearing it a fair bit. Abby has more in common with Jay-Z than she ever thought she would. Jay-Z is also a mascot, in a way, but his team is basically one really scary Russian dude, and instead of wearing an uncomfortable furry outfit he has to go in front of the New York sports media, which is much, much worse.
In August, The New York Times reported that Jay-Z owned approximately one 50th of 1 percent of the newly-relocated Brooklyn Nets. That’s more of an NBA team than you or I own, but it just barely qualifies him as an "owner." To put it into perspective, Jay invested a million dollars in the team in 2003, which is a little more than what the Nets will be paying CJ Watson—who is good at Twitter but not that great at basketball—to sit on their bench this season. Owning a sports franchise puts you firmly in the oligarch club, but Jay’s gotten a seat at the club with only a token investment.
Despite his ownership of the most hilariously small sliver of the Nets’ pizza pie, Jay-Z basically facilitated the Nets’ migration across from Jersey to Brooklyn. The idea to have a sports team in downtown Brooklyn was generated by this Romneyesque business nerd named Bruce Ratner, who (basically) wanted to clear a bunch of poor people out of the neighborhood and replace them with people with more money. It’s a good idea, from a purely capitalistic standpoint—the Atlantic station is a hub for the LIRR, meaning if Ratner threw in some office spaces he could lure businesses out of Midtown and into Brooklyn, because it would be a shorter, more convenient trip for all the Long Islanders who take the train in to work every day. There is a problem with taking housing from poor people though, and that problem is it’s not particularly legal.
Ratner realized that one of the ways to force people from their homes is to make the case to local government that said space would be of better public use. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in an article for Grantland, one of the only ways government can squeeze people out of their homes is if it decides to build a stadium. Ratner happened to have a few gazillion dollars laying around, so he bought the Nets. This is where Jay-Z came in—it's way easier to convince a city to let you bring a sports team there if you’re a really cool professional rap guy, especially one who grew up around the place where the stadium’s supposed to be.
However, at some point Ratner realized he’d run out of money and needed to bring in an outside investor to give him the cash he needed in order to keep not paying taxes on the land. He brought in Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the richest men in Russia and a noted sports/prostitute enthusiast, in to bail him out. Prokhorov bought a controlling share of the Nets, and Ratner had the money to continue building the Barclays Center—but not, it turned out, the housing and office developments he wanted. So the team—which was once a sideshow—became the main attraction.
Prokhorov got a team, Ratner kept the arena, but Jay-Z got the credit, which is the most important thing. He benefits from being able to pretend to own the Nets in some pretty obvious ways. Namely, it perpetuates the myth that he’s hip-hop’s greatest businessman. It could be argued that he’s not that awesome at making deals, but instead has always been great at taking advice: Though Roc-A-Fella made a bazillion dollars with Jay at the helm, it always seemed like Damon Dash might have been the one with the real savvy. Indeed, it could be argued that during Jay’s tenure as CEO of Def Jam, the only albums that received the promotional push they deserved were his and Kanye’s. Yeah, he also put out records by Rick Ross, Jeezy and Rihanna, but a bunch of people on the label complained about their treatment under him, including LL Cool J. At the end of the day, there has to be some reason his contract as CEO didn’t get renewed. On top of continuing to be able to rap about being a business, man, Jay will be performing eight sold-out concerts to kick off the Center’s existence, his top-shelf champagne will be served in the Illuminati-level VIP section, and as for the little people, he’s throwing one of his 40/40 Clubs in the stadium proper. Also, did you know that Jay-Z co-owns an advertising agency? He does, and it’s called Translation, and they’re doing the Nets’ advertising.
I have no idea how the Nets will fare this season. My friend the NBA writer Holly MacKenzie said, “I think there will be a lot of excitement and support with the move to Brooklyn, but they haven’t magically become a contender overnight. I think they’ll be middle of the pack.” There is hope, however, and a lot of it has to do with Jay himself—he helped ease the team to Brooklyn, which is a way better place to live than fucking Jersey, and he’s been trying to lure prominent players to the team. Until the Nets bring a title to Atlantic Yards and sell tickets so the Russian guy can make his money back, it’s going to be Jay-Z and Jay-Z alone who’s laughing his way to the bank. Sometimes, it pays to be the one sweating your ass off in that mascot suit.
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