What an ending. Your favorite N.B.A. team has just clinched a championship. The superstar, drenched in sweat, fulfilled his hero’s journey. The players are exhausted, but jubilant. Some of them are crying.
Out comes a gleaming trophy, the coveted prize that gives the grueling season its meaning, and it’s obvious who should lift it first: the billionaire who owns the team.
That’s the stance, anyway, of the N.B.A. and many other sports leagues in the United States, where franchise owners, rather than the players, are often the first to touch and hoist the sparkling trophies awarded in the emotional aftermaths of championship wins.
It’s a tradition that dates back to the American amateur athletic associations of the 1800s and that today highlights the idiosyncrasy of U.S. leagues on the global sports stage.
It also drives a lot of people insane.
“No one wants to see these guys,” said Graeme Ivory, a former sports radio broadcaster for the Canadian network TSN, echoing the complaints of scores of fans who tune in to the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. finals, Super Bowl and World Series every year. “It’s such a big emotional drop-off from ‘Oh my God, we just won the trophy’ to ‘Oh wait, some guy in a suit got it.’”
LeBron James sobbed when he laid his hands on the trophy in 2016, having just led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the N.B.A. title. It was a stirring scene — a local star ending the city’s 52-year championship drought in major sports — but it was slow to materialize because Dan Gilbert, the billionaire founder of Rocket Mortgage, had to lift the trophy first.
Last year, Stephen Curry started crying even before the final buzzer sealed his fourth title with the Golden State Warriors. Like James, Curry and his teammates waited their turn to hoist the trophy. When they did, finally, they were ecstatic, and fans might have enjoyed watching that. But the cameras cut to the billionaire venture capitalist Joe Lacob, who had already enjoyed his moment with the trophy, for a live interview.
“What does it mean to you to be handed that trophy again?” Lacob was asked as the players celebrated somewhere off screen.
Even Mark Cuban, who owns the Dallas Mavericks, believes the athletes deserve more of the spotlight in these moments. Cuban raised the trophy when the team won the title in 2011, but said in a recent interview that he was eager to get it to Dirk Nowitzki, the Most Valuable Player of those finals, because he knew Nowitzki’s moment of joy would be the lasting image of the season.
“I wanted that moment to belong to the players,” Cuban said. “And as it turned out, Dirk holding the trophy over his head has been iconic. No chance that happens if it’s my ugly mug holding it up there.”
(Cuban did tweet at dawn the day after the title was clinched that the trophy was with him in bed.)
The displays, then, are seen as buzz-kills, impeding the emotional flow to celebrate the influence of money.
At the very least, they feel like bad television.
“I don’t think it’s as joyful a moment as it could be for the players,” said Julian Gressel, a midfielder for the U.S. men’s soccer team. He had to wait for Arthur Blank, the co-founder of Home Depot, to raise the M.L.S. trophy (Blank even got his own confetti cannon shower) when Atlanta United won the title in 2018.
Gressel, who was born in Germany and now plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps in M.L.S., noted how much more straightforward and satisfying these presentations are in European soccer: The squad congregates around the trophy. The captain picks it up. The players and fans all go nuts.
The athletes, after all, are the avatars of fans’ hopes and dreams. People form emotional connections to star point guards, rugged quarterbacks and slugging center fielders. Who roots for a chief executive or managing general partner?
It’s a record-scratch moment that is, according to experts, so very American.
The franchise model gives U.S. team owners collective decision making power in their leagues, ensuring they are “infinitely more powerful than anything comparable in Europe,” said Andrei Markovits, a University of Michigan professor who researches sports culture.
John Henry, the billionaire investor, owns the Boston Red Sox, the English soccer club Liverpool and the N.H.L.’s Pittsburgh Penguins. After the Red Sox won their most recent World Series, in 2018, Henry stood, beaming, next to Commissioner Rob Manfred to accept baseball’s glistening trophy. When Liverpool won the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020, Henry was nowhere to be seen as the players danced euphorically with the sparkling hardware.
The American tradition of handing trophies to club owners dates to the 1800s, when sports were still an amateur pursuit, said Joe Horrigan, a senior adviser at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The oldest N.F.L. trophy in the Hall’s possession, he said, is from 1924 and inscribed with the name of Sam Deutsch, a prominent jeweler and the owner of the Cleveland Bulldogs.
“It’s been fundamentally the same since the game began,” Horrigan said.
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, joked that the practice of honoring team owners — who technically own the trophies, too — had the tenor of a “pagan sacrifice or fertility rite,” with a commissioner that “serves at the pleasure” of the 30 club owners.
“They don’t actually need to be the recipient of the trophy, but that’s not the way egos work,” Thorn said. “It may be illustrative of a larger phenomenon, such as capitalism being the religion of the United States of America. But the owners ought to get something besides profits or losses, shouldn’t they?”
Some players, aware perhaps of who signs the checks, said they understood the moment of glory for team owners.
“At the end of the day, the ownership put the team together,” said Udonis Haslem, a reserve forward and three-time champion with the Miami Heat, who are facing the Denver Nuggets in the N.B.A. finals.
As if to emphasize the power dynamic, Leslie Alexander, the former owner of the Houston Rockets, kept the team’s 1994 and ’95 championship trophies — he literally just took them home — when he sold the franchise for $2.2 billion in 2017. The Rockets now display replicas in their offices.
There are noble outliers. The N.H.L. generally passes its trophy, the Stanley Cup, straight to the winning team’s captain, whereupon each player takes a turn skating with it. The National Women’s Soccer League hands trophies to team captains, too.
Athletes are practically conditioned to covet the shimmering objects. Teams hang pictures of trophies around their facilities as motivation. Eventually they are imbued with almost mystical qualities. In hockey, it is considered bad luck for a player to touch the Stanley Cup before winning it.
“They’ve reached the top of the mountain, and when they touch the Cup for the first time, their faces are unbelievable,” said Phil Pritchard, who in his role as curator for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto acts as a caretaker of sorts for the trophy. “It’s powerful. It’s emotional. It’s grown men crying.”
That emotion was the reason Geoffrey Hayes, the vice president of special events for M.L.S. from 1998 to 2010, insisted that the league’s trophy go to the winning team’s captain. (“I was adamant — adamant!”) But the league switched course soon after Hayes’s departure, and Commissioner Don Garber has since handed the winning team owner the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy — named for a Kansas billionaire who once owned six M.L.S. teams concurrently.
In the N.B.A., there has been at least one instance of a player touching the trophy before an owner. At the end of the 2019-20 season — completed in a so-called bubble near Orlando, Fla., during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic — came an unusual ceremony in which the Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss suggested the players retrieve the award from its solitary perch.
“You guys, come take the trophy!” said Buss, who had been at numerous title ceremonies by that point.
The players looked around awkwardly before J.R. Smith (who else) slipped to the front of the pack and scooped it up.
It was a moment for the players to cherish, because owners seem unlikely to relinquish the privilege anytime soon.