Majority ownership in major North American pro sports by anyone other than white men is rare. Though Phillips and Cargill don’t own an NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball team, they still take pride in showing that Black entrepreneurs can successfully call the shots.
“How many people can really say that I was co-owner with my queen?” Phillips said. “And we won a championship.”
They would like their success as Black owners to become more common. Census Bureau data from 2022 showed that roughly 59% of the U.S. population was white and not Hispanic or Latino and 14% was Black. Even relative to those numbers, Black ownership in sports has been rare.
The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) compiles annual racial and gender report cards that grade hiring for major U.S. sports leagues. The NBA’s 2023 report showed that Michael Jordan was the only Black majority governor in the 30-team league. Jordan sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets in July and is taking on a smaller role.
MLB’s report card showed that none of the 40 people TIDES considered majority owners are Black, and 39 are white men. In the NFL’s latest report card, just two people of color were said to have significant ownership interests and be involved in the operations of any of the league’s 32 teams. One was a woman and neither was Black.
The most significant reason is that principal ownership of a major franchise often requires billionaire status, and most of the nation’s ultra-rich people are white. Though many prominent former Black athletes have some ownership stake in major teams, most don’t have enough money to become principal owners.
Richard Lapchick, director of TIDES, said Phillips and Cargill have achieved something noteworthy.
“That’s a statement by itself and can be a signal to other potential Black owners — that they don’t have to have an ownership in an NBA team or an NFL team,” Lapchick said. “They can get ownership in a different sport where the buy-in is going to be something I can afford, yet I can still have an impact.”
Phillips previously was co-owner of the Lexington (Ky.) minor league baseball club, where he played and his brother managed the team to an Atlantic League championship in 2021.
Jaia Thomas would like to see more people succeed the way Phillips and Cargill have. Her organization, Diverse Representation, created the inaugural Black Ownership in Sports Symposium, coming up later this week in Atlanta. Washington Nationals minority owner Paxton Baker and Atlanta Falcons minority owner Warrick Dunn are slated to discuss challenges Black entrepreneurs face in gaining ownership and share financial models and potential pathways to make it realistic.
Thomas founded Diverse Representation four years ago to help connect Black agents, attorneys, managers and publicists with athletes and talent in the sports and entertainment industries. She said she has seen programs dedicated to increasing the number of Black referees and coaches in various sports — but none about team ownership.
“At least we can start de-mystifying the process,” she said. “I think that’s the first step. I think a lot of (Black) people just don’t even know where to start, you know? And that’s what we want to do with this symposium, is change that.”
Phillips and Cargill decided Black ownership wasn’t enough. The Smoke is Black-influenced throughout in a sport that is largely white in the United States. League MVP Janae Jefferson and general manager Eric Mays are Black and all the coaches are Black and coach at historically Black colleges and universities (Howard, Hampton and North Carolina A&T).
The Smoke had a league-best 22-14 record in the regular season, then defeated the Smash It Sports Vipers in the semifinals and the USSSA Pride in the finals to win the title in the four-team league that also includes the Oklahoma City Spark.
Phillips hopes his success with Cargill helps remove a mental block for other Black businesspeople.
“In the new generation, just people that look like us in general, they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, it’s been done before,’” Phillips said. “I mean, (President Barack) Obama — nobody thought there’d be a Black president. But guess what? It happens.”