Jackson, Mannie 1939–
Mannie Jackson 1939–
Owner of the Harlem Globetrotters
By any yardstick the Harlem Globetrotters are an American institution, instantly recognizable for their comic basketball antics and family-oriented exhibitions. The Globetrotters are also one of the oldest professional sports franchises in the country. Today, they are owned and run by Mannie Jackson, a Fortune 500 executive who was once a Globetrotter himself. Jackson is the only African American owner in major professional sports who can boast controlling interest in his team. He has used that power to rejuvenate the Globetrotters and position them for an even higher international popularity in the twenty-first century. “The Harlem Globetrotters are one of America’s greatest assets because they are so much a part of sports history,” Jackson commented in the Orange County Register. “I feel a major responsibility to make it happen right. With a commitment to excellence and global social consciousness, the Globetrotters are setting the standard in the sports and entertainment arena.”
Owning the Globetrotters is more than just a labor of love for Jackson—it is a serious business venture, on which he expects to profit handsomely in years to come. “We’ ve recognized that there’s a lot of equity in this brand, and so now we’ re trying to build it, protect it, and embellish it,” he told Marketing News. When he bought the Globetrotters, Jackson inherited a failing franchise that had lost two-thirds of its audience by relying on repetitious routines and older stars. Jackson moved quickly to re-vamp the Trotters’ image, hiring younger players, updating the music and the antics, and requiring his team members to interact with the fans. Jackson noted in Newsday, “The Globetrotters had a lot of equity, but not momentum. It was like someone had taken the air out of the ball. It needed to be updated. We took a look at everything within our shell. We had to bring in new ideas.” Those “new ideas” have helped sell the Globetrotters to a generation raised on the high drama of the National Basketball Association—and have revealed the Globetrotters to be a viable family entertainment to the sometimes objectionable NBA.
Mannie Jackson, whose net worth today is estimated to be well into seven figures, was born in a converted railway boxcar that housed 12 members of his extended
At a Glance . . .
Born May 4, 1939, in Illmo, MO; son of Emmett and Margaret Jackson; married, wife’s name Cathy; children: Cassandra, Candace. Education : University of Illinois, B.A., 1960; University of Detroit, M.S., 1968. Avocational interests : Golf.
Member of Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, 1962-64; employee of General Motors, Detroit, Ml, 1964-68; Honeywell Corporation, Minneapolis, MN, joined firm in 1968, became senior vice president; Harlem Globetrotters, Phoenix, AZ, owner and president, 1993—. Founder and board member of Executive Leadership Council, 1986—.
Selected awards: Named one of “40 most powerful and influential black corporate executives by Black Enterprise magazine, 1993.
Addresses: Office —Harlem Globetrotters, 400 Ace Van Bren, Suite 3300, Phoenix, AZ 85004.
family. Rooms were marked off by sheets hung from the ceiling. The boxcar was part of a makeshift neighborhood in Illmo, Missouri, created to house the temporary labor force working on the Cotton Belt Railroad. Jackson lived there with his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles until he was three years old. Then his parents moved to Edwardsville, Illinois, where his father worked in an auto plant and his mother and grandmother cleaned houses. “For some people, it would’ ve been very depressing to have a mom and grandmother who were scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets in white folks’ houses,” Jackson observed in Sports Illustrated. “But it was an education for me. I’ d go into their libraries and look at the books they read. I’ d listen to them talk and watch how they carried themselves. And I’ d watch my mother: how she talked about quality and took pride in what she was doing. I came out of it a better person.” A close-knit and hard-working family helped Jackson to look beyond his impoverished youth. “Somehow, in my family, I learned about setting goals,” he recalled in the Indianapolis Star. “Through racism and financial difficulties and all those things that come along as a kid, I had this dream that translated into setting goals. I have to give a lot of credit to my mom and dad … and basketball.”
Excellence in basketball opened doors for Jackson, and a desire for a good education did the rest. He attended segregated schools as a young child, but he entered a newly-integrated Edwardsville High School in 1952. As a star basketball player, Jackson combined with a group of high achievers including future NBA player Don Ohl and his close friend Governor Vaughn to make Edwardsville a basketball powerhouse. Jackson and Vaughn led Edwardsville to the state championship finals in 1956— the first and only time the school has made the finals. Even though Edwardsville lost to West Rockford 67-65, Jackson was named first team All-State. His basketball skills helped him earn a full scholarship to the University of Illinois, where he was joined by teammate Governor Vaughn.
Jackson and Vaughn were the first African American players to start for the University of Illinois varsity basketball team. In the mid-1950s they did not find Champaign a welcoming town. “There were no barber shops for me, there were no fraternities for me, there was nothing at the university set aside or thought about for a person of color,” Jackson remembered in Sports Illustrated. “I feel I was robbed of four socially developmental years at the university because of the racial situation.” The racism was sometimes evident at basketball games. After one close match, a hostile University of Kentucky audience sang “Bye Bye Blackbird” as Jackson and Vaughn exited the court. “The only way I can relate to those times is that I was young and wasn’ t hardened by life experiences,” Jackson admitted in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “I don’ t know if it hurt my self-esteem.”
Jackson graduated from the University of Illinois in 1960 and traveled to New York to try out for the NBA. Although he became a starter in the National Industrial Basketball League, a semi-pro league, he failed to make the New York Knicks. “There was clearly a quota back then, part of [an NBA] league marketing strategy,” Jackson stated in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “You could have one light-skin black and one dark-skin starting. You could start two at home, three on the road, and four if you were losing. They were worried back then that middle-class whites would not come out and root for people of color.”
An alternative pro team invited Jackson to a tryout: the Harlem Globetrotters. The Globetrotters had been founded in the 1920s because African Americans were barred completely from professional basketball. For decades the team had been touring America and Europe, playing a comic style of basketball that relied on sophisticated ball-handling and a good bit of slapstick as well. The team was owned and run by a Chicago native named Abe Saperstein. It did not take Saperstein long to detect Jackson’s special qualities. “Abe was a good mentor,” Jackson recalled in Newsday. “He took care of me. He paid me well, talked to me, took me around. I was able to see how things were done. I saw how the box office operated, the arena, the whole chain of the operation.” Jackson also got to accompany Saperstein on important visits to heads of state. He met the Pope, Fidel Castro, and Nikita Khruschev, who was then president of the Soviet Union. Saperstein, Jackson concluded in Sports Illustrated, “was probably one of a handful of white adults at that time who I thought cared about me personally. He always moved me to the head of the pack.”
In 1964 Jackson left the Globetrotters and settled in Detroit, where he attended graduate school to study economics while working at General Motors and playing a little semi-pro basketball on weekends. In 1968 he accepted a position in the personnel department at Honeywell, Incorporated, a Minneapolis-based conglomerate best known for its manufacture of thermostats and other controls for energy, environmental, and industrial systems. This aggressive Fortune 500 company proved to be a good arena for Jackson’s skills and ambitions. He told Newsday, “The obsession I had with the game of business was almost like the obsession I had with the game of basketball. It’s competitive and fulfilling. I was consumed with the business world.”
Jackson moved quickly through the ranks at Honeywell, even though he was often the only African American at his executive level. In the 1970s, he became Honeywell’s director of labor relations and then was sent to Boston to merge Honeywell’s computer operations with others it had acquired from General Electric. The 1980s found Jackson managing the Venture Center, where Honeywell acquired, restructured, and built new businesses. Always alert to private opportunities, he also founded and ran a few ventures of his own. Honeywell was so pleased with their energetic young executive that they promoted him to senior vice president. USA Today estimated that in 1992 alone, Jackson secured more than $500 million in contracts for the corporation.
Recognizing that success in business today requires the building of alliances, Jackson helped to found the Executive Leadership Council in 1986, a group of African American corporate executives in a wide array of fields who could network through the Council to forge business ties and to influence their companies’ stands on national policy issues. According to the New York Times, the group “has grown to become an important if largely behind-the-scenes forum for increasing the influence to black executives.” Jackson was president of the Council from 1990 until 1992 and still serves on its board of directors.
By 1993, the Harlem Globetrotters had fallen upon hard times. Once a staple of television and live audience gatherings, the Globetrotters had lost many of their marquee stars of the 1960s and 1970s and had done little to update its routines. As a result, attendance at Globetrotters games declined sharply and the franchise faced possible bankruptcy.
Jackson thought the Globetrotters had the potential to regain their status as an American icon and international entertainment venue. He put together a team of investors—himself providing the majority of the capital—and purchased the franchise for about $6 million in 1993. He moved quickly to re-vamp the Globetrotters to make them more interesting to young viewers who had been raised on the rough-and-tumble NBA. To quote the Orange County Register, “His vision was to make the struggling franchise respectable and credible. To do so he needed entertainers who could play and players who could entertain.”
In his first year as team owner, Jackson released many of the veteran Globetrotters and replaced them with young stars who, like himself, had narrowly missed signing NBA contracts. He added new music, introduced a team mascot named Globie, initiated a post-game autograph session, and attracted sponsorship from the likes of Reebok, Wheaties, and Sony. The Globetrotters suddenly had a web site, a wide variety of team merchandise, and a deal for a major motion picture about their history. “Because this is probably the best-known name in sports anywhere in the world, the groundwork is there,” Jackson told the Los Angeles Business Journal. “What has to be done is it has to be sold.”
Jackson’s tactics seem to have brought new life to the Globetrotters. First and foremost, the team has established itself as more than a novelty act—it has proven it can play serious basketball. On a European tour in 1995 they played 11 games against the Legendary All-Stars—led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—and won ten of the games. That single loss was monumental: the first in more than 20 years and some 8,829 games, dating back to an accidental victory for an opponent in 1971. “Up until the mid-’ 60s, we were always one of the best teams in the world,” Jackson told USA Today. “Now I think we’ re there again. I think we’ re in the top 15, including the NBA. Give us one superstar, a Jordan or a Shaq, like the best NBA teams have, and our team is as good as anybody.”
Comedy is still the Globetrotters’ staple, and some of the favorite old routines—like the water bucket filled with confetti—remain. But Jackson has been careful to highlight the athleticism of the exhibitions and to avoid anything that smacks of buffoonery. “We’ re not clowns,” the owner told Vibe. “These are people with unusual skills cast in a situation comedy where their skills complement the situation to make it humorous. Look at Bill Cosby—you wouldn’ t say his casts were clowns. They were just put in a situation where their acting skills contribute to humor. I don’ t have any clowns out there. I send clowns home.”
With two Globetrotters squads now touring America and Europe every year and a big-budget movie in the works, Jackson’s franchise has returned to high profile and profitability. Jackson himself has retained his ties to Honeywell while getting the team off the ground again, but the increased publicity is consuming more and more of his time. He is quite happy about that. The most influential African American owner in sports at present, he sees his latest business venture as a chance to make money and influence people. “I have the opportunity to impact about two million people a year around the world,” he declared in Sports Illustrated. “I can tell people outside the U.S. about the greatness of this country. I can go into inner-city Philadelphia or St. Louis and give hope to black children. I can have my team give a clinic to white kids in Boise, Idaho, and let them listen to thoughtful people like [players] Showtime Gaffney and Silky Perkins. People can see that these tall black athletes in red-white-and-blue uniforms are serious human beings.”
Jackson concluded: “I think the most significant thing about the Globetrotters being owned by a black man is not just that I’ m African American. It’s that I’ m committed, and I’ m bright, and I’ m hard-working, and I have a vision of where we’ re going.”
No clowns need apply.
Baltimore Sun, January 5, 1996, p. C1.
Bergen Record (New Jersey), October 3, 1996, p. B8.
Indianapolis Star, January 12, 1996, p. G1.
Los Angeles Business Journal, August 21, 1995.
Marketing News, September 23, 1996, p. 34.
Newsday, November 14, 1996, p. 97.
New York Times, March 27, 1994, section 3, p. 8.
Orange County Register, March 16, 1996, p. D7.
Sports Illustrated, November 13, 1995, p. R28.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, January 16, 1994, p. B1.
Tennessean, January 5, 1996, p. D10.
USA Today, May 10, 1993, p. B4; December 29, 1995, p. C6.
Vibe, October 1996, pp. 102-06.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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