Joseph Tsai, The Billionaire Co-Founder Of Alibaba, On His New Role As A Sports Investor
In August 2019, Joseph Tsai made headlines when he bought the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets and the team’s home stadium Barclays Center in a record US$2.35 billion (about RM10.2 billion) deal through his sports investment vehicle J Tsai Sports. It was the biggest deal ever for a sports franchise. Tsai already held a 49 per cent stake in the team and bought the remaining 51 per cent. In 2019, for the first time in four years, the team made it to the playoffs.
Tsai is an avid sportsman. A Taiwan native and Canadian citizen, he played high school football and lacrosse at The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey. He went on to play varsity lacrosse at Yale, where he also earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in economics and East Asian studies from Yale College and a Juris Doctor degree from Yale Law School.
His relationship with Jack Ma and the future with Alibaba started in 1999 with little in the way of preamble.
At the time, Tsai was working in Hong Kong as an executive at Swedish investment company Investor AB when a friend urged him to meet a “kind of crazy” guy in Hangzhou. He travelled to China to meet him. Ma had not even incorporated a company yet. At the time, he had little more than a website set up in English and a head full of ideas.
“So I met Jack, and I was fascinated with him as a person. He's very personable and, obviously, extremely charismatic and he was talking about a very big vision. We didn't talk in terms of a business model, profits or anything,” said Tsai in an interview with Forbes in 2014.
While he felt that Ma had a good idea to connect Chinese factories, it was his energy and natural leadership ability that really impressed Joe.
“I thought Jack had a great idea, but I didn't think it was earth-shattering, putting all these companies online,” Joe recalled. “I was fascinated with Jack. What really, really struck me, was that it wasn't just Jack himself, or it was himself with another one or two guys. It was Jack with a group of followers.”
Many of these followers were Jack’s English students.
“The kind of students who learn English in university are engineers and import-export people. I just saw this energy. They were working very hard. They seemed happy. They had that glimmer in their eyes,” said Tsai. “That's what ultimately convinced me.”
Together, Ma, Tsai and the team started building on the website that Ma had set up. The rest is history.
Alibaba is now a household name. Tsai did very well out of that trip to Hangzhou and the relationship that ensued. Forbes has estimated his net worth at $11.3 billion.
And Tsai is now looking to make another splash with his sports endeavours and philanthropy. He might be best known for his work with Alibaba but he has always been vocal about how sports helped him find his footing and overcome challenges when he moved to the US from Taiwan at age 13.
“The culture and language were completely different. We even dressed differently,” said Tsai in an interview with Alizila. “I thought to myself: What can I do to fit into this society, this community? I couldn’t fully express myself in class, so I decided to take on sports.”
A lifelong love for sports followed, and this love has led to his numerous investments in that area.
His stake in the Brooklyn Nets includes the Long Island Nets of the NBA G League and the Nets Gaming Crew of the NBA 2K League. He also owns the New York Liberty of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the San Diego Seals, a professional indoor lacrosse team in the National Lacrosse League (NLL) in the US. He has investments in basketball, soccer and American football.
Last year, the Joe Tsai Foundation pledged RMB500,000 in funding for each of the next three years to 10 school principals who have promoted sports education in their institutions.
And Tsai is also looking at related areas, including esports. In December 2019 he made a US$10 million investment into a minority stake in G2 Esports, one of the best-known esports organisations in the world.
Though Tsai, his wife and three kids now reside in the US, he still spends much time in Hong Kong, where he has combined philanthropy and sports.
In 2014, Joe sponsored the Hong Kong men's lacrosse team for the world championships in Denver.
“I think it's the greatest sport I've known, my kids play it and I'm passionate about it,” he said at the time. “No strings attached. I just love the sport. I just want to put Hong Kong on the map. That’s my contribution to Hong Kong.”
This story originally appeared in Tatler Hong Kong.