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Tom Clancy puts up $200m to join the costly hunt for sports world kudos

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The best-selling author Tom Clancy (estimated gross income for 1996-97 $50m) is trying to buy the Minnesota Vikings football team. Rupert Cornwell asks why the fabulously rich and famous do such crazy things.

In the United States, Tom Clancy once proclaimed, "there ain't no excuse. You can go out and do anything you damn well please if you try hard enough". Like producing best-selling novels, or buying a National Football League (NFL) football team. Except that he may find the latter an even tougher endeavour than writing The Hunt for Red October.

Earlier this week, it seemed a sure thing: Clancy, already a member of the ownership group of the Baltimore Orioles baseball franchise, had bid $200m (pounds 120m) for the moderately successful Minnesota Vikings, and the offer had been accepted. But Roger Headrick, the Vikings' President of the Vikings has matched the bid, and under NFL rules, in the case of a tie the incumbent wins.

So for Clancy, if he is going to do what he damn well pleases, either a bidding war or a legal war looms. Which raises the question: why do people want to own US football teams?

The answer is: for reasons not dissimilar to those which impel otherwise sane businessmen to invest in what was once known as Fleet Street. Like British newspapers, US sports franchises are rarely profitable; indeed the underlying economics in both cases may politely be described as lunatic.

You pay a fortune (in Clancy's case the record $200m). But to keep the fans happy, you need a winning line-up. So you commit yourself to a team payroll of $73m (the 1998 Baltimore Orioles) or more. To get your money back, you ratchet up ticket costs and tell the local city fathers that unless they build you a state-of-the-art new stadium you will take the team elsewhere.

In the end the prime beneficiaries are not the fans but the players, among whom wages of $2m a year buys you a journeyman at best. For the owners, the thrill are less tangible. Sometimes they amount to a sense of doing one's local duty. More often it is the gratification of becoming a local big-shot, and of being able to use the sports team as a flashy loss-leading brand for a business empire.

The feelings towards the Orioles of Clancy, born and bred a Baltimorean, must be presumed to fall into the first category. Not so some others. Altruism is a not a quality associated with Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of Chicago's baseball White Sox and basketball Bulls, or the Yankees' owner George Steinbrunner in New York. Steinbrunner's main claims to fame are sacking managers like other people shell peanuts, and telling NY City that, failing a spanking new $1bn stadium in lower Manhattan, he will decamp to New Jersey.

Probably the majority of US sports teams are still owned locally, either by individuals or by home-town corporations. Increasingly though, they are in the arms of the media multinationals. Ted Turner of CNN owns the Atlanta sports teams and Blockbuster Video's Wayne Huizenga the Florida Marlins and Panthers in Miami. Not to be outdone, Rupert Murdoch is buying the Los Angeles Dodgers. And there is a logic in it. After all, if you own television channels, why not buy them sports teams whose games they can exclusively broadcast?

Very occasionally, gentler traditions prevail. The Green Bay Packers, for example, are a co-operative owned by their fans. And the system works, for the Packers won football's Super Bowl in 1997 and were runners-up this year. With or without Tom Clancy, the Vikings need a miracle to come close to that in 1999.