The outspoken billionaire owner of HDNet, Magnolia Pictures and the Dallas Mavericks is something of a maverick himself—as observers of his sideline rants (and his rumba) are well aware.
Author David Carr Illustration Jeffrey Decoster
MARK CUBAN MAY PREFER T-SHIRTS AND JEANS to flannel suits, and he may run a host of enterprises out of his home office in suburban Dallas—the home is nearly 24,000 square feet, so there’s plenty of room to stretch out—but there’s nothing casual about his approach to work. He chews through hundreds of emails a day, keeps a close watch on the Dallas Mavericks, the NBA team he owns, and regularly crisscrosses the country in search of new business opportunities. But even if he sometimes seems to have the attention span of a gnat, he’s certainly got a bigger wingspan—a net worth of $2.4 billion, according to Forbes.
Born in Pittsburgh to a working-class Jewish family, Cuban, 51, got his start in business selling garbage bags door to door, an enterprise that met with success, as have many other business endeavors that followed, from his first software company, MicroSolutions, which he sold for $6 million in 1990, to Broadcast.com, an online broadcasting platform geared toward sports, which he launched in 1995 and four years later, in a historic bit of market timing, sold to Yahoo! for $5.9 billion.
Sometimes the newly rich feel uncomfortable with wealth, but Cuban got the hang of it pretty quickly, grabbing a slot in the Guinness World Records book by buying his Gulfstream V for $40 million…online. Like a lot of rich guys, he coveted a pro sports franchise of his own, so he bought a majority stake in the Dallas Mavericks from Ross Perot Jr. in 2000 for $285 million. He quickly became the most visible and vocal owner in the NBA, in part through his outlet, blogmaverick. com, on which he opines, settles scores and offers business insights. Rarely at a loss for words, Cuban spoke to Hemispheres via email, his preferred format when dealing with the press. (He types fast and at length, so some of his responses have been edited for space.)
Some observers marvel at his successes, while others find him impossibly smug. Cuban could care less. “When I die,” he says, “I want to come back as me.”
HEMISPHERES: The Mavs have won at least 50 games in each year of your ownership. What lessons did you bring from the executive suite that helped you lead a successful pro sports franchise?
CUBAN: Everything. The skill set is not very different. But most other owners seemed to look at running a basketball team as a unique endeavor. It’s not. In basketball you are competing with every other form of entertainment. So I try to make sure we are always improving our product and making it more affordable.
HEMISPHERES: The team’s former owner, Ross Perot Jr., who remains a minority partner, sued you in May, claiming the Mavericks are being mismanaged and may be insolvent.
CUBAN: We’re fine. I have plenty of liquidity and there are no issues. He is being who he is.
HEMISPHERES: And what about your star power forward Dirk Nowitzki, who just became a free agent. Will he be a Mav next year?
CUBAN: That’s the plan.
HEMISPHERES: When all is said and done, would you rather be known as successful entrepreneur or a successful pro sports owner?
CUBAN: As an entrepreneur who had an impact on several of the industries he got involved with, whether it’s being part of the first company to propel audio and video on the internet and make it a mainstay, changing the distribution economics of film or starting the first all high-definition television network.
HEMISPHERES: You’re describing HDNet. Now that high-def is everywhere, how do you stand out?
CUBAN: High-definition was our differentiator early on. Now it’s about content. HDNet and HDNet Movies are two cutting-edge networks that I program exactly the way I like, with everything from Dan Rather Reports to mixed martial arts. They are the definition of independent networks.
HEMISPHERES: Being on your own can be a challenge, too.
CUBAN: No question that getting carriage can be difficult for an independent programmer. We don’t have a big media company behind us. We can’t require a TV provider to carry us, like the big guys can. Despite that, we have more than 18 million subscriptions in the United States and Canada.
HEMISPHERES: With people dividing their time between TV, web, mobile and so on, which platform do you think stands to lose the most?
CUBAN: Actually, everyone is gaining. The more people have access the more people want. Call it the Starbucks effect. You would think that with all the Starbucks around, they couldn’t all survive and all of their competitors would go out of business. The opposite happened. People bought more coffee than ever before. More access to video, particularly with the simplicity of multitasking using small screens, has increased consumption.
HEMISPHERES: In the movie space, you’ve produced films with Magnolia Pictures, purchased Landmark Theaters and pushed hard for the release of films on-demand at the same time they show up in multiplexes. After some amazing early success, has the going gotten tougher?
CUBAN: It started off far too easy for me. The first movie I greenlit was Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. I said yes to [director] Alex Gibney’s email proposal in about 12 minutes. That went on to be nominated for an Academy Award. Then we did Good Night, and Good Luck, with George Clooney, the next year, which was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Fortunately, I quickly wised up enough to realize that I didn’t have the touch in production to make and sell movies at a profit, but with Magnolia Pictures and Magnolia Home Video and Landmark Theaters working together, we could turn the distribution model for independent film upside down and make money. We decided to release films to DVD, HDNet Movies and theaters at the same time. That model worked okay, but what really worked well was releasing our movies to video-on-demand three to four weeks before the theatrical release, which allows us to generate revenue, build word of mouth, and minimize our marketing costs.
HEMISPHERES: Meanwhile, is it true that you were once a disco dance instructor?
CUBAN: True. My senior year in college, I earned $25 an hour to go to sorority houses and teach them how to dance. Best job I ever had :)
HEMISPHERES: And you relived the magic by competing on Dancing with the Stars in 2007, beating Floyd Mayweather Jr. but getting eliminated in round five.
CUBAN: I loved every minute of it and would do it again in a heartbeat. I got a fair shake on Dancing with the Stars.
HEMISPHERES: You seem to prefer DWTS judges to basketball referees. The NBA has fined you more than $1.6 million for your critiques, chief among them that bad calls favor certain players.
CUBAN: The No. 1 complaint I hear from fans is about officiating, and it was my No. 1 complaint as a fan before I bought the team. So it was natural for me to be inquisitive. All I can tell you is that based on all the data available, the problem does not even out over time.
HEMISPHERES: Even with the fines, you tend to speak your mind. In fact, you blog almost every day. What’s the attraction?
CUBAN: It’s interesting to me. Plus, putting myself out there gives me feedback on the ideas I have and makes me smarter in my businesses. The response to my latest blog post on Wall Street has been off the charts.
HEMISPHERES: What is the one question you wish you’d get asked?
CUBAN: Are you really the same person they show on SportsCenter yelling and screaming all the time? The answer is yes. For 48 minutes, during a game, that’s me. That’s my outlet. The other 23 hours and 12 minutes of that day, I’m pretty laid-back. But that doesn’t make for good TV.
HEMISPHERES: You seem to enjoy yourself.
CUBAN: I’ve lived my entire life not wanting to look back at age 100 wondering why I didn’t do something different and have more fun. Like my dad has told me many times, “Today is the youngest you will ever be. Live like it.” For the record, my dad is 84 years old and plays and parties harder than anyone I know.
DAVID CARR writes about media and culture for The New York Times. He thinks Cuban was robbed on Dancing with the Stars.