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The Harlem Globetrotters introduced most of the world to the game and continue to lead basketball's popularity globally. Much of what fans enjoy about the game today began with the Harlem Globetrotters. The team's message, flair, and appeal knows no boundaries and crosses barriers between cultures, societies, and people. The Harlem Globetrotters are the true champions and pioneers of basketball around the globe.
Harlem Globetrotters International, Inc. is the company behind the world-renowned Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. Multiple teams, each wearing the distinctive red, white, and blue uniforms of the Globetrotters, tour throughout the world, playing nearly 300 games annually. The company is owned and led by Mannie Jackson, a former Harlem Globetrotters player who purchased the team in 1993. During its history, the Globetrotters have played more than 20,000 games in 117 countries.
The nucleus of the first Harlem Globetrotters team was drawn from a basketball team named "Savoy Big Five," formed by Abe Saperstein in 1926. Saperstein, the principal personality behind the singular success of the Harlem Globetrotters for nearly a half-century, organized the Savoy Big Five when he was 24 years old, naming the team after Chicago's Savoy Ballroom. Located above a movie theater, the dance hall featured many of the prominent big bands of the era, patterning itself after the New York establishment of the same name. When the Chicago version of the Savoy began to suffer a decline in business, the owners decided to schedule basketball games in the facility, hoping the attraction would invigorate business. Accordingly, the Savoy's owners agreed to sponsor Saperstein's team. The arrangement lasted for only a short while. The spectacle of a basketball game failed to lure dancers to the Savoy, ending the agreement between Saperstein and the Savoy's owners, but the initial failure did not end Saperstein's involvement in managing and promoting a basketball team. Saperstein began forming a team he intended to take on tour. Several members of the disbanded Savoy Big Five agreed to join Saperstein's new touring team, which made its debut on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois, marking the first game of what would become known as the Harlem Globetrotters.
At the inaugural game in Hinckley, a crowd of 300 spectators gathered, generating a gate receipt of $75. Saperstein's squad competed against a locally formed team, the first of its matches against any foes willing to challenge the touring team. For the first game, Saperstein's players wore uniforms that advertised the team name as "New York." Saperstein later added his own name to the uniforms, creating "Saperstein's New York Globetrotters." After the game in Hinckley, the players loaded up in Saperstein's Model "T" Ford and began touring in several Midwest states.
For roughly its first decade of existence, Saperstein's Globetrotters played its games conventionally, without the antics and orchestrated comedy routines that became the organization's signature style. The team, which became known as the "Harlem New York Globetrotters" in 1930, toured throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa by the beginning of the 1930s, compiling an impressive record against locally organized adversaries. The team played in small markets until it made its debut in its first major city in 1932, when the five-year-old team played in Detroit. The following year, the Globetrotters expanded its touring schedule by moving westward, adding venues in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Idaho. In 1934, the organization played its 1,000th game, finishing the year with 152 wins and two losses, typical of the dominance of Saperstein's squad.
At the end of the 1930s, the Globetrotters reached a turning point in their history. Expansion of the team's playing schedule had extended the geographic reach of the organization to the Pacific Northwest by 1936. In 1939, the team played in its first professional basketball championship tournament, which resulted in a rare loss to the New York Rens. The year also marked perhaps the most defining moment in the Globetrotters' history. During one game in the 1939 season, Saperstein's team exhibited its considerable dominance over an opponent, assuming a 112-5 lead. With no risk of losing the game, the Globetrotters broke free from the conventions of team play and began to show off their skills, titillating the crowd with clownish antics and improvised comedy routines. The audience loved the display, leading Saperstein to inform his players that their extracurricular behavior was permissible, if not encouraged, once they had established a comfortable lead over their opponent. From that night forward, the team gradually developed the entertaining, choreographed routines that became the centerpiece of a Globetrotters show.
The Globetrotters organization flowered during the 1940s, becoming a nationally recognized phenomenon whose lure transcended the attraction of a sports team. The squad played its 2,000th game in 1940, finishing the year with a 159-8 record for the season. The team played in the World Professional Basketball tournament during the year as well, beating the New York Rens in the semifinals and the Chicago Bruins in the finals to capture its first World Basketball Championship. In 1942, the team signed Reece "Goose" Tatum, who would distinguish himself as the organization's first "basketball comedian," originating many of the routines that formed the core of the Globetrotters' portfolio of antics. Other luminaries who would follow in his wake included Meadowlark Lemon and Fred "Curly" Neal. In 1946, a year in which the Globetrotters were featured in LIFE magazine, the team played its 3,000th game and its first game overseas, playing in front of U.S. soldiers in the U.S. Territory of Hawaii.
International Expansion in the 1950s
During the 1950s, the Globetrotters established themselves as the world ambassadors of basketball, becoming a genuine global attraction. In 1950, Saperstein organized his first European tour, scheduling games in Portugal, Switzerland, England, Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy. In 1951, during the team's 25th anniversary, the Globetrotters embarked on a tour of South America, playing before more than 50,000 spectators in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The team returned to Europe as well, drawing an impressive 75,000 fans in Berlin's Olympic Stadium, which stood in sharp contrast to a game played in Italy during the same tour that was organized for only one spectator, Pope Pius XII. The following year, the Globetrotters embarked on the team's first around-the-world tour, playing a 108-game schedule.
The demands of travel and an ever expanding playing schedule forced Saperstein to increase the size of the Globetrotters organization. Annual tours throughout Europe, a demanding North American schedule, and trips to other parts of the world, such as the Soviet Union in 1959, required the formation of additional Globetrotters squads. By the mid-1950s, there were four separate teams on tour, each wearing the distinctive red, white, and blue colors of the Globetrotters organization. On any given day, somewhere in the world, a Globetrotters team was playing in front of an audience, stirring an irrepressible level of excitement and fascination. Increased exposure of the team came not only from its on-court contact with fans worldwide, but also from television, films, and press attention. In 1953, the Globetrotters appeared on national television for the first time, when an estimated 77 percent of U.S. households watched the team on the Ed Sullivan Show. The first film featuring the Globetrotters, produced by Columbia Pictures, was released in 1951, followed by a second film, produced by United Artists, that was shown in more than 11,000 movie theaters in 1953.
The 1950s represented a pivotal decade in many respects, both on the court and off the court. One of the hallmarks of the Globetrotters organization, its official theme song, "Sweet Georgia Brown," achieved such status in 1952. The following year, another signature trait of the Globetrotters organization was adopted, its genesis stemming from the popularity and the prowess of the team. By the early 1950s, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find opponents for the Globetrotters. In 1953, Saperstein turned to a respected name in basketball circles, Louis "Red" Klotz, to organize and coach teams to play against the Globetrotters. Although the Globetrotters would continue to play in tournaments against college all-stars and other teams, the majority of its games would be played against Klotz's teams, which were variously known as the Washington Generals, Boston Shamrocks, Baltimore Rockets, New York Nationals, Atlantic City Seagulls, and New Jersey Reds.
After a decade of progressive change, the Globetrotters entered the 1960s, a decade of transition for the organization. The team celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1966, returning to Hinckley, Illinois, for a game to mark the occasion. After four decades of existence, the team had played 8,945 games, 8,615 of which resulted in a Globetrotters victory. The Globetrotters had played in more than 1,200 cities, visiting 82 countries. The team's 40th anniversary also marked the end of an era. In March, Saperstein died at age 63, leaving the Globetrotters without its founder and owner. Ownership of the team remained held by Saperstein's estate until the following year when a trio of sports figures--Potter Palmer IV, George Gillett, Jr., and John O'Neil--purchased the team.
The change in ownership caused no disruption to the Globetrotters' unwavering success. The organization entered the 1970s drawing record crowds, having attracted more than two million spectators for the first time during its North American tour the year after the new owners acquired the team. In 1970, when the team played its 10,000th game, the Globetrotters recorded another first for a sports team--the debut of its own network television series. The Harlem Globetrotters Show first aired in September 1970, a cartoon series that earned the highest ratings in the history of Saturday morning television and, through syndication, reached audiences in more than 30 countries.
The 1970s saw the Globetrotters' vision of basketball entertainment reach several new locations. In 1978, the team made its first trip to west Africa, playing in Senegal, Ivory Coast, and Gabon, which raised the tally of foreign countries visited to 97. The following year, Deng-Hsiao Ping, the Premier of the People's Republic of China, visited the United States, and requested to meet the Globetrotters. The team fulfilled his request and played an exhibition game, which was broadcast by satellite and watched by 900 million viewers in China. By this point, ownership of the team had changed hands again, an event that occurred in 1976, when Macromedia, Inc., the owner of television and radio stations, billboard advertising properties, and the Ice Capades, acquired the Globetrotters organization.
The 1980s saw the Globetrotters honored with several distinctions. In 1982, the team became the first sports organization to earn a place along Hollywood's "Walk of Fame." In 1985, the year the organization signed its first female player--Olympic Gold Medalist Lynette Woodard--the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Social History erected a permanent display dedicated to the Globetrotters, referring to the team as "An Important Part of American Social History." In 1986, ownership of the team changed hands again when Macromedia sold the team to International Broadcasting Corporation.
New Ownership for the 21st Century
For the Globetrotters, the union with International Broadcasting proved to be ill-fated. The team was not being marketed effectively, perhaps because International Broadcasting was distracted by its own financial problems. In 1993, International Broadcasting declared bankruptcy, putting the Globetrotters organization in an untenable position. At this point, the team found its savior, a corporate executive from Honeywell Inc. named Mannie Jackson. A former collegiate, professional, and Globetrotters player, Jackson made his reputation in the corporate world at Honeywell, the massive industrial control systems company. Jackson was serving as Honeywell's senior vice-president when he formed an investment group and purchased the Globetrotters for $6 million in 1993. Jackson became the Globetrotters' new owner, chairman, and president.
Under Jackson's stewardship, the Globetrotters benefited from an invigorated approach to marketing. In an August 21, 1995 interview with the Los Angeles Business Journal, Jackson explained his reaction upon taking the helm. "Because this is probably the best-known name in sports anywhere in the world," he said, "the groundwork is there. What has to be done is it has to be sold. When I came in there were a lot of problems. It wasn't being marketed."
Jackson presided over the Globetrotters' resurgence. In 1996, the company forged sponsorship agreements with Walt Disney Inc., Walt Disney World of Sports, and Reebok International Ltd. The following year, in November, Jackson's focus on marketing was embodied in the formation of Globetrotters Properties, the parent company's new licensing and merchandising subsidiary responsible for managing the production and marketing of the Globetrotters branded merchandise.
The Globetrotters entered the 21st century as a thriving organization, its status as a sports icon serving the team and its parent company well. In 2001, during the team's 75th anniversary, the Globetrotters played more than 260 games in its North America tour alone. In 2003, ten years after Jackson acquired the Globetrotters, the team registered its 21,000th victory. Further victories were guaranteed in the years ahead, as the itinerant Globetrotters organization looked to spread its blend of basketball and showmanship to audiences throughout the world.
Principal Subsidiaries: Globetrotters Properties.
Principal Competitors: National Basketball Association; National Football League Inc.; World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc.