Mikhail Prokhorov met with his New Jersey Nets for the first time on his old home basketball court in Moscow, where the players got a taste of life under the NBA’s first non-American owner.
The billionaire introduced himself to the National Basketball Association team yesterday at his former club CSKA Moscow, the Russian champions and 2008 Euro League winners. Prokhorov pledged to turn the Nets, who had the NBA’s worst record last season, into champions within five years and make them the first basketball club with a global fan base.
“The support he’s shown us thus far, especially after the way we performed last season, and the confidence he has in us” has buoyed the mood at the club, Nets center Brook Lopez said in an interview after the meeting. “He can help us spread the game globally. And he’ll be happy with the product we put on the floor this season.”
Prokhorov, 45, is betting on the NBA’s drive to reach audiences outside North America and on his countrymen’s support for the Nets to help him create a global franchise that one day may sell shares to the public. Basketball may also help carve out more business opportunities in the U.S. as Prokhorov seeks to expand in high technology and build Russia’s first electric car.
The Nets represent a “crossroads of two passions,” sport and business, Prokhorov said in December after he paid U.S. entrepreneur Bruce Ratner $200 million for 80 percent of the NBA club and 45 percent of their planned Barclays Center arena in Brooklyn.
Forbes magazine this year ranked Prokhorov as Russia’s second-richest man, with a $13.4 billion fortune. The 6-foot-7 owner of gold mines, banks and media, helped bankroll CSKA until he sold his stake in Russia’s biggest miner OAO GMK Norilsk Nickel in 2008.
New Coach, New Players
Nets point guard Devin Harris said he wants to learn more about the owner and how he earned his fortune early on in life, Harris said.
“It’s not just that he’s Russian,” Harris said in an interview. “He’s proven to be the best in pretty much anything that he’s touched and he has a feel for the game. Those things are recipes for success.”
Since buying the Nets, Prokhorov has hired Avery Johnson as coach and revamped its 16-man roster with 12 new players. He couldn’t lure NBA Most Valuable Player LeBron James, who joined the Miami Heat as a free agent. A four-way trade that would have landed All-Star Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets was called off.
“The Nets will be much better this season than last,” TNT basketball analyst David Aldridge said in an e-mail. “No one thought they had a realistic chance of getting LeBron, but Prokhorov likes to make a splash.”
The Nets’ pre-season tally of three wins and one loss, after last season’s 12-70 record, isn’t enough to judge the team’s potential, Aldridge said. Still, the club can challenge for the championship in a five-year timeframe should Prokhorov commits resources to lure top players, he said.
Success on the Nets balance sheet will show from 2012, when the team moves from its suburban New Jersey home to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Prokhorov told reporters yesterday before meeting the players.
The planned arena in the heart of Brooklyn is less than 10 miles from Brighton Beach, known as “Little Odessa” for its high concentration of Russian immigrants. The center is next to a public transportation hub and could help the Nets set up a rivalry with the Knicks, currently the NBA’s only New York-based team.
Barclays Plc signed a 20-year, $400 million naming-rights agreement for the arena, which is part of the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards Project residential and commercial property development started by Ratner. Prokhorov has an option to buy a stake in Atlantic Yards.
“Brooklyn was the heart of U.S. immigration,” Prokhorov said. “A lot of people from other countries passed through Brooklyn. They have a lot of relatives in China, in Africa, in Russia, in Europe.”
So far, the Nets’ international appeal is likely to be limited to Russia, said Brett Yormark, head of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, the sales and marketing arm of the Barclays Center. Yormark said he’s in talks with several Russian and U.S. companies to sponsor the Nets. Among those are mobile-telephone companies seeking greater visibility in New York, he said.
“The first step in globalizing our team is in Russia because of the direct connection to ownership,” Yormark said in an interview. “As this team becomes more visible, more high-profile, we can expand into other markets.”
Last week, Stolichnaya vodka, owned by the Moscow-based SPI Group, signed a five-year accord to sponsor the Barclays Center that will give it exclusive branding at the facility and in the arena’s six bars. The deal is worth more than $2 million a year.
Prokhorov is also in talks with the NBA to allow the Nets to play some games in Moscow. As part of the marketing drive in Russia, Nets players including Lopez yesterday opened Adidas AG’s first basketball-focused store in Moscow. The store has a subsection devoted to Nets merchandise, compared with three racks for the other NBA teams.
Officials at Event
“Russia has its own team, it’s the New Jersey Nets,” Prokhorov said, dismissing that his home country can set up a rival basketball league within the next 20 years. “I hope and I’m sure Russians will support the Nets, watch games, visit matches in the U.S. and also buy t-shirts.”
The presence of the Nets in Moscow is already a “major” boost for the sport, said Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who attended the player meeting and clinic. The event was also broadcast on Russian state television.
“If New Jersey Nets are advertised as well as the London soccer club Chelsea in Russia, it will ultimately be” a popular team with the Russians, Ivanov said, referring to billionaire Roman Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea in 2004.
Prokhorov’s approach to business and marketing drive could help the Nets players as much off-court and in their game, said Nets guard Harris.
“We’re all trying to put together our own private entities as well as put together a global icon,” Harris said. “And I’m just curious about how his mind works.”