Ares’s Ressler to Buy NBA’s Atlanta Hawks for $730 Million

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Brooklyn Nets
Paul Millsap of the Atlanta Hawks goes up for a shot against the Brooklyn Nets during Game One of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals of the NBA Playoffs in Atlanta, Georgia, on April 19, 2015. Photographer: Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

A group led by Ares Management LP’s billionaire co-founder Tony Ressler won the bidding for the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks, the team said Wednesday night.

The sale price was $730 million, according to a person with direct knowledge of the transaction, the second most paid for an NBA team behind former Microsoft Corp. Chief Executive Officer Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers last year. Ressler’s group will also assume about $120 million in arena debt, another person said.

“We are honored and thrilled to have been chosen to become the new stewards of the Hawks,” Ressler said in a team release. “We are incredibly excited by the Hawks’ success and wish them luck in the playoffs.”

The Hawks had the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference this season at 60-22 and have a 2-0 lead against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs after a 96-91 win Wednesday night in Atlanta.

Ressler’s group includes former NBA player Grant Hill, who’ll be chairman, a person familiar with the sale said. Others buying the team include private-equity investor Richard Schnall; Spanx Inc. founder Sara Blakely, and her husband, Jesse Itzler. Ressler will be investing personally in the Hawks, the person said.

Sports consultant Marc Ganis said Ressler, who unsuccessfully bid on the Clippers, will be a “terrific” owner.

“This is a guy who has done his due diligence and is coming in with the intent on running a great franchise,” said Ganis, founder of SportsCorp Ltd. “He wants to run a basketball team because he wants to run a basketball team -- not because he wants to be a real estate or media mogul.”

$825 Million

Forbes in January said the Hawks were worth $825 million, 22nd out of the league’s 30 clubs.

Ganis said the $730 million price tag “makes a great deal of sense.”

“This is not one of the higher-value teams in the NBA,” he said. “It is playing in an older arena in a market that has shown limited support for its sports franchises. The fact that it’s going in the mid-sevens is a testament to the strength of the NBA.”

The sale brings to an end the ownership of a group led by Bruce Levenson, who said he was selling the club after the disclosure of a 2012 e-mail he wrote that he called “offensive,” “inappropriate” and racially insensitive.

‘Inappropriate’ E-Mail

In the e-mail, which Levenson reported to the NBA in July, he examined why the Hawks have had difficulty drawing white season-ticket holders. Levenson said the e-mail “trivialized our fans by making cliched assumptions about their interests (i.e. hip hop vs. country, white vs. black cheerleaders, etc.) and by stereotyping their perceptions of one another (i.e. that white fans might be afraid of our black fans).”

Other bidders included a group led by Oaktree Capital Management LP co-founder and Memphis Grizzlies part-owner Steve Kaplan.

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Inner Circle Sports advised the Hawks on the sale.

The Hawks haven’t been to the NBA Finals since the franchise moved to Atlanta from St. Louis before the 1968-69 season. Prior to this season, the team made the playoffs for seven straight years, never advancing past the second round.

The Hawks averaged 17,412 fans at home this season, 17th in the NBA. In the past 14 seasons, the team never finished higher than 18th in attendance.

Hawks Chief Executive Officer Steve Koonin has been overseeing team operations during the sale, which requires approval from NBA owners.

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