Seattle Basketball Fans Lose as L.A. Gets Ballmer’s $2 Billion

One group not cheering Steve Ballmer’s record $2 billion purchase of the Los Angeles Clippers: basketball fans back in Seattle.

Ballmer, the former chief executive officer of Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp., was part of a group that had been trying to return a National Basketball Association team to Seattle. The partners reached an agreement to buy the Sacramento Kings last year, only to have the NBA reject a relocation of the team.

Ballmer has said he wouldn’t move the Clippers from the second-largest U.S. media market because it would hurt the team’s value. Without the billionaire’s money, Seattle may have a more difficult time securing a team, said David Kahn, former president of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“They lost their owner, and the price just went way up,” Kahn said. “The value proposition just changed.”

Chris Hansen, the hedge-fund manager who was leading the effort to restore a Seattle team, said he and his remaining partners remain committed to the effort.

“The environmental review process for the Seattle arena is nearing completion and we will soon be in a strong position to attract a franchise back to the Emerald City,” he said in a statement. Hansen also congratulated Ballmer, saying, “Steve’s passion for basketball and commitment to the NBA will make him a great owner and strong asset for the league.”

In recent months, Hansen had sent a string of consoling messages to fans through a Twitter account created with his investment partners.

“Dream nowhere near over,” the group said May 15. “We’re not going anywhere,” another post said that day. In April, as the NBA playoffs began, the group wrote, “Know this is a tough time of year for Sonics fans.”

Oklahoma Move

The team that used to be the Seattle SuperSonics, now the Oklahoma City Thunder since moving there in 2008, has reached the Western Conference finals. The Sonics, in Seattle for 41 years, moved after a fight that led to a city lawsuit and a bitter fan documentary called “Sonicsgate.”

Ballmer, 58, outbid at least four other suitors for the Clippers, put up for sale after audio of owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks prompted the NBA to ban him.

Brian Robinson, founder of a fan group called Save Our Sonics, said he doesn’t blame Ballmer for taking the opportunity to buy a great young team, featuring All-Stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. It might help to have Ballmer and another former Microsoft executive -- Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trail Blazers -- pressing Seattle’s case as owners, he said.

‘Rabid Fans’

“The region’s rabid fans and affluent corporate community are a bigger draw for the NBA than any one owner,” he said.

Hansen began trying to return a team to Seattle several years ago, acquiring land south of downtown for an arena and assembling investment partners including Ballmer and department store scions Peter and Erik Nordstrom.

After reaching a deal for the Kings last year, Hansen’s group promoted sketches of an arena topped by a gleaming cylinder resembling a jet turbine. The city and county planned to back $200 million of the $490 million arena cost. Hansen said he had requests for 44,000 season tickets, more than double the arena’s capacity.

The wealth of Hansen, founder of San Francisco-based Valiant Capital, doesn’t approach Ballmer’s. In a memorandum of understanding to develop the arena reached with Seattle’s city council, Hansen agreed to an audit of his finances to ensure his wealth remains above $300 million.

Ballmer, with a fortune of $18.9 billion, is the 39th-richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.