Buy the Hawks. Save the NBA.
A baseball legend and two former basketball players are among the many people interested in buying the embattled Atlanta Hawks. After a string of embarrassments over race, that could help bridge the league's divides -- even if it raises other problems.
These prospective buyers are particularly interesting given how the Hawks hit the market in the first place. Back in September, Hawks owner Bruce Levenson announced he was selling after “self-reporting” racist remarks about the team’s fan base he made in a 2012 email to Danny Ferry, his general manager. (Ferry later took an indefinite leave of absence after the leak of an audio recording of him using overtly racist language to describe free agent Luol Deng.)
The timing of Levenson's announcement was notable, if not a bit suspicious, coming just a few months after the racism scandal involving former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. The expected league-wide bump in franchise values from Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase of the team has caused some to speculate that Levenson’s “self-reporting” of a two-year-old email was economic opportunism, not some sudden impetus to do the right thing. There’s never been a better time to sell high in the NBA.
Opportunism or not, some good could still come from Levenson's decision. ESPN’s Marc Stein reports that Hank Aaron has joined a group led by Oaktree Capital Group co-founder Steve Kaplan, Indonesian billionaires Erick Thohir and Handy Purnomo Soetedjo, and former agent Jason Levien, all of whom have NBA ties. Kaplan is a minority owner and vice chairman of the Memphis Grizzlies, while Thohir, Soetedjo, and Levien formerly had stakes in the Philadelphia 76ers. The latter group also co-owns MLS team D.C. United.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg News reported last week that a group including former NBA players Grant Hill and Junior Bridgeman are exploring a purchase as well. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, a slew of others have also expressed interest, including former NBA stars Dikembe Mutombo and Chris Webber.
Having prominent, black former players like Aaron and Hill join the league’s ownership ranks could help lessen the racial gap highlighted by the Hawks and Clippers controversies. As ESPN’s J.A. Adande wrote in response to Levenson’s announcement back in September, with blacks comprising 75 percent of the NBA’s labor force and 45 percent of the league’s television audience, it makes perfect sense to bring in owners who can relate and appeal to basketball’s core constituency. Aaron could be a particularly impactful owner, given his history as a civil rights activist and his legacy in helping to desegregate sports.
Furthermore, the league is gearing up to face another round of heated collective bargaining in 2017, and having executives who used to be labor could go a long way in smoothing out those negotiations -- not to mention cutting through the usual obfuscation of facts owners tend to spout. It would certainly help to have more owners who value players, having been players themselves, without an inflated sense of their contributions as executives to the core product.
It’s hard to imagine Aaron crying poor, for instance; he played most of his career under the reserve-clause system in baseball and didn’t reach the six-figure salary mark until his 17th season. He knows as well as anybody the importance of a strong players’ union and fair labor negotiations.
That said, the groups with Aaron and Hill should give us some pause. As former Minnesota Timberwolves executive David Kahn has noted, fractured ownership groups are often recipes for disaster for NBA teams. The Hawks know this all too well; Levenson’s group, Atlanta Spirit, was embroiled in five years of litigation centered around squabbles among individual owners. And I’d be wary of any potential ownership group that includes current or former Grizzlies management. Things haven’t exactly been running smoothly in Memphis.
Still, the reality is that if we want more black representation and former players among NBA ownership, they’re likely going to have to be part of a consortium. Even wealthy former players aren’t wealthy enough to own a team on their own, and as Adande noted, the dearth of African-Americans among the country’s super-rich doesn’t bode well for the prospect of singular black ownership anytime soon. Some infighting among management might well have to be the price of getting basketball’s executive class to look more like its labor and consumer base.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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