By Paul Newberry
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATLANTA _ Seven months after a racially charged email put the Atlanta Hawks on the market, there’s an agreement to sell the NBA team for $850 million.
A group headed by billionaire Antony Ressler, which also includes former NBA star Grant Hill and Spanx founder Sara Blakely, signed off on a deal Wednesday to purchase the team that made a surprising run to the top of the Eastern Conference this season.
The Hawks announced the sale, which also includes the operating rights to Philips Arena, during the first half of their playoff game against the Brooklyn Nets. Atlanta held on for a 96-91 victory and a 2-0 lead in the series.
The deal still must be approved by three-fourths of the NBA’s other 29 owners. That shouldn’t be a problem, given that Ressler is a minority owner of baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers and is familiar to the NBA after he attempted to buy the Los Angeles Clippers last year.
“We are honoured and thrilled to have been chosen to become the new stewards of the Hawks,” said Ressler, who was not at Game 2 but issued a statement through the team. “We respect the NBA’s approval process and, accordingly, can say no more other than we are incredibly excited by the Hawks’ success and wish them luck in the playoffs.”
Hill, a seven-time NBA All-Star who is African-American, and Blakely, whose undergarment company has made her one of the country’s most influential businesswomen, bring diversity to the new ownership group. It also includes Blakely’s husband, entrepreneur Jesse Itzler, and Rick Schnall, a partner in the equity investment firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice.
The sale price was not released. But a person familiar with the deal, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the two sides did not reveal that information, said Ressler’s group would pay $850 million, including debt the team owes.
In September, co-owner Bruce Levenson announced he was selling his stake in the team after writing an email two years earlier in which he complained that the Hawks struggled with attendance because “the black crowd scared away the whites.” It was another blow to the NBA’s reputation, coming on the heels of Donald Sterling’s forced ouster as owner of the Clippers after he was recorded telling his girlfriend not to bring blacks to his team’s games.
Making matters worse for the Hawks, Levenson’s email was uncovered during the team’s internal investigation of general manager Danny Ferry, who made racially derogatory comments about potential free agent signee Luol Deng during a conference call with the ownership group. Ferry went on indefinite leave shortly afterward and hasn’t been with the Hawks all season, his future expected to be decided by the new owner.
Despite the uncertainty over the team’s future, the Hawks set a franchise record by going 60-22 this season and earned a top seed for the first time since 1994. They also had a 21 per cent increase in attendance, averaging 17,412 per game _ the most in team history.
“We’ve done a good job all year of putting this story on the backburner,” guard Kyle Korver said. “We’ll continue to do the same.”
The Hawks’ price falls between two NBA teams sold last year. The Milwaukee Bucks went for $550 million, while Steve Ballmer landed the Clippers for a staggering $2 billion _ an unprecedented figure for a U.S. sports franchise.
Forbes valued the Hawks at $425 million last year, but the sales of the Clippers and Bucks changed the market. With the NBA landing lucrative new television deals, the value of all franchises has skyrocketed.
The 55-year-old Ressler, whose net worth was estimated by Forbes at $1.4 billion, was part of the investment group led by Mark Attanasio that bought the Brewers in 2005.
Based in Los Angeles, Ressler is co-founder of the private equity fund Ares Management. He married actress Jami Gertz in 1987.
Hill’s presence in the group could be good news for Ferry. Both played their college ball at Duke, though not at the same time.
“We are excited to welcome this new ownership group and are deeply gratified by its commitment to the Hawks and the Atlanta community,” said Steve Koonin, the Hawks’ chief executive officer.
The current ownership group, known as Atlanta Spirit, bought the Hawks, the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena for $250 million in 2004.
Four years ago, the Thrashers were hastily sold for $170 million and relocated to Winnipeg as the Jets. When added to the much more lucrative sale of the Hawks, the ownership group will get a huge return on its initial investment even through plenty of bickering and complaints of mismanagement.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has said the city might offer concessions to any new owner to ensure the Hawks commit to remaining in Atlanta for another 30 years. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had told prospective owners that he wants the team to remain in the city where it’s been based since moving from St. Louis in 1968.
“I do want to see the Hawks stay in Atlanta, and we’ve made that clear to the market,” Silver said in January.
AP Sports Writer Charles Odum and freelance writer Amy Jinkner-Lloyd contributed to this report.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963