Hawks reach agreement to sell NBA team for $850 million

Published 2:54 pm Thursday, April 23, 2015

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks are taking care of business during the NBA playoffs — on and off the court.

While the top-seeded Hawks were playing Brooklyn in an opening-round series Wednesday night, they announced a deal to sell the team for $850 million to a group led by billionaire businessman Antony Ressler.

Atlanta held off the Nets 96-91 to take a 2-0 lead.

The long-term future looks brighter, too.

Ressler, a minority owner of baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers, assembled a group that also includes former NBA star Grant Hill, Spanx founder Sara Blakely and her husband, entrepreneur Jesse Itzler.

“There are a lot of reasons to be excited about this group,” Hawks guard Kyle Korver said after the game.

The agreement came seven months after a racially charged email from co-owner Bruce Levenson led to the team being put on the market.

It caps a remarkable turn for a franchise long plagued by low attendance, rarely mentioned as a championship contender, and run for the past decade by a bickering, disjointed ownership group.

While negotiations went on to sell the team, the Hawks surged to 62-20 this season — a franchise record and 24-win improvement over last season — to earn a top seed for the first time since 1994. They also had a 21 percent increase in attendance, averaging 17,412 per game to set another franchise record.

“I can’t be more excited for this franchise and this city,” said Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, who now works as a team broadcaster and executive.

The deal, which also includes the operating rights to Philips Arena, still must be approved by three-fourths of the NBA’s other 29 owners. That shouldn’t be a problem, given that Ressler is familiar to the NBA after he attempted to buy the Los Angeles Clippers last year.

“We are honored 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, who is African-American, and Blakely, whose undergarment company has made her one of the country’s most influential businesswomen, bring diversity that the current ownership group does not have. Rick Schnall, a partner in the equity investment firm Clayton Dubilier & Rice, also has a stake in the deal.

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 the assumption of debt on the 16-year-old arena.

In September, 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.

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.

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.

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 made it clear to any prospective owners that he wanted the team to remain in the city where it’s been based since moving from St. Louis in 1968.

As for the players, they’re focused on what happens on the court.

“We’ve done a good job all year of putting this story on the backburner,” Korver said. “We’ll continue to do the same.”