This article was scheduled to run tomorrow, but was pushed to today due to the news that Private equity billionaire Antony Ressler, who leads an ownership group that includes former NBA star Grant Hill among others, is progressing on deal to buy Atlanta Hawks for just under $1 billion.
Hawks Coach Mike Budenholzer won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award Tuesday, the latest trophy in a season that has captured the hearts of a city not known for its basketball fandom. Tonight, Coach Bud and the rest of the squad will look to continue their postseason run with a win over the 8th seeded Brooklyn Nets, pushing the first round series to what would likely be an insurmountable 2-0 lead. This season has been nothing short of a waking dream for the Hawks and its fans, and it’s easy, when in a dream, to lose sight of some of the more sobering realities that surround the cold, harsh actuality that is this world we live in.
In this case, the dark clouds hanging over the arena, currently blocked out by the bright lights of playoff basketball and a freshly raised Southeastern Division Championship banner, is the impending sale of the team and its subsequent fate in Philips Arena. Following the deadline for preliminary bids on February 24th, it appears that a group led by current Memphis Grizzlies minority-owner Steve Kaplan and funded in large part by Indonesian billionaires Erick Thohir and Handy Poernomo is the front-runner for the team’s purchase. The sale, projected at around $850 million, could explode to upwards of $1 billion should a late bidding war break out between competing ownership groups. In any case, the deal is expected to be wrapped up by June, around the same time the Hawks could theoretically be in the NBA Finals should the chips fall their way over the next month. The transaction itself though, regardless of how many twists and turns we see before its completion, will merely be a footnote in the relationship between city and team.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has been deeply involved in the sales-process ever since current co-owner Bruce Levenson announced his intention to sell the team following the leak of a racially insensitive email last fall. The city owns the debt on Philips Arena, so Reed’s involvement goes beyond mere due diligence. Back in January, the Mayor met with NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who assured Reed that one of the requirements of the sale would be that the new owners commit to keep the team in Atlanta. That news led to a sigh of relief from concerned fans, who had seen rumors of multiple different Seattle-based groups looking to make a bid on the team and possibly move it across the country to a city that lost its own franchise to Oklahoma City in 2008.
‘Staying in Atlanta’, though, means different things to different people. For despairing Seattle fans, it’s the sound of a door closing. For Kasim Reed, it’s not quite so simple.
The front office and practice facilities at Philips Arena have been called sub-par by prospective owners, and a history of mediocre attendance, (only 17th in the league in 2014/15 despite a banner season) has led to questions as to whether the team is really as close to its core fan base as it could be.
Sources close to Mark Rachesky, chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment, the head of another ownership group heavily in the mix for the team, have said that a purchase by his group could see the Hawks following in the northbound footsteps of the Atlanta Braves. Rachesky, a close associate of current Braves controlling owner John Malone, jumped into the proceedings late in the process, at the urging of Malone. With no ties to Atlanta and having made his money as a distressed-asset investor, Rachesky would only be looking at profit margins as he decides what to do with a newly purchased team should he come out on top in the bidding.
Kasim Reed, a noted sports fan, (and frequent Hawks front row guest) does not want two professional teams leaving the city limits as the defining mark on his legacy. He already had to essentially choose between the Braves and Falcons, and with a dash of deception from Cobb officials and a sprinkling of chicanery from the Braves front office, we now have Suntrust Park sprouting out of the ground some fifteen miles north of the capitol. That very move, ironically, could be what helps keep the Hawks in their ancestral home.
Once the city is able to sell Turner Field, at a price rumored between $150 and $250 million, some of that money will likely be pledged to the Hawks in return for a promise to keep the team in downtown Atlanta. Upgrades and renovations on the city dime would go a long way toward convincing a new owner that the most savvy move is to stay right in the cozy confines of Philips Arena and the city that has finally proven, between 23 sellouts in its last 25 home games and record breaking local tv ratings, that it knows how to cheer if you give it something to cheer about.
For now, Atlanta’s attention is solely focused on what happens on the hardwood. That’s exactly where it should be, coming on the heels of a 60 win season and a number one overall Eastern Conference playoff seed. As we move into the summer, though, look for the interactions between a yet-to-be-named ownership group and city officials to be the top sports story in Atlanta.