Hawks buyer Ressler invests passion in basketball


Remaining steps before the Tony Ressler-led group will own the Hawks:

  • The NBA Board of Governors must approve the transaction by a 75-percent vote after the league vets all aspects of the deal. The time required for this process varies widely.
  • Final sales contracts must be executed between Ressler's group and the Hawks' current ownership group.

He tried to buy two teams in Los Angeles, first baseball’s Dodgers and then basketball’s Clippers. He bought a small stake in a team in Milwaukee, baseball’s Brewers.

And now Tony Ressler — a Los Angeles-based billionaire who by all accounts is an avid sports fan with a preference for basketball — has a deal in place to buy a team in Atlanta, the Hawks.

“He’ll be passionate,” said Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio, who has known Ressler since he was in high school. “I can say, just from my perch in baseball, it’s really good for teams and communities where the owner is passionate about the team.”

Guy Starkman, chief executive of the Jerry’s Famous Deli restaurant chain in southern California, knows all about Ressler’s passion for basketball. He has seen it for more than 20 years in regular Sunday pick-up games on an outdoor court at Ressler’s brother’s house.

“If Tony is in L.A., he plays,” Starkman said. “What he lacks in skill, he can substitute with physicality and brainpower. He can out-argue you when he believes he hasn’t committed a foul. He’s a very good negotiator.”

Ressler leads the group that last week agreed to buy the Hawks and Philips Arena operating rights for about $730 million. Provided the deal gets NBA approval and closes, Ressler, 55, will be the controlling owner.

Forbes magazine ranks him the 418th richest person in the United States, pegging his net worth at $1.43 billion after last year’s initial public offering of stock in the asset management firm he co-founded in 1997 and still heads, Ares Management.

The firm, which has about $86 billion in assets under management, has acquired dozens of companies over the years. Its current holdings run the gamut from luxury retailer Neiman Marcus to discounter 99 Cents Only Stores. Its portfolio includes stakes in businesses as diverse as home-building, tires, veterinary hospitals, bedding products, paint, and dental practice management.

Ressler declined through a spokesman to be interviewed for this article because of the NBA’s policy against prospective owners commenting publicly until their purchases are approved by the league.

But it’s clear he has known for a long time what he wanted to buy with some of his personal fortune: a professional sports franchise.

“I think some of the reason may be that he has seen, up close, how much fun I have had owning the Brewers,” said Attanasio, who also lives in Los Angeles.

In 2012, Ressler led a group that made a bid to buy the Dodgers, but lost out when the team was sold for an MLB-record $2.15 billion to a competing group fronted by former Braves and Hawks president Stan Kasten and funded by investment firm Guggenheim Partners.

Last year, Ressler made a $1.2 billion bid to buy the Clippers, but again lost out when former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer paid $2 billion, almost quadruple the highest price for any NBA franchise previously.

Ressler also showed interest in other NBA teams when they were on the market in recent years.

His love of basketball notwithstanding, those who know him don’t think for a second that Ressler would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the Hawks if he didn’t consider the franchise a strong investment with potential for generating a handsome return.

“I think he’s buying it more out of passion, but sports has been a very good asset play for a long time,” Attanasio said. “Tony is disciplined, so I don’t think he’s buying this to lose money.

“I think it shows his belief in the NBA and the city of Atlanta. He mentioned to me he thought there were a lot of Atlanta-based opportunities around the arena and whatnot. If he didn’t have a stellar outlook for the NBA, and/or if the city wasn’t right, I don’t think he would do it.”

Despite Ressler’s small stake in the Brewers and his bid for the Dodgers, he always has seemed to favor the NBA, said Peter Guber, a veteran Hollywood executive and a co-owner of the Dodgers and Golden State Warriors.

“Basketball holds a particular charm for him,” said Guber, who knows Ressler well. “He has told me he likes the dynamics of basketball, he likes the tempo of it, he likes the fact it attracts a diverse audience and a young crowd. … He knows the league, knows other owners.”

In the Hawks, Guber said, Ressler “is coming into a team that already is very solid and successful and has a really good coach. He has an advantage of choosing wisely.”

Kasten, now the Dodgers’ CEO, isn’t surprised a Los Angeles resident would want to own a team in Atlanta. Teams commonly are owned by out-of-towners, in part because buyers have to go where franchises are available.

“It’s about owning an NBA team. They’re rare,” Kasten said. “If you can afford it, some people find a lot of enjoyment out of owning sports franchises.”

Chicago-based sports business consultant Marc Ganis put it this way: “No one ever cheered Treasury bills earning interest.”

Judy Burton worked with Ressler in a field far removed from the cheers of pro sports: She was chief executive of a charter public schools organization in Los Angeles, chaired by Ressler, serving low-income communities.

“He’s the kind of leader who always does his homework,” Burton said. “So if I send out board-meeting materials, he’s the one who’s going to have read them and studied them and have questions and ideas to help us move forward.”

Ressler, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., has degrees from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He began his career in the 1980s at investment house Drexel Burnham Lambert, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 1990, the year after the former head of its junk bond division, Michael Milken, was indicted for securities violations.

In 1990, Ressler co-founded asset-management firm Apollo Management with his brother-in-law Leon Black, now also a billionaire. Seven years later, Ressler started Ares Management, which has grown to about 750 employees in the United States, Europe and Asia. The firm focuses on alternative investments in four categories: private equity, direct lending, tradable credit and real estate.

“At the end of the day, we are really good evaluators of both risk and reward,” Ressler said in a video posted recently on Ares’ website. “… On any given day we are evaluating 1,500 distinct investments or companies or properties.”

Ressler moves in a world that overlaps Hollywood and Wall Street.

His wife of 26 years is actress Jami Gertz, whose career has included roles in movies “Sixteen Candles” (1984), “The Lost Boys” (1987) and “Twister” (1996) and, in recent years, TV shows “Entourage” (HBO) and “The Neighbors” (ABC).

His friends include Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who wrote in an email that Ressler is “a great businessman who also happens to have a big heart.”

Yet there is still room in Ressler’s high-powered world for pickup basketball.

“I feel as comfortable talking to Tony as I do talking to a high school buddy of mine who has nowhere near the accomplishment or status in the world that Tony would have,” said Starkman, whose deli chain has five locations in southern California. “He will definitely be a guy that when he is in the arena, he will be talking to the fans, listening to what they have to say. He has been a huge basketball fan as long as I have known him.”

Ressler long has been a regular at Lakers games in Staples Center, where he has seventh-row, center-court season tickets. His wife and three sons often are with him at games.

Until Ressler speaks publicly about the Hawks, his plans for the team will remain largely unknown. But his wife provided a bit of insight into Ressler’s approach to sports during a 2012 appearance on ABC’s talk show “The View.”

“I now go to bed on ESPN’s top 10 plays of the day,” Gertz said. “I used to get angry at my husband when we would watch the game and then we’d have to watch ESPN right after the game. I was, like, ‘We just watched the game. Why do I have to watch the highlights?’ But now I get it: You miss the nuances of what happened.”