Hawks ride wave of soaring team values toward sale

On a recent episode of the “Forbes SportsMoney” TV show, panelists debated the likely sales price of the Hawks.

“I’m going to say it’s going to be under $900 million,” Forbes’ Mike Ozanian said.

“I’ll take the over with you on that,” countered New York sports lawyer Chuck Baker, who represents the Hawks’ current owners.

The mere mention of a price anywhere in the vicinity of $900 million speaks volumes about the soaring valuations of pro sports franchises — particularly given the Hawks ownership group’s troubled tenure and the team’s history of poor attendance.

With most experts expecting the Hawks — officially for sale since January — to fetch between $800 million and $1 billion, this much seems clear: Bruce Levenson, Ed Peskowitz, Michael Gearon Jr. and other members of the group formerly known as Atlanta Spirit will make an extraordinary return on their 2004 purchase.

“It could easily be eight times what they paid,” said Bernie Mullin, a former Hawks CEO and now chairman of Atlanta-based sports marketing firm The Aspire Group. “Does it shock me? Yes, pre-L.A. Clippers. No, post-L.A. Clippers.”

Mullin was referring to a watershed event in NBA franchise sales: former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s purchase of the Clippers last August for a staggering $2 billion.

That was almost four times the previous highest price paid for an NBA franchise, $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks earlier last year, and has had a significant impact on other teams’ valuations.

When the Spirit group bought the Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena operating rights in 2004, seller Time Warner announced the total purchase price as $250 million. But it later was revealed in legal proceedings that after factoring out arena debt and making other adjustments, the actual price for the two teams was $96 million.

“It’s going to turn out to be an incredible investment for those guys,” said Mullin, an NBA senior vice president before serving as president and CEO of the Hawks and Thrashers from 2004-08.

Time Warner sold the teams at a fire-sale price to shed their operating losses, which the company said topped $40 million annually at the time.

The teams continued to lose money after the Spirit group purchased them, according to court documents — especially the Thrashers before the hockey team was sold for $110 million in 2011 to a group that moved it to Winnipeg. But new TV deals make it likely the Hawks will be handsomely profitable going forward.

The Hawks, put up for sale after disclosure of racially offensive remarks made in an internal email by controlling owner Levenson, are the first NBA team to go on the market since Ballmer’s purchase of the Clippers.

Multiple bidders are interested in the Hawks, although only preliminary non-binding bids have been received thus far. Among those believed to be in the running are New York investment-firm founder Mark Rachesky, Los Angeles private equity executive/Memphis Grizzlies minority owner Steve Kaplan, and others. Some bidders are expected to include local investors in their groups.

Bidders, as well as the current owners, are prevented by non-disclosure agreements from commenting publicly on the process.

Advocating for the Hawks’ value on the YES Network’s Forbes sports-business show in January, lawyer Baker said: “There’s a scarcity value in the NBA. The NBA is an exceedingly well-run league (with) very stable long-term growth prospects. When you buy a team, you’re buying a 30th of that league; you’re not just buying a team itself.”

He called the Hawks “a very attractive franchise” with “tremendous opportunity” and an “outstanding” local TV deal. He added: “The beauty of Atlanta that people don’t think about is it’s three hours (or less) from many major cities. … So it makes it very easy for a prospective owner to hop on a plane, get to Atlanta, get back in time.”

Baker, a partner at law firm DLA Piper, didn’t respond to an interview request for this article.

While the Clippers’ price was inflated by the lucrative Los Angeles market, new national and local TV deals have sharply increased the value of other NBA franchises, experts say.

The Hawks’ revenue is projected to top $200 million in the 2016-17 season, up from about $140 million last year, largely because of the TV deals. If so, a valuation of $800 million-plus is plausible, given that NBA teams often price at a multiple of around four times future annual revenue.

And, post-Clippers sale, bidders could extend the multiple, said William Sutton, professor and director of the sport-and-entertainment management program at the University of South Florida.

“I don’t know if it’s quite as rational as it was,” Sutton said.

The NBA last year signed nine-year national TV deals with ESPN and Turner Broadcasting that will begin in 2016-17 and almost triple the league’s average annual rights fees to $2.6 billion, or more than $80 million per team. And the Hawks’ new local TV deal with SportSouth reportedly increases the team’s annual rights fee from about $13 million to more than $30 million with further escalation in future years.

The Hawks’ stellar play and improved attendance this season make a good backdrop for selling the team, but are far less important than the TV deals in driving valuation.

“Sports is the only appointment viewing left on television,” Sutton said. “People still want to watch sporting events live. You see all these networks looking for content. You have a bidding war every time the contract comes up.”

Greg Maffei, CEO of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, told Wall Street analysts last week that he thinks sports rights fees “are going to continue to increase.”

Sutton said the NBA still has much room to grow media, sponsorship and merchandise revenue in China, India and elsewhere around the globe.

By buying an NBA team, he said, “you’re joining an exclusive club with a lot of upside.”

For example, the NBA last month signed a five-year deal worth an average of at least $100 million per year with a Chinese Internet company to carry games and other digital content. That deal will mean more than $3 million in annual revenue per team.

Mullin cited another reason for soaring franchise values across sports: “Supply and demand. There are only 30 NBA teams, 32 NFL teams … and so many wealthy people and so much cash sitting on the sidelines worldwide. … For these wealthy guys, these hedge fund guys, sports is a really good investment. And it’s fun.”

The Los Angeles Dodgers sold for an MLB-record $2 billion in 2012 and the Buffalo Bills for an NFL-record $1.4 billion last year. Imagine the numbers if, say, the New York Yankees or Dallas Cowboys were to go on the market in such an environment.

“The prices just keep going up and up and up,” Mullin said.