Reed determined not to let another team leave Atlanta

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, who has already seen two professional sports franchises leave the city limits during his administration, is determined not to let a third get away.

Reed said Tuesday that the city will play a role in the sale of the Hawks and that he has committed to keep the NBA franchise in Atlanta even if that means anticipated public assistance.

The controlling interest in the Hawks – which Reed revealed to be 50.1 percent – is at stake after co-owner Bruce Levenson announced last week that he will sell his share in the team after he admitted writing a racially-charged email in 2012. The email was discovered after an independent investigation into racist comments made by general manager Danny Ferry during a conference call with ownership and management in June. Ferry has taken an indefinite leave of absence.

The revelations of the words of Levenson and Ferry have set off a firestorm that has engulfed the Hawks franchise. New ownership is inevitable. So is uncertainty about the Hawks future.

With Reed in office, the NHL’s Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg in May 2011 by Levenson and his Atlanta Spirit partners. The city of Atlanta offered no money to keep the team. Just 10 months ago, Reed had to address the bombshell that Major League Baseball’s Braves planned to leave for Cobb County by 2017. The team, coincidentally, broke ground on its new stadium Tuesday.

Reed pledged public money to keep the Hawks in Atlanta. He said the city was prepared to spend between $150 and $200 million to keep the Braves. The sale of Turner Field would provide further assistance.

“We also have an interest in making sure that the new buyer wants to keep the team in the city and in the city,” Reed said. “Let me be clear what that means — in the city and in the city. That means that a prospective owner that receives my support, and I believe the support of the Atlanta City Council, will make a long-term commitment to keep the Atlanta Hawks in the city of Atlanta and will make a long-term commitment not to move the franchise.”

Recent sales of other NBA teams suggest public financial support of the Hawks could determine whether the team stays in Atlanta.

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, successfully fought to keep the Kings in California’s capitol. The team was sold to a group of investors in May 2013 after they pledged not to move the franchise. The Kings will soon play in a new $477 million arena that will be built with $255 million in public money.

There was a different outcome in Seattle. The Supersonics moved from Seattle in 2008 when they failed to find public funding to build a new arena and were relocated to Oklahoma City.

Reed, flanked by area civil and human rights leaders and Hawks Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins, said the city’s interest in the sale centers on the fact it owns Philips Arena and its approximate $124 million debt. Reed said he spoke to at least six prospective buyers, all of whom had the financial ability to buy Levenson’s 24 percent stake. However, with fellow Washington-based co-owners Ed Peskowitz and Todd Foreman also intending to sell, the available percentage is now more than half of the franchise.

Reed said that Atlanta-based ownership of Michael Gearon Jr., Michael Gearson Sr. and Rutherford Seydel currently intend to keep their stake in the team.

Reed, who would not reveal those interested in buying the Hawks, said he expects the sale process to move quickly. The NBA has hired an investment banking firm that will vet all potential buyers. Reed said he is scheduled to meet with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver on Sept. 26.

Ensuring a diverse ownership group is important, Reed said. The mayor was in China last week and spoke to a businessman there interested in buying Levenson’s 24 percent share and said that he wanted at least five percent of the stake to be minority ownership.

Still, Reed said, “My sense is some assistance will be needed from the city of Atlanta in one form or another.”

“Other cities have had to provide some sort of incentives,” Reed said. “I don’t know what ours will be. That is why picking the right owner is going to be key. But what I wasn’t going to do was to have a public conversation and not inform you that that’s a possibility. Because then we would be having a conversation about ‘When did you know? ‘Why didn’t you tell folks that we might have needed to provide assistance?’

“I don’t know right now that we will but if you look at other teams, the cities have provided some kind of assistance. Fortunately, after speaking with our lawyers and our CEO we have pretty good capacity in that regard.”

Wilkins, who will have a statue erected in his honor in March, said he is interested in purchasing a share of the Hawks. He would not say whether he was one of the six prospective buyers.

Wilkins said he is ready for the past week to be put behind the city and the franchise.

“I think the organization has to be represented in the right way,” Wilkins said. “As the mayor has said, enough with what happened before. We have to move forward in how we fix the problem. More importantly, how we regain the confidence of the people.”