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Barbarians at the ticket gate: The PE moguls who own 1/4 of the NBA

With billions of dollars flowing into the league and a global audience that continues to grow, the NBA has never been a bigger business. And private equity bigwigs—who now own seven of the league’s 30 teams—have taken notice.

When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Finals last year, the first man to touch the Larry O’Brien Trophy wasn’t Stephen Curry or Finals MVP Andre Iguodala. It was Joe Lacob, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

Lacob, along with entertainment mogul Peter Gruber, purchased the Warriors for $450 million in 2010. To date, he’s been the most successful of a new breed of NBA owners: Men who made their fortunes in private equity and have now become the public faces of their basketball franchises.

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Joe Lacob

But these private equity moguls aren’t only in it for the fun. Considering the NBA’s booming finances and what appears like near-endless growth ahead for the league, purchasing a professional basketball team is increasingly seen as a sound investment with the possibility for serious returns down the line.

Seven NBA teams are majority owned by men with private equity backgrounds, all of whom bought into the league in the past 18 years. The first was Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman and CEO of Kilmer Von Nostrand, who acquired the Toronto Raptors for a reported $179 million through Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment in 1998. Five years later, a group including Wyc Grousbeck (a former partner at Highland Capital) and Steve Pagliuca (a managing director at Bain Capital) acquired the Boston Celtics for $360 million.

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Tom Gores

Between 2010 and 2011, Lacob purchased the Warriors, a PE conglomerate led by Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris bought the Philadelphia 76ers for $280 million, and Platinum Equity founder Tom Gores acquired the Detroit Pistons for $325 million.

Then, the price for entry into one of the world’s most exclusive clubs began to skyrocket. In 2014, Avenue Capital Group co-founder Marc Lasry and former BlackRock and Lehman Brothers partner Wes Edens paid $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks. Last year, Tony Ressler (a co-founder of both Apollo Global Management and Ares Management) led a consortium that shelled out $730 million for the Atlanta Hawks.

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Marc Lasry

One reason for this influx of PE owners may be the maturity of the industry. As PE has become more entrenched as an asset class, it mints more and more mega-millionaires with cash to burn. But another reason is the maturity of the NBA itself, from a tertiary player in the American sporting landscape into a full-fledged cash-flow juggernaut.

This new species of owner has raised concern among some fans. Will the PE heavyweights do right by the public and their ticket holders, paying what it takes to win? Or will they instead treat the franchises as assets, stripping away excess fat to streamline operations, potentially with adverse effects on the basketball court?

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Tony Ressler

There doesn’t seem to be one answer. Lacob has certainly upheld the public trust during his stewardship in Oakland, considering the Warriors won the championship last June and will pay out more than $93 million in salaries this season, fourth most in the NBA. In Philadelphia, though, Harris and his cohort have drawn serious criticism for approving an unprecedented tank job. Shortly after the new owners took the reins, the 76ers began to offload high-paid, veteran players at an alarming rate, showing a stark preference for low-paid draft picks.

No matter how they run their teams, though, these owners can expect massive paydays when they decide to exit their investments. When Ressler purchased the Hawks last year, its previous group of owners saw a nearly 200% return on their initial investment of $250 million in 2004. When real estate sleazeball Donald Sterling purchased the Los Angeles Clippers in 1982, he paid $12.5 million; he sold the team to Steve Ballmer in 2014 for $2 billion, a 16,000% return.

That’s an extreme example, both in terms of the 30 years Sterling held onto the Clippers and the team’s location in one of the world’s premier cities. But it’s a testament to the increasing desirability of owning an NBA franchise as a way for major PE players to continue filling their coffers.

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    Written by Kevin Dowd

    Kevin Dowd wrote The Weekend Pitch newsletter for PitchBook, covering startups, buyouts and the rest of the private market.

    A native of the Pacific Northwest, he’s an alumnus of the University of Washington with a degree in creative writing and journalism. He enjoys books and basketball and, most especially, books about basketball. He feels uncomfortable writing about himself in the third person.

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