Could the Hawks Be Sold?
The news hook is that the Spirit has enlisted Goldman Sachs to trudge up some additional minority investors to infuse some cash for extant team owners. Face of the ownership group Michael Gearon Jr. told SBJ's John Lombardo that while the Spirit has no plans to sell the Hawks, the group wouldn't turn down a "crazy price" if someone offered it.
Given the circumstances, a "crazy" offer may not be too far-fetched. If such an offer materializes, it could put the NBA in a tough position.
Again, this is all speculation stemming from Gearon's "if we get a crazy offer" comment. What would a crazy offer be? Clay Bennett and friends bought the Sonics for $350 million in 2006. That didn't include an arena, and Forbes had pegged the franchise's value at $234 million in 2005. Clearly, that's a bit of a crazy offer, yes? Bennett paid a premium to get a team he felt he could move easily. (Which he did.)
The Grizzlies, eternally up for sale by owner Michael Heisley, cannot move easily. There is a massive penalty -- more than $100 million -- to pay if the Grizzlies leave Memphis's FedEx Arena. It is incredibly unlikely the Grizz will move before 2012 at the earliest -- later in the decade would be more feasible. The lease issue and penalty constitute a huge reason ownership groups from Kansas City and Anaheim, San Jose and St. Louis, Seattle and Las Vegas haven't lined up to make a play for the Grizz. That team is nothing like the Sonics, who had no strings to hold them down.
But the Atlanta Spirit group owns its arena. If the Spirit wanted to relocate the Hawks to Calgary, there'd be no lease issue in Atlanta. Sure, it wouldn't be smart -- I mean, they own an arena in a massive market, and arenas are one of the biggest costs pro sports team owners face. And I'm not aware of any great demand for pro basketball in Calgary.
... but I am aware of one in Kansas City, where lo! there is an NBA-ready arena ripe for the filling. Similarly, Steve Ballmer's group of Very Important Men in Seattle could put together a decent plan for a renovated KeyArena at any point -- they have the money. Owners of the Pond in Anaheim have been hunting for an NBA team to join the NHL Ducks for years now, recently making public overture to the Maloofs, owners of the Kings. Is it so ridiculous to imagine a prospector from one of these towns making a big Bennettian offer to the Spirit? How much would do the trick?
The group of owners would either leave the arena in local hands, or take it and spin it off. It'd be terrible to see the Hawks leave, even if crowds remain less than buoyant and if local support is limited. Tomes have been written about Atlanta's pro sports fandom, and I don't aim to investigate that now. All I know is that NBA relocation is all about opportunity, and by leaving open the possibility that the Spirit can be bought out, the owners of the Hawks have put on neon top hats and tin foil suits. This is an opportunity for some NBA-hungry city, and I imagine we haven't heard the last of it.
(As to the tough position the NBA would be in if such an offer materialized: the precedent set by the Sonics move was that if cities don't help foot the bill for arenas, teams will move, no matter how long they have been a part of the community. The Hawks have a fine arena in Atlanta. A move couldn't be pegged to a lack of local financial support ... although I imagine the argument would be tied to Atlanta's lack of fan support. It'd be a trickier argument from an economic standpoint, though.)