NBA Franchise For Sale. Cost? More Than You Think

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Paying for live sports TV

Jan. 7, 201502:35

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The Atlanta Hawks are officially for sale, making them the first NBA team to hit the market since Microsoft ex-CEO Steve Ballmer put down a record $2 billion to grab the Los Angeles Clippers. And that has a lot of people wondering: After a year of sky-high valuations, what will a lower-rung team like the Hawks go for?

Would you believe close to $1 billion?

In September, Hawks controlling owner Bruce Levenson announced he was selling his interest in the team after public pressure following racially "inappropriate and offensive" remarks he made over email. That came just weeks after Levenson had loudly called for embattled Clippers owner Donald Sterling to resign.

According to a report in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, all three ownership groups that hold stakes in the Hawks have agreed to sell their portion of the franchise, and have hired Goldman Sachs and Inner Circle Sports to help them do so. The Atlanta Hawks declined a CNBC request for comment.

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Paying for live sports TV

Jan. 7, 201502:35

In 2013, tech titan Vivek Ranadive purchased the Sacramento Kings for $534 million. Months later, the Milwaukee Bucks were picked up for $550 million by New York investors Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens.

"Ballmer way overbid for the Clippers, but his purchase has an emotional impact on the market," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. The standard revenue multiple used to determine sales prices in the NBA is about 4.2, Zimbalist said, and he expects the Hawks to sell in the $700 million-$750 million range, based on an estimate of future revenue at about $180 million annually.

"The Ballmer deal is going to increase the value of teams across the board, and the TV deal that was struck is going to start putting more money in the pockets of ownership."

Hawks purchase price estimates:$900 million - $1 billion: Unnamed NBA co-owner$900 million - $1 billion: Scott Rosner, Wharton$750 million - $1 billion: Patrick Rishe, Sportsimpacts$700 million - $750 million: Andrew Zimbalist, Smith College

A bauble for the rich and famous

Forbes estimates the value of the Hawks to be around $425 million, putting the team 27th out of 30 NBA franchises. But for the rich and famous, the opportunity to own an NBA team doesn't come around every day.

"The Ballmer deal is going to increase the value of teams across the board, and the TV deal that was struck is going to start putting more money in the pockets of ownership," said Patrick Rishe, CEO of sports market research firm Sportsimpacts.

In October, the NBA signed a $2.7 billion-per-season media deal with Walt Disney's ESPN/ABC and Time Warner's TNT which is expected to pay out to the front office in 2016.

Citing those two factors, Rishe said he expects the Hawks to sell in the $750 million to $1 billion range. An owner of a rival NBA team who requested anonymity told CNBC that he believes the team will sell for just about $900 million to $1 billion—putting it at a reasonable six-times sales multiple.

Sports industry expert Scott Rosner, who teaches at the Wharton School, also said he believes the team will sell for about $1 billion. He pointed out that without Ballmer's skyrocketing Clippers purchase, the Hawks would probably go for $750 million-$800 million. But he thinks a $900 million price is justifiable by economics alone. The NBA's national TV deal was completed after the Bucks purchase, at a price much higher than people forecast.

Not pure economics

Moreover, some buyers with ties to the Atlanta area may not be focused on purely rational economics. Potential buyers that have been floated publicly and privately include:

  • Chris Webber, former NBA player, current TNT analyst and Atlanta resident
  • Dominique Wilkins, Hawks legend
  • Doug Davis, media and entertainment lawyer, who has represented NBA start Metta World Peace and Atlanta-rapper Lil Jon

The Hawks were purchased from Time Warner in 2004 for $208 million by a group of businessmen who formed Atlanta Spirit LLC. The team has made the playoffs for six straight seasons and has about $150 million in revenue, but has never won a championship.

Ticket prices in Atlanta averaged in the bottom quarter of the league at $35.26 each, according to the Team Marketing Report. The average price of a Los Angeles Clippers ticket is $78.43.

Another consideration is the long-term local cable deal the Hawks signed with SportSouth. The $30 million-per-year deal could prove attractive for potential buyers.

Factors not in the Hawks' favor include Philips Arena. The sale will reportedly include a remaining $124 million in debt on the facility—a home court that the team does not own. Unlike the Bucks, however, the Hawks don't need a new building.

The Atlanta market itself also doesn't work in the team's favor.

"Atlanta is not a great sports market" said Rishe, who added that people there "don't embrace the local teams, and that's not something that's going to change with new ownership."