What the Sale of the Atlanta Hawks Says About the NBA

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While the NBA is not quite at the level of the NFL when it comes to being able to make money anywhere regardless of the on-field quality of play, the league is growing in leaps and bounds financially, and the increased cost of teams (and their relative scarcity) has borne out that story time and time again.

Even the Philadelphia 76ers, openly courting defeat in a way not seen since the Washington Generals, are worth far more than the $280 million price tag it received in 2011. It should come as no surprise that the Atlanta Hawks, the best team in the Eastern Conference and one of the favorites to make a serious run at the 2015 NBA Finals, sold for significantly more than that.

In all, the dark horse franchise will cost new owner Anthony Ressler $850 million, or about $400 million less than his bid for the Los Angeles Clippers. Like the Clippers, the Atlanta sale saw an owner ousted after potentially damaging comments relating to race were made public.

The key difference between Donald Sterling’s saga in Los Angeles and Bruce Levenson’s situation with the Hawks is that Levenson leaked his own emails and put the team up for sale himself, rather than fighting it. Weird? It seemed that way at the time, and it still seems that way now, but luckily it’s all in the past, so we don’t have to worry about it so much.

Instead, we’re content with being bummed out that Dominique Wilkins wasn’t able to deliver on his goal to purchase the team.

Despite that, the Hawks are more or less the definition of a middle-class NBA team. They don’t have the marquee mystique of a New York or Los Angeles squad, but they’re not quite as removed from the sports universe as, say, Orlando. So how does the $850 million compare to the most recent team sales around the league?

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Like we alluded to earlier, Atlanta’s price tag doesn’t come close to the Clippers, which were sold to former Microsoft bigwig Steve Ballmer after the Sterling debacle for $2 billion when all was said and done.

That’s a number that’s almost certainly going to stand for the foreseeable future. After all, when do premier franchises (the expiration date for mocking the Clippers as also-rans probably ended as soon as Lob City got to work in earnest) go up for sale? If you answered “almost never,” you’d be right — the closest we can get is the Brooklyn Nets, which sold for $200 million in 2010, and that was back when they had the decidedly less sexy New Jersey attached to their name.

If Mikhail Prokorov does wind up selling the team, we’ll have a better barometer, but until he does, we don’t think any of the teams in New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles are going to be up for sale any time soon.

The Hawks did sell for more than the last NBA team to change hands: The Milwaukee Bucks were sold just over a year ago for $550 million, but that price may have been depressed at least partially by the fact that the terms of the team’s sale were fairly explicit about keeping the team in Wisconsin.

We imagine that the Seattle contingent would have been considerably more interested in acquiring the team if that wasn’t the case, instead they had to watch as the Kings stayed in Sacramento to the tune of $536 million, which was briefly a record price.

So Atlanta is bigger than Sac Town and Milwaukee, and probably not quite as big as a team from Los Angeles or the greater New York City area, should one of those teams go up for sale. This sounds about right, given what we know about the NBA and its various media markets, but it also shows an actual fiscal example of a mid-level team up for grabs.

In any event, it’s proof that the value of professional basketball is skyrocketing, and with a new television deal on the horizon, there doesn’t look to be an end to it anytime soon.