While the NBA takes a bow for adroitly handling the Donald Sterling fiasco, they might want to take a step back and look at the next steaming pile they’re about to step in.
When he announced Sterling’s “sentence” this afternoon, newly-installed NBA commissioner Adam Silver emphasized that the Clippers owner is being “banned from the league for life,” imposing the NBA equivalent of the nuclear option. Silver also vowed to lobby Sterling’s fellow owners to force him to sell the Clippers, a team he has controlled for more than 30 years.
And here’s where it gets interesting.
Clearly, the NBA is in full damage-control mode. From Mr. Silver’s perspective, the best scenario is a quick sale of the club and a formal end to any ties between the NBA and Donald Sterling. Sensing an opportunity, there will be plenty of individuals–and groups–vying to buy the Clippers. Despite their long history of losing, the franchise now has legitimate stars in players like Chris Paul and Blake Griffin and they play in the nation’s second-largest media market. Forbes puts the value of the Clippers at $500-700 million, quite a return on the $12 million Sterling originally paid for the team.
Who’s on the list of potential buyers? Keep an eye on Guggenheim Partners, the equity firm that provided much of the capital behind the 2012 acquisition of the Los Angeles Dodgers by a group led by NBA icon Magic Johnson. The former Lakers star put up $50 million of his own money, but much of the $2 billion purchase price was financed by Guggenheim and its principal partners.
According to Fortune, Guggenheim (which was founded in 1999 with $5 billion in seed money) now manages a total of $170 billion for investors. Rather spectacular growth during one of the worst economic recessions in our history, so the the folks at Guggenheim clearly know something about investing. Nothing illegal about that, but involvement in the Dodgers deal has attracted the interest of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Why? The Los Angeles Times (and other media outlets) report that disgraced junk bond trader–and convicted felon–Michael Milken has upwards of $800 million invested with the firm.
Mr. Milken, who served two years in federal prison for securities and tax fraud in the early 1990s, already has a lifetime ban–from dealing in securities. He can still manage his own assets, but there have been allegations that Milken may have advised Guggenheim on various deals. The SEC launched a probe of the Milken-Guggenheim relationship last year. So far, no evidence of wrong-doing has emerged, but the investigation is apparently continuing.
Despite that, the sale of the Dodgers to the Johnson/Guggenheim group was quickly approved by Major League Baseball. And given the dynamics of the Clippers situation, the same ownership team could easily–and speedily–acquire the Clippers. After ridding itself of a vile racist, the NBA may get to do business with a guy who has a real rap sheet.
The fire sale of the Clippers could get very, very interesting.
ADDENDUM: Media reports this afternoon (Wednesday) suggest that Oprah Winfrey has an interest in buying the team, along with media mogul David Geffen and Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Both Geffen and Ellison have greater wealth than the former queen of daytime talk, but as a female, minority owner, Ms. Winfrey would be a prohibitive favorite to buy the club.
Still, that doesn’t preclude participation by Guggenheim, or another investment firm. As exhibited in the launch of her cable network, Oprah doesn’t enter a new venture without deep-pocketed partners; most of the start-up costs for OWN were fronted by Discovery Networks, leaving the daytime talk host with relatively less financial exposure. According to Business Week, Discovery may have lost as much as $300 million on the network (which is now turning a modest profit), while Winfrey’s personal losses were put at roughly half that total.