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NBA failure gives private equity a black eye

November 15, 2011, 12:57 AM UTC

Well, there goes the NBA season. And with it goes the notion that private equity is a positive force in professional sports.

The NBA Players Association today said that it will reject the owners’ final proposed collective bargaining agreement and that it will seek dissolution, which basically means a coming legal battle that could threaten not only the 2011-2012 season, but the next season as well. The only remaining hope for fans and those whose businesses rely on the NBA (restaurant owners, vendors, etc.) is that the owners will freak out and cave. Don’t hold your breath.

I know, this isn’t a sports blog. Or a sports business blog. But the NBA is a special case, in that five of its 30 teams are owned by private equity and venture capital investors. You know, the folks who supposedly made millions solving tough business problems and identifying growth opportunities. Here’s the quick rundown:

  • Boston Celtics: Acquired for $380 million in 2002 by a group led by Steve Pagliuca (Bain Capital) and Wyc Grousbeck (Highland Capital Partners). Minority partners on that deal included Glenn Hutchins (Silver Lake Partners), Michael Marks (Riverwood Capital), hedge fund manager Jim Pallotta, David Bonderman (TPG Capital) and Jim Breyer (Accel Partners).
  • Golden State Warriors: Purchased in 2010 for $450 million by venture capitalist Joe Lacob (Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers).
  • Detroit Pistons: Purchased earlier this year for $325 million by Tom Gores and his private equity firm Platinum Equity. Wonder how Platinum is carrying this investment. Pretty sure union disbandment would be a material event.
  • Philadelphia 76ers: Purchased earlier this year for $280 million by Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris. His partners on the deal include David Blitzer of The Blackstone Group and hedge fund manager Art Wrubel.
  • Toronto Raptors: Majority-owned by the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, through a portfolio company that also owns the Toronto Maple Leafs and Air Canada Center.

Conventional wisdom is that the lockout is being driven by owners of money-losing teams in small markets, who are willing to accept the loss of this season if it means a better agreement going forward. So it’s possible that the aforementioned owners are not part of the direct problem, with the possible exception of Ontario Teachers.

But, still, why have the PE folks failed to successfully lead? Why have they been unable to persuade their peers, or the players for that matter, to reach consensus? And if smaller markets really are losing money, why so much reluctance to seriously consider contraction? Pretty sure I regularly hear PE pros talk about short-term cuts to enable long-term growth. Does it not apply here, in what most fans believe has become a watered-down league?

When the Celtics were acquired nine years ago, Steve Pagliuca told me that the goal wasn’t to make money. It was to help preserve a local institution, and help return it to glory. And I believe him, because buying sports teams is usually more about ego and love of the game than it is about business. But shouldn’t PE business acumen still apply here? And if you are unable to bridge the gap between big-market and small-market, between players and owners, then you’re no more valuable as stewards of the game than anyone else who had a couple hundred million burning a hole through their pockets.

Step up. Now. Prove you can do more than introduce creative ticket pricing matrices and new marketing strategies. Or else stop buying NBA teams, so that someone else can be in charge who can put your product (your only real product) back on the court.

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