What kind of business are the Nets in?

September, 26, 2011
9/26/11
12:52
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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In a must-read story on Grantland, Malcolm Gladwell uses the Nets as an example of how an NBA team's business role can have almost nothing to do with what's at the crux of the current CBA debate: Basketball revenues.

Gladwell tells the tale of Bruce Ratner's business goals in buying the Nets, which he explains started not with a love of basketball, but with a need to build a stadium to inspire the eminent domain seizure of some particularly valuable land he had his eye on:
Ratner has been vilified -- both fairly and unfairly -- by opponents of the Atlantic Yards project. But let's be clear: What he did has nothing whatsoever to do with basketball. Ratner didn't buy the Nets as a stand-alone commercial enterprise in the hopes that ticket sales and television revenue would exceed players' salaries and administration costs. Ratner was buying eminent domain insurance. Basketball also had very little to do with Ratner's sale of the Nets. Ratner got hit by the recession. Fighting the court challenges to his project took longer than he thought. He became dangerously overextended. His shareholders got restless. He realized had to dump the fancy Frank Gehry design for something more along the lines of a Kleenex box. Prokhorov helped Ratner out by buying a controlling interest in the Nets. But he also paid off some of Ratner's debts, lent him $75 million, picked up some of his debt service, acquired a small stake in the arena, and bought an option on 20 percent of the entire Atlantic Yards project. This wasn't a fire sale of a distressed basketball franchise. It was a general-purpose real estate bailout.

Did Ratner even care that he lost the Nets? Once he won his eminent domain case, the team had served its purpose. He's not a basketball fan. He's a real estate developer. The asset he wanted to hang on to was the arena, and with good reason. According to Ratner, the Barclays Center (the naming right of which, by the way, earned him a cool $400 million) is going to bring in somewhere around $120 million in revenue a year. Operating costs will be $30 million. The mortgage comes to $50 million. That leaves $35 million in profit on Ratner's $350 million up-front investment, for an annual return of 10 percent. "That is pretty good out of the box," Ratner said in a recent interview. "It will increase as time goes on." Not to mention that the rental market in Brooklyn is heating up, the first of Ratner's residential towers is about to break ground, and his company also happens to own two large retail properties directly adjacent to Atlantic Yards, which can only appreciate now that there's a small city going up next door. When David Stern says that the "previous ownership" of the Nets lost "several million dollars" on the sale of the team, he is apparently not counting the profits on the arena, the eminent domain victory, the long-term value of that extra 14 acres, or the appreciation of Ratner's adjoining properties. That is not a lie, exactly. It is an artful misrepresentation. It is like looking at a perfectly respectable kasha knish and pretending it is a ham sandwich.

And let's not forget Mikhail Prokhorov. How does he feel about buying into the financial sinkhole that is professional basketball? The blog NetsDaily recently dug up the following quotation from a 2010 interview Prokhorov did with the Russian business newspaper Vedomosti:

"We have a team, we're building the arena, we've hired professional management, we have the option to buy into another large project, the building of an office center. For me, this is a project with explosive profit potential. The capitalization of the team will be $700 million after we move to Brooklyn. It will earn approximately 30 [million]. And the arena will be worth around $1 billion."

Henry Abbott | email

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