Following weeks of suggestions that he would launch a legal battle against the NBA, sources revealed last week that disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling has agreed to allow his wife, Shelly Sterling, to sell the team, linking a plethora of high-profile names to the potential purchase of the professional basketball organization.
ESPN reported that six bidders have already emerged in recent days. Among the leading candidates to buy the Clippers is Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who tried to purchase the Sacramento Kings last year. Ballmer is joined by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who attempted to buy the Memphis Grizzlies in 2012.
Oprah Winfrey also reportedly has an interest in the team, and so does film producer David Geffen. A group led by former NBA player Grant Hill is also considered a strong contender, but Hill's stature may be dwarfed by basketball legend Magic Johnson, who along with billionaire backers the Guggenheim Group purchased the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012.
While there appears to be a healthy number of suitors to choose from, how much of an effect will the new owner have on the future success of the club?
“At the end of the day, the owner is critically important,” Marc Edelman, sports law professor at the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, told International Business Times. “Even if the owners do not select the players directly, the owners choose their presidents, general managers and front office that makes the decisions. Poor decisions by the owner, in terms of who to appoint to these positions, as well as an owner's unwillingness to spend money on players, could substantially affect the ability of the team to perform well.”
It might not be that difficult for the next Clippers’ owner to do a better job than Sterling. Aside from his history of racially insensitive comments and discrimination lawsuits, Sterling did a poor job of improving the on-court product for much of his time with the Clippers. While the team has made the playoffs in three straight seasons, they rarely enjoyed much playoff success before trading for Chris Paul and the emergence of former No. 1 overall draft pick Blake Griffin. In Sterling’s 33 years of ownership, the Clippers have reached the postseason just seven times, never advancing to the Western Conference Finals.
“Sterling has always taken the position of spending as little on player labor as possible, and focusing on maximizing his personal returns,” Edelman said. “If you are an adherent to the George Steinbrenner model of ownership, Donald Sterling would be a terrible owner, because Sterling did less than just about any other owner in the NBA to increase the long-term value of his franchise.”
The Clippers' value has increased exponentially since Sterling purchased them in 1981 for $13.5 million. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently said that bidding for the Clippers could start at $1.5 billion while sports columnist Bill Simmons believed the team could sell for $2 billion, though Edelman believes that's an overstatement.
The Clippers have been mired in controversy since the public audio release of Sterling’s racist rant on April 26. However, having the right owner take over in L.A. could dramatically change the club's fortunes.
The Brooklyn Nets have recently seen a major turn around with their new ownership. Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov took control of the team in 2010, and the organization has become one of the most marketable franchises in the NBA.
“It’s been a wonderful move,” Edelman said. “First, the Nets, for the first time in a very long time, have a clear brand image and brand equity, separate and apart from being the second team in the New York metropolitan area.
"The new arena and the move to Brooklyn have coincided with the rebirth of Brooklyn as a major metropolitan area. The team is developing a fan base separate and apart from those who root for the Knicks.”
The Clippers are in a somewhat similar situation. While the Nets have to share the top media market with the Knicks, the Clippers not only share the No. 2 media market with the highly successful Lakers, but also the same arena, Staples Center.
The Lakers have won 11 titles since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960. In October, Clippers head coach Glenn "Doc" Rivers decided to cover up the Lakers championship banners that hang in Staples Center with massive posters of Clipper players.
The next owner may have plans to hang Clipper title banners, but that may be easier said than done. Only six of the 30 teams in the league have won titles in the past 15 seasons.