Mikhail Prokhorov became the Nets owner in 2010.
Mikhail Prokhorov became the Nets owner in 2010. Reuters

A failed bid to prop up the value of the freefalling Russian ruble by increasing interest rates led to whisperings that Russian President Vladimir Putin would enforce capital controls, informal or otherwise, to prevent the nation’s top businessmen from exchanging their rubles for foreign currency. If implemented, this drastic measure would force members of the Russian oligarchy to make a hard choice: either liquidate foreign assets to pay off foreign debts, or sell their domestic assets and break with the Russian economy.

It's a difficult decision that could have a profound effect on ownership stakes in several top international sports franchises held by Russian tycoons, namely Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns a majority stake in the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets; Roman Abramovich, who owns the Chelsea Football Club of the English Premier League; and Alisher Usmanov, a shareholder in the Arsenal Football Club. The sale of any of these franchises could fetch hundreds of millions in dollars or euros, money that would be free from capital controls and shielded from Russia’s economic collapse.

The value of sports franchises has never been higher, and a sale would be a fast, attainable, relatively easy way to enhance liquidity. But none of Russia’s three most recognizable owners of foreign sports teams is likely to take that path, according to Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, D.C. “I don’t think that anybody’s likely to sell, because they are either in such a good place in Russia that they can afford to keep [their teams], or like Prokhorov, they are being squeezed, so then they would want to be more engaged abroad,” he said.

The price per barrel of crude oil dropped from more than $100 in January to approximately $60 this month, a crippling development for a nation that relies heavily on oil exports to support its economy. This lack of diversification, coupled with economic sanctions imposed by Western powers after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and alleged intervention in war-torn eastern Ukraine, caused the Russian ruble to lose as much as 19 percent of its value in a single day last week.

With the ruble’s exchange rate reduced by half, authorities made an emergency decision to raise interest rates from 10.5 to 17 percent last week to encourage Russians to keep their rubles rather than exchange them for foreign currency. When the measure failed to stem the ruble’s descent, many analysts suggested that capital controls were Russia’s only way of halting the complete collapse of their currency.

But such a decision could result in a few problems for Moscow. Russian oligarchs have a huge portion of their liquid assets stashed offshore, making it difficult for government officials to enforce the measures, Aslund said. And capital controls are such a drastic step that they would severely hamper Russia’s reputation in international markets.

Russia’s top businessmen have already felt the crunch of the ruble’s collapse. In the 48 hours after the ruble’s freefall began, Usmanov lost $809 million, Abramovic lost $449.5 million and Prokhorov lost $411.1 million, according to Bloomberg – massive amounts of money by any measure. But even with those losses, all three men are still worth at least $10 billion apiece and maintain holds of major assets separate from the oil industry.

Despite domestic losses, Usmanov remains firmly entrenched in Russia’s metals industry. Abramovic owns a major portion of Evraz, one of Russia’s top four steel companies. Both men have close ties to the Kremlin and to Putin, who has been instrumental in their accrual of money and power, and are still among the world’s richest businessmen.

“They have so many non-transparent advantages that we don’t know of,” Aslund said.

Of the three, Prokhorov is the most likely to attempt to separate himself from Russia’s economy. He’s arguably the most visible of the three oligarchs in the Western business landscape and he has a contentious relationship with Putin, whom he ran against in the 2012 presidential election.

But Prokhorov would benefit more from maintaining ownership of the Nets rather than selling them, Aslund argued. Possession of a majority stake in a prominent American sports franchise helps to legitimize Prokhorov as an international businessman separate from Russia.

“If you take Prokhorov, he’s being squeezed out. He’s likely to stay with his team, because he’s moving his money out. Usmanov and Abramovic, they are doing so well, so they have no reason to sell,” Aslund said.

It’s also a major bargaining chip. Prokhorov invested approximately $225 million in the Nets and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn when he took over the franchise in 2010. The franchise could now fetch a price of about $2.7 billion on the open market, $1.8 billion of which would be commanded by Prokhorov’s majority stake, said Charles Baker, sports and media partner at DLA Piper and head of the firm’s sports mergers and acquisitions practice. That's not a bad anchor for Prokhorov’s international portfolio.

There’s another major deterrent to a break from Putin. Most of Russian’s economic oligarchy achieved its wealth through close partnership and support, public and otherwise, from the Russian government. Without Putin’s protection, a full move into foreign holdings and currency could draw unwanted attention from Western powers into business practices that previously escaped scrutiny, said Allen C. Lynch, a professor of international relations at the University of Virginia.

“They know they got their assets by being on the good side of the government. The problem is that if they break with Putin and find themselves in the West, they also may find themselves subject to investigation about the source of their assets in the West. There are a lot of very uncomfortable choices which this crisis is forcing,” he said.

These circumstances make it highly unlikely that either Prokhorov, Usmanov or Abramovic will sell their sports franchises. That said, it wouldn’t be difficult for any of the three men to sell their stakes in the face of intense economic hardship. A Russian team owner with a need for liquidity could sell a team within “somewhere between 90 to 180 days,” particularly within the United States’ four major sports leagues, said Baker. The Los Angeles Clippers sold to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer earlier this year for a record $2.7 billion mere months after weathering an unprecedented racism scandal involving previous team owner Donald Sterling.

“If you look at the Donald Sterling situation, once the NBA took unilateral action, the team was sold basically in the course of a week. If somebody comes to the table and has the cash, the only obstacle would be league approval,” he said. “When a league wants to move quickly, they’re able to move quickly.”