The Los Angeles Clippers are not on the market just yet, but the prospect has the city, and the monied people who like to own Big Things, buzzing about who might become the next boss of one of pro basketball’s most star-crossed, and now promising, franchises.
The television mics had not even gone cold after NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s announcement Tuesday that he would try to force Donald Sterling to sell the franchise when names of prospective suitors surfaced: the owner of the Dodgers (Guggenheim Partners), the man dubbed the city’s richest (Patrick Soon-Shiong), the pro boxer (Floyd Mayweather Jr.) and his “billionaire guy” pals, the music impresario (Sean “Diddy” Combs) and the power troika of Larry Ellison, David Geffen and Oprah Winfrey — they of software dominance, entertainment hegemony and cultural clout.
None of these potential buyers, and scads of other Twitter musers and true contenders, can expect the Clippers to drop on to their balance sheet any time soon. Sterling has not responded to Tuesday’s bombshell, when the league he has belonged to for 33 years said it had banned him for life, fined him $2.5 million and would try to force him to sell his team.
If there is a new Clippers owner, it will be an individual or group that can bring a bucket-load of money. Sports economists say the team could sell for as much as $1 billion.
A successful bid may also take something else, said Steve Soboroff, a businessman and civic leader. He helped persuade Sterling to build a state-of-the-art training facility at the Playa Vista complex where Soboroff was chief executive.
A new owner, Soboroff said, “will be the one with the most money and also the best shrink, who can figure out how to deal with [Sterling’s] personality. Understanding the psychology of the seller is key in any big transaction like this.”
So will be understanding the psychology of Los Angeles, whose residents will have an indirect voice in who takes over one of the city’s two NBA teams and the psychology of the 29 other NBA owners, who eventually must approve admitting a newcomer to their rarefied private society.
“It’s a good old boys club, with an emphasis on the boys,” said Jordan Kobritz, an expert on professional sports and a professor at the State University of New York, Cortland. “They want people they can get along with around the mahogany table when people are smoking cigars and drinking brandy.”
The other owners will also want a collaborator who is financially beyond reproach and likely one who will help quell the racial tension that has enveloped the team since audio recordings posted online last week revealed a man that the NBA has confirmed to be Sterling telling a female friend that he didn’t want her associating with blacks in public.
In discussing his prospective joint bid, Geffen told ESPN that he thought the presence of Winfrey, the television host and one of the most successful black entrepreneurs in America, would strengthen the group’s position.
Geffen told the sports website that Winfrey (net worth, an estimated $2.9 billion) is not interested in running the team, but believes “it would be a great thing for an important black American to own [another] franchise.”
Geffen is co-founder of the DreamWorks Animation SKG studio, with a net worth pegged by Forbes at $6.2 billion. He is close to Ellison, the chief executive of software giant Oracle, whose fortune is estimated at more than $50 billion. Ellison previously invested $100 million in professional tennis and its BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells.
Sterling rejected Geffen’s $600-million bid for a controlling stake in the Clippers in 2010. That was the same year that Ellison made an unsuccessful run at the Golden State Warriors, a franchise that sold for $450 million to a group of investors led by venture capitalist Joe Lacob.
Geffen has occupied a courtside seat at Lakers games for years and has invested with Ellison in another wealthy plaything — co-ownership of the Rising Sun, a 450-foot, five-story yacht, one of the largest in the world.
Billionaire shopping mall developer Rick Caruso, agreed that at least partial control by an ethnic minority owner would make sense.
“The ownership of the team should reflect the diversity of the city and the fan base,” said Caruso, who is not ready to name his partners. “That’s not only because of the players on the team but because of the diversity of the city as a whole.”
Several of those who spoke about the sale said they viewed the Chicago-based Guggenheim group as a serious competitor should it decide to pursue the Clippers. The firm paid a record $2 billion for the Dodgers and it could defray the cost of another sale among a large partnership.
Lakers great Magic Johnson has also expressed interest in owning an NBA team. He could partner with Guggenheim, which he has worked with since they took over the Dodgers in 2012.
Another Lakers fan who wants to buy the in-town rival is Soon-Shiong, a doctor and medical researcher who is worth an estimated $9 billion. The doctor previously bought Johnson’s minority stake in the Lakers. The billionaire’s spokesman did not offer any other details.
More unexpected candidates, like the flamboyant boxer Mayweather, have cropped up. The boxer said Tuesday in Las Vegas that he’s “very, very interested.” Projected to earn $90 million this year, Mayweather said he’s discussing the venture with “a couple of my billionaire guys.”
But other parts of his biography — legal run-ins that include a nearly three-month jail sentence for domestic violence in 2012 — could give the NBA pause. Mayweather is also fond of wagering on sporting events, a pastime he said would end if he became an owner. The NBA constitution bars betting on the league or allowing gambling activities on any premises controlled by an owner.
The NBA has only one African American majority owner, Michael Jordan of the Charlotte Bobcats, who spent nearly all his legendary career playing for the Chicago Bulls. Software magnate Vivek Ranadive, of Indian descent, is the only other non-white principal owner in the NBA. He led a group that paid $534 million for 65% of the Sacramento Kings in 2013.
African American performers, in particular, joined a frenzy of online posts about their interest in the team. Pioneering rap artist Dr. Dre told TMZ.com, “I’m thinking about it.” Rapper and record label owner Rick Ross said he would take a look. Actor Tracy Morgan tweeted, “I WANT IN!!”
Sterling’s potential combativeness presents only one obstacle to a sale. The team is owned by the Sterling Trust, controlled by the Sterling family.
How that might affect a sale is unknown, but one possible buyer said it could make a sale more complicated. The would-be bidder asked not to be named, out of fear of harming his chances of acquiring the team.
Soboroff, who worked briefly for former Dodgers’ owner Frank McCourt, recalled that when the sale of the Dodgers was at hand, country clubs and fancy restaurants around the city hummed with conversation about who was on deck.
“These are influential and important people who are talking, but when you are talking NBA ownership, it’s a whole different level,” Soboroff said. “Whoever is successful will have really deep pockets, long-term money and long-term goals for the franchise and the community. Many people heard that and they said, ‘OK, forget it.’''