Racing to sell the Clippers before being stripped of ownership by the NBA, co-owner Shelly Sterling received at least three preliminary offers for the team that could reach up to a record $2 billion, according to three people familiar with the process.
The offers for the team came from three groups with ties to the sports world, according to a person who represents one of the bidders. A representative of one of the bidders' groups said an offer is expected to come from a group backed by Middle Eastern investors.
FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this story stated Shelly Sterling had received at least four preliminary offers for the team. At least three potential buyers have made offers. Another offer is expected to come from a group backed by Middle Eastern investors.
Multiple complications still stand between the bidders and a final deal — including acceptance by Sterling, approval by other NBA owners and, perhaps most problematic, a clear agreement from her co-owner and husband, Donald Sterling, that he will sign off on the transfer of the team.
Sterling had last week agreed to put his wife in charge of selling the Clippers, roughly one month after his comments about African Americans led to his ouster from the NBA. But he said through his lawyer Tuesday and again Wednesday that he might not be ready to give up the team. Sterling wants to be assured he will no longer face administrative charges by the NBA and might want some other concession before signing off on a deal, said Maxwell Blecher, Sterling's attorney.
"He wants something to suggest that 'I, Donald Sterling, don't die with this stigma from this controversy over my head,'" Blecher said, though he conceded he was not sure exactly what would be needed to appease the 80-year-old principal owner of the team.
Whatever the final sale price, it would be the highest ever in the NBA. The Milwaukee Bucks recently sold for a record $550 million earlier this month.
"We were told this was the only bid process that would exist and that they are going to make a decision based on these initial offers," said the representative of one prospective buyer, who asked not to be named. "It's hard to believe they are not going to come back and try to get some extra money out of people after the first round. But that is what they said."
The sale process comes a little more than a month after Sterling touched off a furor with remarks in which he told a companion he did not want to see her with blacks at Clippers games.
Sterling wrote to the NBA a week ago and said he had authorized his wife of 58 years to negotiate with the league and potential buyers in connection with the sale of the team.
Bidders were also trying to make sense of statements from Sterling's lawyer late Tuesday. Blecher said that despite Sterling's letter to the NBA, he would not support his wife's sale of the team and planned to stage a prolonged fight to maintain ownership. Two bidders said they still believed the sale would go ahead.
One development in the sale — timed to beat the league's Tuesday hearing to oust both Sterlings from the team — is that Shelly Sterling appears to have agreed to relinquish her bid to maintain part ownership of the team.
The half-owner, who is 79, had hoped to maintain a stake of up to one-third of the Clippers. But the "term sheet" the bidders responded to before Wednesday's deadline was for 100% of the franchise, which is held in the Sterlings' family trust.
Among the likely bidders are:
— A group that includes Chicago-based Guggenheim Partners, which bought the Dodgers two years ago for more than $2 billion. Guggenheim has joined with a trio of billionaires who previously said they would launch their own bid for the Clippers: Oracle software co-founder Larry Ellison, entertainment magnate David Geffen and mega-entrepreneur Oprah Winfrey.
— A partnership with ties to major league sports: Tony Ressler, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of the investment firm Ares Management and a minority owner of baseball's Milwaukee Brewers; Bruce Karsh, co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management and a minority owner of the NBA's Golden State Warriors and chairman of Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times; and Grant Hill, a former NBA All-Star who finished his career with the Clippers.
— Steve Ballmer, former chief executive of Microsoft, who left in February after leading the company for 14 years. Ballmer last year joined a group, led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, to bid on the Sacramento Kings and intended to move the team to Seattle. NBA owners voted to reject the proposed move.
— A group backed by money from Middle Eastern investors is expected to make an offer. Individuals familiar with the other bidders said they knew less about this group, which has previously expressed an interest in entering the Los Angeles sports market.
Shelly Sterling's advisors have told bidders they expect to announce a winner expeditiously, though they did not specify a time for their decision.