Steve Ballmer's efforts to bring an NBA team to Seattle are getting a second act.
The Microsoft CEO, a well-known basketball junkie, let down local basketball fans in 2008 when he couldn't finalize a deal to buy the Seattle SuperSonics as the team was sold to out-of-towners with the intention of moving it.
Ballmer was viewed as a last-minute white knight to wrestle the team away from Oklahoma businessman Clayton Bennett and keep it in Seattle. After all, Ballmer is one of the richest people in the world; he was a regular courtside presence at Seattle's KeyArena, where the Sonics played; and, according to The New York Times, Ballmer helped coach his son's basketball team. Ballmer also played early-morning pickup games.
"The only surprise then was that Ballmer didn't buy the team," says Paul Merrill, editor of the blog Supersonicsoul.com. "Because he was such a supporter of the Sonics and a billionaire, everyone believed he was going to step up."
Seattle fans' collective hope of bringing back NBA basketball took a step closer to becoming a reality Monday when a local investor group - including hedge fund manager Chris Hansen, Ballmer and the Nordstrom family - struck a deal to buy a 65% stake in the Sacramento Kings for about $341 million, according to USA TODAY Sports. The group is expected to file for relocation to Seattle before the league's March 1 deadline, and the Board of Governors would consider their bid at a mid-April meeting.
Of course, a sports deal of this magnitude nearly always requires the patronage of wealthy tycoons, often those with strong local ties, and the Hansen-Ballmer group is no exception. But in Seattle, the city's economic backbone - technology - and the professional sport that once got away also have enduring ties that are once again proving useful for local fans.
Starbucks founder and CEO Howard Schultz was the most public face of the Sonics ownership while it was playing in Seattle. But John Stanton, a wireless technology pioneer who founded and sold VoiceStream to Deutsche Telekom for $35 billion in 2001, owned a stake in the team. Former Microsoft CFO Greg Maffei also had a share.
According to The Seattle Times, the Sonics' ownership group also included partners at two of Seattle's biggest law firms and the local inventors of the popular board games Pictionary and Cranium.
Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder who owns the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and NBA's Portland Trail Blazers, is currently the wealthiest owner in the NBA, with a net worth of $15 billion, according to Forbes.
Hansen grew up in Seattle but his hedge fund, Valiant Capital Management, invests heavily in technology stocks.
"There's a link between technology and Seattle," says Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp. "That's no surprise. Other than San Jose, few other cities have (a technology-based) economy like Seattle."
The NBA's richest owner
If the deal is completed, Ballmer would be the richest owner in the NBA, with a net worth of $15.9 billion, according to Forbes. That makes him the 19th-richest person in the U.S., one spot ahead of Allen.
After the Sonics moved, Ballmer kept private his interest in owning an NBA team. In 2011 he delivered a speech at the Seattle Rotary Club and spoke about "the real-estate challenges" to bringing the team to Seattle, according to a report by The Seattle Times.
Ballmer told the crowd that KeyArena, where the Sonics played, is outdated and lacks the luxury box spaces needed to draw revenue needed to be competitive, the report said.
Building a competitive arena would require $300 million to $500 million. "I'm sure we'll someday wind up with that problem solved and with a basketball team back here in Seattle," he said. "If you want to get on that problem, I'll offer to buy the first season ticket."
Ganis speculates Ballmer was driven by a desire to serve his community, knowing NBA ownership is a risky venture. "This is geographically desirable," he says. "He didn't go after the Memphis Grizzlies. Talking to (Paul) Allen, he perhaps realizes it's a lifestyle decision and not an economic one."
Hansen, the public face of the deal, also "talks the talk" of a true Sonics fan although he was hardly known in the city prior to the deal's development, Merrill says.
"I don't think anyone knew who he was in town," Merrill says. "He's a real mystery, and he remains a mystery man. But he talks the language of the fan who grew up around the glory days of the Sonics in the '90s."
The publicity-shy Hansen founded Valiant in 2008 and holds about $2.5 billion in assets as of last September, according to AR, a magazine covering the hedge-fund industry.
As of the end of September, Valiant held about $951 million in publicly traded stocks, many of them technology stocks. Its largest holding was $145.9 million in Apple stock.
By Roger Yu