Inside LeBron’s grand plan to own an NBA team

It has been said that Michael Jordan‘s decision to sign with Nike was one of the greatest deals in sports history, launching a multibillion-dollar business, helping turn the company into a basketball juggernaut and changing the game for hundreds of athletes who came after him.

But what if it was only the second-best deal Jordan did in his lifetime?

In 2010, Jordan made an incredible transaction that might rival it, even if it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. At the time, NBA franchise values had gone backward due to the economy, Charlotte Bobcats owner Bob Johnson was deep in debt and the NBA was interested in helping Jordan get ownership of a team after previous attempts failed.

The result was a landmark deal that has matured into one of the great team purchases in recent history. Jordan got the Bobcats for a reported value of $275 million, but most of it was the assumption of debt. The NBA approved the purchase with Jordan putting up just $30 million in cash, according to the Charlotte Observer, an arrangement the league would almost certainly not approve today.

Jordan has subsequently bought more shares in the team and now owns about 90 percent of the franchise. His ownership has lifted Jordan’s net worth by hundreds of millions over the past decade. This month Forbes estimated the Hornets (nee Bobcats) are now worth more than $1.2 billion.

The Hornets have typically operated in the red but are buoyed by a robust revenue sharing system that funnels tens of millions to Jordan annually to help make his team profitable. For example, between 2012 and 2017, league documents showed Jordan’s fellow owners sent him more than $130 million in revenue assistance.

This week, Jordan will host one of the NBA’s signature events when the All-Star Weekend comes to Charlotte. The city spent $34 million to help renovate the Spectrum Center to prepare for the event.

When LeBron James arrives to lead Team LeBron against Team Giannis, he will do so with admiration for what Jordan has done. The six championships and Hall of Fame career, of course, but James has been in awe of Jordan’s on-court accomplishments since he was a young boy.

Jordan’s maneuvers and deal-making to become the controlling owner of an NBA franchise has captured James’ attention anew as James matured from basketball star to businessman.

James and business partner Maverick Carter have made it clear their goal is sports team ownership in the future. Just as with his playing career when James has charted his own course but often looked toward Jordan for inspiration, someday James hopes to be hosting his own All-Star Weekend.

In reality, James is already a sports team owner. As part of a deal in 2011 with Fenway Sports Group, James received a small percentage of the English soccer powerhouse Liverpool FC. FSG bought the team for $477 million shortly before it did the deal with James. The club is now valued at roughly $2 billion. That James investment has gone quite well.

“I see LeBron owning multiple teams someday,” Fenway Sports president Sam Kennedy said. “Not just NBA, but perhaps international soccer and maybe in esports. One thing we’ve learned working with LeBron is that he sees the big picture. He has a track record of making smart decisions and looking for opportunities. He’s also been very successfully financially, and that’s what you have to do to become a sports team owner.”

There aren’t many former NBA players who’ve gone on to become owners of NBA teams. It’s one of the reasons James has been drawn to two of them: Jordan and Magic Johnson, who owned 10 percent of the Los Angeles Lakers at one time and is now one of the owners of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Grant Hill has a piece of the ownership of the Atlanta Hawks and is the team’s vice chairman. Shaquille O’Neal has a small ownership stake in the Sacramento Kings. Elliot Perry has an ownership share in the Memphis Grizzlies and is the team’s alternate governor.

“I had the chance to see my father [Calvin] pursue ownership in teams,” said Hill, whose father was a Pro Bowl NFL running back and was a part of groups that tried to buy the Washington Bullets and New England Patriots.

“That planted the seed for me. It’s one of the reasons why I wanted to get to know and learn from the owners that I played for over the years. But not many NBA players get that seed planted when they’re in high school like I did.”

Even now when NBA ownership is more diversified than ever, with several controlling owners who are women and international ownership on the rise, James doesn’t have many peers in his pursuit.

Successful players often go on to become coaches or general managers and, of course, excel in the business world with the money they’ve made in their careers. But James — who has a net worth of $440 million, according to Forbes — is one of the few who has vocalized his desire to advance to the ownership level.

“Almost no players have come to me over the years to seek council how I did it,” said Perry, who got an ownership position with the Grizzlies when they moved from Vancouver in 2001 through a relationship with minority owner Staley Cates. “I’ve only had a few conversations about it. More players could absolutely do it, and I would’ve thought there would be more by now.”

With the NBA’s business booming, the barrier of entry to become an owner is outrageously high. James has done very well financially. By the end of his current four-year contract with the Lakers, he’ll have earned a record $390 million in NBA salary. He has earned several hundred million from Nike and has a lifetime contract with the brand that has the potential to earn him hundreds of millions more. He has made tens of millions from Coca-Cola over 16 years of endorsement deals. He cashed out an ownership position with Beats headphones that made him more than $50 million when Apple bought the company for $3 billion in 2014.

He has a large position in the Blaze Pizza chain and is a central owner in two media companies, SpringHill Entertainment and Uninterrupted, among other investments. He’s on his way to being a billionaire.

But he might not have to spent it all on a team outright to have ownership power. Former New York Yankees great Derek Jeter reportedly has just a 4 percent share of the Miami Marlins, which investor Bruce Sherman bought in 2017 for $1.2 billion. But it’s Jeter, who was the face of the bid to buy the team and who runs the Marlins’ baseball and business operations, acting as the lead decision-maker.

That’s the type of deal that James, who has developed numerous partnerships with wealthy individuals and companies, might seek to gain a de facto controlling ownership position within the next decade. James probably would be able to front an ownership group within days of his retirement if he wanted.

Finding the right backers and right opportunity is another story. Like Jordan, who became a minority owner of the Washington Wizards shortly after his second retirement, it’s something James is already working on as his playing days wind down.

“LeBron has figured the league out and taken ahold of his career in a unique way,” Perry said. “He’s tremendously smart in the way he conducts himself on and off the court. It’s been intentional, and he can change the conversation about cracking the ceiling [for more players to become owners]. He’ll find the right place and time. That’s what Michael [Jordan] did and that’s how LeBron will do it too.”

THE TIMBERWOLVES HAVE made two major changes during the season hoping to shake up what has been a disappointing roster. After a monthlong standoff with Jimmy Butler, they traded him to Philadelphia in November. And in the first week of January the team fired coach Tom Thibodeau, replacing him with the energetic Ryan Saunders, whom the players seem to love.

Neither measure has shaken the team from the doldrums for long. The Wolves went 9-3 in their first dozen games after the Butler trade but are just 13-18 since and head into Wednesday’s game against Houston in 12th place in the West and four games out of the last playoff spot. It’s fair to point out one of the prime pieces from that trade, Robert Covington, has missed the past 19 games with a severe ankle injury that has contributed to that slide.

The Wolves were 19-21 when Thibodeau was let go and are 7-9 under Saunders. The team’s defense, which has been a culprit throughout the past few seasons, has slipped some since Saunders took over and is allowing almost four more points per 100 possessions.

Andrew Wiggins, who was expected to get a boost when Butler was moved, is having a miserable shooting season. He’s shooting under 40 percent overall and just 33 percent on midrange jumpers, second worst in the league among players with at least 250 attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information (Russell Westbrook is at 32 percent). He’s shooting a woeful 48 percent in the paint, the worst of his career. And he’s not even getting fouled — he gets just 4.4 free throws per game. He averaged seven per game during his second season in 2015-16.

There appears to be a chance owner Glen Taylor will make changes to his front office after the season — current GM Scott Layden is a Thibodeau hire — but what exactly can be done with this team is a riddle.

There are a few bright spots with Karl-Anthony Towns headed for the All-Star Game and Derrick Rose‘s resurgent season. But overall, the season has been a huge letdown after the Wolves broke their 13-year playoff drought last year. They had such momentum and promise two years ago after acquiring Butler and they’ve only rarely shown flashes since.

THE SEATTLE GROUP that tried to buy and relocate the Sacramento Kings in 2012 isn’t giving up. Chris Hansen, the lead investor, has sent a letter to the Seattle mayor and city council once again asking for a street closure that would clear the way for a privately financed arena for an NBA team in the city’s SoDo district. The group thought it would win approval for the street closure in 2016 but lost a vote in the council.

In December, Seattle was officially awarded an NHL expansion franchise to start in 2021. The team will play in a massively renovated KeyArena. The operators of the new arena, Oak View Group, have designed the arena to accommodate an NBA team as well and believe a second arena is unnecessary.

Beyond all the politics and traffic issues in this matter, what is important seems to be these investors still firmly believe an NBA franchise will land in Seattle in the near term. Hansen’s group has taken the position that the revenue demands for a modern NBA team will make it hard to share an arena with an NHL team and the Oak View Group.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver continues to dismiss expansion at the current time. But with plans in place to allow for NBA-level locker rooms and amenities in the new KeyArena and Hansen readying another billion-dollar arena bid, there’s a lot of wealthy folks in one of America’s wealthiest cities hedging that an opportunity is coming.

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