The pro sports valuation bubble officially hit a bursting point last week, when outgoing Clippers co-owner Shelly Sterling accepted a $2 billion bid for the team. The winning bid came from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer.
Confusion reigned as the bids came in fast and furious early in the week, while at the same time Donald Sterling filed a lawsuit against the NBA for $1 billion. Eventually, language was included in the bid that would have lawsuits and punitive measures dropped, including the league’s lifetime ban against Donald Sterling. NBA commissioner Adam Silver and the notoriously litigious Sterlings managed to get done in one week what normally would take three months, and with the Sterlings was expected to get dragged out for perhaps years.
Ballmer, a longtime basketball junkie, had been involved in Chris Hansen’s bid to move the Sacramento Kings to Seattle. With lion’s-share financier Ballmer out of the picture, the prospects for a team in the Emerald City look rather slim for the foreseeable future. Ballmer has said that he won’t move the Clippers to Seattle, mostly because his $2 billion investment would be immediately be devalued upon relocating the franchise.
Even in the 2nd largest media market in the US, the $2 billion price has to be questioned. Sure, the Clippers are due a local boost when their TV deal comes up for renewal in a few years, and a national boost when the league’s TV deals get negotiated at the end of the decade. Those boosts still won’t properly support a $2 billion valuation. Forbes’ January valuation of the team was $575 million, based on $128 million in annual revenue, or 4.5X revenue. That’s already pushing things a bit, since it’s customary to value a team at 3X revenue. To justify $2 billion, the Clippers would have to realize at least $500 million annually, or a 4X jump from their current circumstances.
There’s no chance that such revenue will come from the new TV deals. The Clippers could get an additional $30 million a year from national TV, and another $100-150 million from Fox Sports West. Even so, that boosts their annual revenue to around $300 million, which would support a valuation of $1 billion. Of course, there’s no accounting for the competitive bidding activity that has surrounded recent franchise sales, so $1 billion would have to be considered a baseline, which was the case. Forbes’ Kurt Badenhausen laid out the case for why the team could fetch such a high multiple, but it still doesn’t quite add up.
The Dodgers sold for $2.1 billion, which came about because they too had a local TV deal up for bid. That bidding culminated in the birth of Sportsnet LA, the Dodgers-only regional sports network that will provide the team nearly $250 million per year. As one of the marquee franchises in the Southland along with the Lakers, a $2 billion sale price was considered enormous but not outlandish, especially when the value of Dodger Stadium and the 100 acres surrounding it are taken into account. The Clippers don’t have their own arena, or their own land outside of a recently built practice facility. They are mere tenants at Staples Center, and for the most part get the runt’s pick of dates and times at the arena. While the franchise has experienced a good run of success since they drafted Blake Griffin and traded for Chris Paul, Paul’s going to turn 30 next year and on-court success tends to be cyclical.
Ballmer will take over a team that has had few playoff appearances, let alone division, conference, or championship banners. He’ll look for ways to get the team to the summit, perhaps with an analytics-focused general manager. The Clippers are locked into their lease at Staples for another decade, so no new arena deal is in the offing – not that a new arena plan is emergent. Many in the media are calling for the Clippers name to be changed, its legacy tied to Donald Sterling’s long tenure as the worst owner in sports.
Then again, Ballmer may simply view the Clippers as a way to park $2 billion. Surely there are better growth strategies available, but when you have $20 billion and you have to diversify anyway, why not take on a franchise where you can reasonably expect the franchise growth to outpace inflation, where you’re virtually guaranteed to not lose money? Plus he’ll have a nice toy to play with. Ballmer attended many Sonics games as a season ticket holder when the franchise was in Seattle, and his old Microsoft colleague Paul Allen has long owned the Portland Trailblazers. If you’ve got the cash, it sure beats putting money into something boring like municipal and corporate bonds.
Should a 6X multiple become a new standard for franchise valuations or sale prices, it would grow the valuation bubble to enormous sums. The Warriors would be worth $1 billion, double the then-record 2010 purchase price of $450 million. The trend could quickly take hold throughout the rest of the NBA and spread the other major sports, where the Raiders and 49ers could hit $1.3 and 1.5 billion respectively, and the A’s could reach $1 billion. The market dynamics could be balanced out if a number of owners decided to cash out at the same time, so the leagues will be hard pressed to draw out any new franchise transfers in order to prevent a buyer’s market from breaking out, crazy as that sounds. The simple truth of the matter is that pro sports teams are exclusive and extremely lucrative, whether playing the long game or running the team annually. Budgets are fairly easy to work out and costs are incredibly well-controlled thanks to collective bargaining agreements and pools of centrally-derived revenue. Even paper losses can easily translate into profits at the end due to owner-friendly depreciation rules. You favorite team has turned into a part of some rich guy’s portfolio. The hedge fund guys started figuring that out during the recession, and it has only grown since. That’s the world we live in.