January 24, 2013

Mayor Kevin Johnson's 'whales' play to win

The first time Ron Burkle tried to buy the Sacramento Kings, the Maloof family told him to get lost.

The first time Ron Burkle tried to buy the Sacramento Kings, the Maloof family told him to get lost.

Now Burkle is back, and this time he's betting the Maloofs will have to listen.

The Southern California grocery tycoon is seriously thinking of partnering with Bay Area investor Mark Mastrov to try to buy the Kings, said people who know both men. Their goal is to keep the Maloofs from completing their just-announced sale of the team to a group that would move the Kings to Seattle.

Between them, Burkle and Mastrov have billions of dollars at their disposal – and a penchant for getting what they want.

"Ron doesn't like spinning his wheels," said Lloyd Greif, a Los Angeles investment banker who knows him.

Even with all their money, Burkle and Mastrov could face an uphill climb. Chris Hansen, leader of the Seattle group, says he has a "binding agreement" with the Maloofs.

The Burkle-Mastrov group, along with Mayor Kevin Johnson, would have to persuade the NBA board of governors to reject the blockbuster deal the Maloofs struck with Hansen and his chief backer, Microsoft billionaire Steve Ballmer.

A source said the Seattle deal puts a value of $525 million on the Kings, an NBA record. The source added that Hansen's group is buying out the 65 percent controlled by the Maloofs, which translates into $340 million.

Only once in the past quarter-century has the NBA rejected a sale and relocation proposal, when the league blocked the Minnesota Timberwolves from selling to a group from New Orleans.

Still, the mayor said Wednesday he believes he can make a compelling case to the NBA with "a fair and competitive" offer for the team and a financial package for a new downtown arena. The city was prepared to pour $255 million into an arena deal negotiated by NBA Commissioner David Stern last spring, but the Maloofs walked away from the project.

Although associates and business partners confirmed Wednesday that Burkle and Mastrov are working on a Kings bid, the mayor still wasn't willing Wednesday to publicly identify his "whales" – the deep-pockets investors who would buy the team.

Johnson said he expects to finalize his investor lineup next week. The "whales" would partner with 21 Sacramento area residents who have pledged at least $1 million each to the effort.

Time isn't Johnson's ally. The NBA is already vetting the Hansen-Ballmer team, and the league is expected to make a final decision in April.

Another potential obstacle is access to financial data. Johnson said the big-money investors are "doing their due diligence" in preparation for a bid, but it's unclear how much access they would have to information about the Kings. Nor do they have detailed information on the Seattle bid against which they'd be competing.

"How that deal is structured, we have no idea," Johnson said.

Legal issues could also tilt the playing field toward Seattle. A source said Hansen has agreed to pay the Maloofs a nonrefundable $30 million deposit. If Hansen's purchase is rejected, he could sue the NBA, arguing that the league harmed him economically, legal experts say.

Still, those experts question if Hansen would have much of a case, especially since the league does have the right to reject prospective owners. "That would be an uphill battle," said Larry Levine, a professor at McGeorge School of Law.

A competitive guy

The Burkle-Mastrov group doesn't see its effort as some kind of desperate long shot.

Jim Rowley, a partner in Mastrov's East Bay investment firm, New Evolution Ventures, said: "He is probably the most competitive person I've ever met. I don't believe he will put himself in a situation where he'd fail."

Mastrov was a runner-up in the bidding for the Golden State Warriors in 2010, falling a reported $100 million short. Rowley said Mastrov is determined to win this time.

"Learning the (NBA's) process only made him stronger for this bid," he said.

Mastrov, a self-described basketball nut, sold the 24 Hour Fitness chain for $1.7 billion in 2005 and continues to invest in fitness-related businesses.

He and Burkle have known each other for some time. "California entrepreneurs run in the same circles," Greif said.

He added that the two have already discussed which of them would put the bulk of the equity into the Kings.

"Ron's got the deeper pockets – infer as you wish from that," Greif said.

Burkle, who made his fortune in the grocery business, has an estimated net worth of $3.1 billion, says Forbes magazine. Mastrov's wealth is unclear.

Burkle has been looming over the Kings franchise since April 2011, when his associate Darius Anderson revealed that the Beverly Hills billionaire wanted to buy the team.

The disclosure came at a crucial moment, just as the Maloofs were trying to persuade the NBA to let them move the Kings to Anaheim.

The family angrily rebuffed Burkle's overture. Co-owner Gavin Maloof told reporters that Burkle "can go back where he came from."

League owners, however, were convinced that Sacramento deserved another shot at keeping the team, and the Maloofs backed away from petitioning for relocation.

Price appreciation

Even if their sale to the Seattle group is blocked, the Maloofs wouldn't be forced to sell to Burkle and Mastrov. That's one reason why the NBA might favor the Seattle purchase – to make sure the controversial Maloofs leave the picture – said David Carter, a sports business expert at the University of Southern California.

People who know Burkle, however, believe the Maloofs won't simply walk away from him this time. The family has suffered significant financial setbacks in the past few years, including the loss of the Palms Casino in Las Vegas two months after Burkle tried to buy the Kings.

"The Maloofs are in a different position today, aren't they?" Greif said. "They have a few less choices than they had then."

Greif said Burkle mentioned a possible price when he bid for the Kings in 2011 – a price lower than the figure put on the table by the Seattle group. Although Burkle is a "disciplined investor," he realizes the going rate has risen, Greif said.

"Capital is not an issue," Rowley added. "They are not going to be constrained by money."

Burkle's first foray into sports came in 1999, when he came up with a reported $20 million to help hockey legend Mario Lemieux buy the Pittsburgh Penguins out of bankruptcy. The team is now one of hockey's elite franchises, and Burkle remains co-owner.

"Ron's role in the entire Penguins story was pivotal," said Chuck Greenberg, an attorney who represented Lemieux during the process.

Politically well connected, Burkle has supported Democrats like Bill Clinton and Gray Davis over the years. The 60-year-old college dropout spends much of his time in London but maintains a Beverly Hills mansion built by screen legend Harold Lloyd. He's invested in the movie business and counts Leonardo DiCaprio among his friends but is notoriously publicity-shy.

When the Penguins won the Stanley Cup championship on the road in Detroit in 2009, Burkle had to be persuaded to fly back to Pittsburgh with the team.

"He doesn't want to impose," a team official told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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