There are 100 reasons to buy an NBA team. I'm sure some people will tell you it's a good business, and for some people it probably is. There are tax advantages. In places like Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City, owners talk convincingly of civic duty.
For Bruce Ratner, a team offered a sophisticated real estate pay, because a stadium was a key to using eminent domain for his sprawling downtown Brooklyn Yards development. For Mikhail Prokhorov, it made him an internationally recognized name, which did wonders for his domestic political career.
Some owners presumably just love basketball.
But there's another reason, one that is blatantly real, but that owners will seldom acknowledge: It's the ultimate fan experience. If you're the owner, you get to hang out in the locker room. You get to hang out in press conferences. You get to sit courtside, within earshot of timeouts. You get to slap five with players in key moments of games. You get to invite people like Julius Erving to hang out with you -- and they show up.
There are not a lot of ways to get into that exhilarating swirl of sports and celebrity. There are not a lot of ways to look so cool.
How much would you pay for that? In the case of some number of owners -- a number that's bigger than you'd think -- I'd argue the number is millions upon millions.
In Myles Brown's ongoing, must-read Jimmy Goldstein Chronicles for GQ, Goldstein tells that he once considered buying a team. Pay particular attention to the reason he's no longer interested:
I've always had ownership in the back of my mind and never quite had the financial assurances to do it on my own. Many of these teams are bought with groups of investors. Sometimes a general partner has a very small financial stake, but is still considered the owner. That would have been a way that perhaps I could have done it, but I'm not good with partners. I like to do things on my own. As my financial resources increased over the years, the prices increased at an even more rapid pace. So it never worked out for me to buy a team by myself.
David Stern, a few years back, was twisting my arm to buy the Milwaukee franchise when it was for sale because I'm from Milwaukee and one of the conditions of the sale from Herb Kohl would be that the new owner would have to agree not to move the team. So I'm sure that David figured because I'm from Milwaukee that would be a perfect fit. But at the time when I first started exploring that, Michael Jordan stepped in and was a more attractive buyer, obviously. That didn't go through and then Herb Kohl took it off the market. Since then, I haven't really seriously considered it. Right now, I have such terrific access to everything that goes on in the NBA that I don't feel I need to be an owner at this point if I could afford it.
It's great, it's fine. Buy a team for whatever reason you want!
But if you look at the kinds of bad decisions teams have made through the years, one of the trends is certainly overvaluing celebrity. A disproportionate number of bad general managers are famous former players. A disproportionate number of overpaid players are the kind of big-name, crowd-pleasing high-scorers owners love to be around.
No small chunk of how owners do business is about the very wealthy creating cool experiences and cool public images for themselves.
The owners even set policies (revenue sharing, draft picks for bad teams) that I would argue do far more to keep incompetent owners from looking foolish than they do to make the league any better for players, coaches or fans.
The title of owner works like the best backstage pass in the world, with some public cachet to boot.
Hats off to Jimmy Goldstein for getting himself an all-access pass through his charisma, ability to build relationships, time commitment and love of the game -- instead of just his millions.