ORLANDO, Fla. -- The Cleveland Cavaliers have signed an agreement with an investment group from China to become minority owners of the NBA franchise and its arena, a partnership that could impact superstar LeBron James' future with the team.
The Asian conglomerate, which includes JianHua Huang, a Chinese businessman who has brokered sponsorship deals with the New York Yankees and other sports franchises in the U.S., could acquire up to 15 percent of Cavaliers Operating Company, the entity that owns the team and operates Quicken Loans Arena.
The deal, completed by the sides in recent days, must be approved by the league's board of governors.
Team president Len Komoroski said Sunday the group approached Cavs principal owner Dan Gilbert about the partnership and called the business venture "an exciting new opportunity."
Gilbert's role in overseeing the organization and 20,000-seat arena will not be affected by the new partners.
Citing multiple unnamed sources, The Plain Dealer of Cleveland first reported the sides had a tentative deal in place. But in recent days, paperwork was completed between Gilbert and the consortium. It will now be sent to the league office for approval.
Huang and others in the group attended Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference finals in Cleveland. On Friday, they sat courtside and watched James hit a game-winning 3-pointer in the final second to give the Cavaliers a 96-95 win and even the best-of-seven series which resumed Sunday night.
If approved, the deal would provide marketing opportunities for the Cavaliers and James, who is eligible to become a free agent in the summer of 2010. The 24-year-old MVP, who is already among the league's most popular players in Asia, has stated he wants to become the first billionaire athlete. His brand overseas could be enhanced by playing for a team with Chinese business partners.
There has been ongoing speculation that James will leave Cleveland to play in a larger market like New York or Los Angeles because of the vast business opportunities. But James -- and his corporate sponsors like Nike -- have broader goals and may be able to attain them by tapping into China's colossal consumer marketplace without him ever leaving Cleveland.
James has never given any indication he wants to leave the Cavaliers, who drafted the Akron, Ohio, native with the No. 1 overall pick in 2003. He won a gold medal with the U.S. team last summer at the Beijing Games and has made four trips to China, including one with the Cavs during the preseason two years ago.
"It's a big market," James said before Game 3. "They love the game of basketball. I've been over there the last four or five summers. It should be good. It should be fun."
Gilbert has been approached by outside investors in the past, but his original business group has mostly remained intact since he bought the Cavaliers and the rights to operate their arena for $375 million from former majority owner Gordon Gund in 2004.
Gilbert purchased the team with several other investors, including longtime business partner David Katzman, R&B superstar Usher and others. Gund maintained partial ownership.
However, in the past two years, Katzman has decided to focus on other business interests and the Chinese group would essentially take over his percentage of the Cavs.