The $2 billion agreement between the Sterling family trust and Seattle-based former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer for the Los Angeles Clippers has dealt a significant blow to Seattle's long-running hopes to reacquire an NBA team.
Just last month, Ballmer and partner Chris Hansen made a preliminary aggressive bid to buy the Milwaukee Bucks and move them to Seattle, offering in excess of $650 million, sources told ESPN.com. With an expected relocation fee, the price to turn the Bucks into the new Seattle SuperSonics would have topped $800 million.
However, then-Bucks owner Herb Kohl never pursued the option in favor of a $550 million bid from Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry because Kohl was committed to keeping the team in Wisconsin. As part of the agreement, the NBA has the right to buy the Bucks from Edens and Lasry if there is no new arena deal by the end of 2017, closing another door that Hansen and Ballmer had hoped was an option.
That made Ballmer and Hansen 0-for-3 in buy-and-relocate attempts in the past 18 months. They made an offer of $403 million for 65 percent of the Sacramento Kings last spring and had a signed a sales agreement. But the NBA rejected the move when a new arena deal was made and Vivek Ranadive bought the team for a valuation of $534 million, well less than the $625 million valuation Ballmer and Hansen offered.
Then last spring, Hansen and Ballmer went after the Minnesota Timberwolves when they were for sale, but owner Glen Taylor pulled the team off the market and later extended its lease to 2032 after getting $50 million in public money to renovate the Target Center in Minneapolis.
When the Clippers became available, Ballmer moved on from his Seattle aspirations, and he has agreed to purchase 100 percent of the Clippers himself and keep them in Los Angeles.
The NBA backed Ballmer in the sales process with Shelly Sterling and likely will grant him a quick and smooth approval. Although it was not Ballmer's intention, the role he played in helping force arena deals in Sacramento and Minnesota plus starting the process in Milwaukee played a role in NBA commissioner Adam Silver helping him land the Clippers, multiple league sources told ESPN.
Silver recently said there are no current plans for expansion to Seattle.
This leaves Hansen, a California-based hedge fund manager, without his biggest investor and driving force. It was Ballmer who pushed behind the scenes for Hansen to keep raising the offer for the Kings when it became a bidding war with Ranadive last spring, sources said. Ballmer was a factor in Hansen secretly funneling money to a political action committee in Sacramento aimed at defeating the arena deal through a ballot measure.
Hansen's biggest achievement in Seattle, however, is still in place, if tenuously. He has a memorandum of understanding with King County to build an arena in the SoDo district of downtown. After numerous attempts to get public money fell through, the county has agreed to provide $200 million to the estimated $500 million project. Under the terms of the deal, however, the arena will not break ground until an NBA team is awarded to Seattle via relocation or expansion.
With the values of NBA teams expanding rapidly and the demand at its highest point in decades -- there were nine bidders for the Bucks and three groups that offered more than $1 billion for the Clippers -- Hansen faces a huge challenge to land a franchise.
Getting a team in Seattle now likely would cost in excess of $1 billion, and Hansen just lost his much wealthier partner.