What NBA team-buying process looks like as Phoenix Suns sale looms

What NBA team-buying process looks like as Suns sale looms originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Robert Sarver announced last week that he plans to sell his portion of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury in the wake of rising pressure from owners, fans and players around the league.

Sarver was recently handed a one-season suspension and $10 million fine following a year-long investigation that found him guilty of using “racially insensitive language, unequal treatment of female employees, sexual-related statements … and harsh treatment of employees that on occasion constituted bullying.”

While he initially resisted calls to sell, he has since changed his tune and confirmed that he’ll initiate the process. But what is the process of buying an NBA team? Traditionally, it’s a complicated, expensive process that spans over months to find the right buyer and complete the sale.

Here’s more information on what to expect as Robert Sarver starts to put the Suns and Mercury up for sale:

How much are the Phoenix Suns worth?

The Phoenix Suns are worth a reported $1.92 million, according to a recent estimation in December 2021. However, a new report from Forbes estimates the team could go for as much as $2.5 billion.

While Sarver only owns 35% of the franchise, his role as managing partner apparently gives him license to sell the team in its entirety, potentially a huge bonus for prospective buyers.

How much are the Phoenix Mercury worth?

Unlike the NBA, WNBA team sales aren’t regularly disclosed. However, an ESPN article reported that most teams sell for anywhere between $10 and $15 million.

While the exact asking price for the Mercury is unknown, it’ll likely make up a significantly smaller share of the purchase.

Who are potential buyers of the Phoenix Suns?

There is no shortage of high rollers potentially courting Sarver and the Phoenix fanbase.

Among the rumored billionaires interested in buying the team is Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Oracle founder Larry Ellison. Laurene Powell Jobs is also considered a potential candidate. The wife of the late Steve Jobs currently has a 20% minority stake in the Washington Wizards. 

Finally, former Disney CEO Bob Iger reportedly expressed interest in purchasing the team last season. Iger’s leadership at Disney -- which owns ESPN -- was essential in building a strong relationship with the league, most notably in facilitating the NBA bubble during the 2020 playoffs.

What are some recent examples of NBA team sales?

The price for an NBA team has ballooned in recent years, selling for four and five times the going rate a decade ago.

The most expensive sale in NBA history belongs to the Brooklyn Nets. Billionaire Joseph Tsai purchased 49% of the franchise in 2018, before acquiring the remaining 51% from Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov the following year for a grand total of $2.35 billion.

There have only been three purchases for over $1 billion -- the Houston Rockets (2017) for $2.2 billion, the Los Angeles Clippers (2014) for $2 billion and the Utah Jazz (2020) for $1.7 billion.

The Clippers sale from Shelly Sterling to Steve Ballmer was particularly contentious as the league forced Sterling’s estranged husband, Donald, out after video surfaced of the real estate mogul making racist remarks, particularly targeting Magic Johnson. This move, made in the first two months of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver’s tenure, has proved increasingly relevant as many fans quickly drew parallels between Sterling and Sarver’s comments and seemed perplexed by the NBA’s lack of consistency.

Most sales throughout the early 2000s hovered around half a billion, including Sarver’s 2004 purchase.

On rare occasions these purchases come with added drama, such as the most recent franchise relocation of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City following Clay Bennet’s 2006 purchase.

Why have NBA teams gotten so expensive?

It’s more than just inflation at play in the NBA market.

Sarver’s $401 million purchase would be worth more than $600 billion when exclusively looking at the impact of inflation. So where did the remaining nearly $2 billion come from?

This is largely part of a bigger cultural movement that ties the booming billionaire class with a vested interest in sports. In the wake of industries like technology and the expansion of the NBA to international buyers, more and more billionaires are eager to get a piece of the pie.

This cultural trend isn’t exclusive to the NBA. Team valuations across the world are exploding, most recently demonstrated in the $3.2 billion sale of Chelsea FC to Todd Boehly, an American financier.

How have the Phoenix Suns increased their value so significantly?

In addition to the larger cultural trend, the Phoenix Suns' sales pitch certainly benefit from their recent success.

The team made the playoffs five of Sarver’s first six seasons as an owner, including three appearances in the Western Conference Finals. They then underwent a decade-long playoff drought and consistently finished near the bottom of their division.

It was only in 2021 that the pieces finally came together. Devin Booker had slowly transitioned from up-and-comer to a certified star and Monty Williams was settling in as head coach. They joined forces with the newly-acquired Chris Paul to make the franchise’s first playoff appearance since 2009, advancing all the way to the NBA Finals.

That success appears enduring as the Suns entered the 2022 playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed. While they fell short of championship glory, the Suns essentially return all the same pieces from last season and are in a good position to contend for a title.