Magic Johnson went on ESPN’s “NBA Countdown” television show Sunday afternoon to express his disappointment with alleged racist comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Mr. Johnson, a respected and beloved figure in the Los Angeles sports scene, called Mr. Sterling’s words, which were partially directed at him, “bad for America,” and argued that Sterling should give up ownership of his team. And if new reports prove true, Johnson has a perfect replacement in mind: himself.
The Guggenheim Group, a billionaire team fronted by Magic that owns Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, has reportedly expressed interest in taking the Clippers off Sterling’s hands. “Magic’s absolutely interested,” an unnamed source told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday.
The Guggenheim Group is quickly becoming a fixture in the Los Angeles sports world, and it already has a history of extricating franchises from bad ownership situations. In 2012, the group bought the Dodgers from embattled owner Frank McCourt, who had been taking out personal loans to cover the team’s payroll costs. In February, the Guggenheim Group bought the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, a move that prevented that league’s flagship team from folding. The group has made no secret of its desire to own an NBA team; Magic and his group even looked into purchasing the Lakers last year before that team’s ownership made it clear that the team was not for sale, according to Yahoo!
The Los Angeles Clippers were valued at $575 million by Forbes in January, but in terms of a sale, “that’s clearly too low,” says Victor Matheson, a professor and sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. The Milwaukee Bucks, he points out, sold for $550 million earlier this month. That team plays in one of the league’s smallest markets and had a terrible season, but Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban recently called the price tag “a bargain.”
The Clippers, meanwhile, play in one of the NBA’s biggest media markets, and they have found success in recent years after decades of losing seasons and bumbling front office management. Long overshadowed by the Lakers (worth $1.3 billion, Forbes says), the Clippers now have superstars in Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, as well as a highly respected coach in Doc Rivers. The team is expected to make a deep playoff run this postseason, and finally appears to be emerging from the shadow of its arena-mate in the Staples Center. As NBA revenues continue to grow, and team values along with it, a Clippers sale north of $1 billion wouldn’t be particularly surprising.
An affiliation with Magic Johnson, meanwhile, could complete the Clippers’ transformation from the Lakers’ idiot kid brother to a national powerhouse in its own right.
"I would be slightly worried if I were the Lakers,” Mr. Matheson says. “They’ve had a monopoly on basketball in LA even though they’ve shared the city for 30 years, thanks in part to their great reputation but also the utter ineptness of the Clipper franchise for most of that time. But no one is talking about the Lakers this season.”
For the NBA, it would also tie one of the most universally likeable figures in basketball to a franchise that had been associated with a man who has been a headache for the league. This isn’t Sterling’s first brush with accusations of racism: in 2006, he was sued by the US Justice Department for racial discrimination against black and Hispanic Americans in screening tenants for apartment buildings. He eventually settled, but not before a lengthy court battle. In 2009, he was sued by former Clippers executive Elgin Baylor for employment discrimination. The accusations against Sterling this week are just the latest in a string of embarrassments he has caused the NBA.
Of course, wanting Sterling to sell the team and actually getting him to do it are two different things. “The league has a lot of power over who they allow into their club,” Matheson says, pointing to the NBA’s recent refusal to sell the Sacramento Kings to a group that would have moved the team to Seattle. “But it’s harder to get rid of someone once they’re in.”
However, he points out, Sterling’s main motivation for owning an NBA franchise in the first place may be gone for good. “People become team owners for the attention, the accolades. Mark Cuban could make more money somewhere else, but they’re there for the spotlight. When you become a pariah, that impetus disappears.”
Magic Johnson meanwhile, isn’t offering any hints. “Can we get Magic to buy the Clippers?” analyst Bill Simmons said, apparently jokingly, during Johnson’s “NBA Countdown” appearance. Johnson laughed and responded, “I’m trying to get the NFL back to LA!”