Atlanta Hawks Owner Hires Banker to Sell Stake

NEW YORK (The Deal) -- While the underpinnings of the sale of Bruce Levenson's stake in the Atlanta Hawks basketball franchise may remind fans of the Donald Sterling debacle, industry sources said the sale of the controlling interest in the National Basketball Association franchise will be the polar opposite of the now infamous Clippers process.

"I don't think there is going to be a formal auction process like with the Clippers. It's going to be a totally different process," said one source who worked with the Hawks during their failed 2011 sale to Alex Meruelo. "I think the league will go out to the other LPs and see if they have an interest in the team. They will do their valuation work but they are going to have to do this according to the [team's] bylaws."

The Hawks franchise is working with New York investment bank Inner Circle Sports LLC to sell the stake, which has controlling ownership powers, the source said, declining to name the specific banker working on the deal.

According to Inner Circle's website, the firm's Tim Lynch has "closed transactions for the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks." The Bucks, too, are in the NBA and were sold in April. Lynch didn't respond to calls. Another Inner Circle official, Steve Horowitz, declined comment.

Levenson, who acquired a controlling interest in the Hawks and Phillips Arena, where they play, in 2004 from AOL Time Warner, said Sunday that he would put his interest in the team up for sale.

The decision came, in part, due to an inflammatory e-mail by Levenson. According to Yahoo! Sports, the August 2012 e-mail was uncovered during an investigation that Hawks owners had ordered after general manager Danny Ferry made racist comments involving Luol Deng, who was a free agent at the time and has since signed with the Miami Heat.

That e-mail, in which Levenson discussed his concerns about low attendance and a need to attract suburban whites, sparked an internal, ongoing investigation by the Hawks. Levenson made the revelation himself.

"I have said repeatedly that the NBA should have zero tolerance for racism, and I strongly believe that to be true," Levenson said in the statement Sunday. "That is why I voluntarily reported my inappropriate e-mail to the NBA."

"I commend Mr. Levenson for self-reporting to the league office, for being fully cooperative with the league and its independent investigator, and for putting the best interests of the Hawks, the Atlanta community, and the NBA first," said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver in a Sunday statement.

The sale of the interest comes just months after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape making racist comments. The league mandated that Sterling relinquish ownership in the team, pay a fine and not attend any Clippers proceedings.

While the Clippers sale was done for a record $2 billion on the heels of the highly publicized flogging of Sterling, industry sources said they expect that the Atlanta Hawks will attract a valuation more in line with the sale of the Bucks, which was announced in April for $550 million -- a record at the time.

"I wouldn't think the Hawks will get the same valuation as the Clippers," said Cooley LLP counsel Adam Chase, who worked with one of the two final bidders in the 2009 auction for Major League Baseball's Chicago Cubs. "The Clippers was a unique situation. LA is a unique media market."

He said he believes interest in Levenson's stake will be strong if an open auction is held.

But sources said they believe an auction won't be open to everyone, that the league will seek out limited partners already involved with NBA franchises to see if there is interest in buying Levenson's piece.

The Levenson ownership group, Atlanta Spirit LLC, includes LPs Ed Peskowitz, J. Rutherford Seydel, Todd Foreman, and Beau Turner, the youngest son of Ted Turner. (Ted Turner founded Cable News Network and once owned MLB's Atlanta Braves.)

As far as a valuation, industry sources think the Bucks deal will be the benchmark. "The Atlanta market is a far better market [than Milwaukee]," added another source who has done valuation work in all four major U.S. sports. "I think its going to be at least the Bucks valuation."

Levenson acquired a stake in the Hawks in 2004 from AOL Time Warner. He was part of a group that also included Michael Gearon Jr., the son of former Hawks GM Michael Gearon Sr.

The acquisition also included the Atlanta Thrashers of the National Hockey League, but that was sold in 2012 for $170 million and subsequently moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The Hawks have a storied history, having entered the NBA as a team from Moline, Ill., in 1949, winning their only league championship in 1958 while in St. Louis, and moving to Atlanta in 1968.

The most recent sale process is the second time the Hawks have tried to sell the team. In 2011, Levenson and Gearon had a deal to sell the franchise to California investor Meruelo for around $300 million but that deal fell through.

Following that busted deal, Levenson took the team off the block.

In April, Levenson and Gearon cut their stake by an undisclosed amount by selling a minority interest in the team to Turner Entertainment Co.'s president and entertainment chief Steve Koonin, who was named team CEO.

Calls to the NBA and the Hawks were not returned.

--Demitri Diakantonis contributed to this report.

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