Sterling Tarnished, Clippers Still Look Like Gold

The Los Angeles Clippers at the 2014 NBA playoffs

Photographer: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Clippers at the 2014 NBA playoffs

Update, May 30: Wow. Even the highest estimate was way too low. Steve Ballmer’s got the winning bid, $2 billion.

Before the current saga is over, the Los Angeles Clippers may yet yield one of the most astonishing stories of sports business history. You may think, “What’s so astonishing about a sports team owner indulging in bigotry?” Well, that’s not the astonishing part. Sports team owners have been saying ugly and bigoted things behind closed doors for decades.

The really incredible part of the story is that after years of languishing in the NBA cellar, run on the cheap by a surly owner seemingly uninterested in championships and now in the throes of a likely forced sale, the Clippers could easily turn out to sell for the highest price ever paid for a basketball team. Vivek Ranadive’s purchase of a majority stake in the Golden State Warriors last year set the high water mark for NBA team value, at $800 million, according to ESPN. Now bids are due for the Clippers in what amounts to a forced auction, and the final price for Clippers may exceed that.

Bloomberg’s Scott Soshnik and Cristina Alesci reported that Shelly Sterling wants at least $1 billion for the team. Whether she’ll get that is pure guesswork for now, but Shoshnick and Alesci explain that with the Clippers’ television contract up for renegotiation soon, the stars seem to have aligned to maximize the team’s value. One banker even puts an estimate of $1.5 billion on the team’s value. Again, let’s underline: This is the Clippers. To see what that means, it really helps to look this great map of basketball fandom at the New York Times. In the entire country there is not a single zip code that roots mainly for the Clippers. Heck, there is not a single zip code anywhere in which even one basketball fan in in eight chooses the Clippers as a favorite team.

This is far worse than even the New York Mets, New York City’s much-scorned second baseball team. Just as Los Angeles has the Lakers and Clippers, New York also has two basketball teams, the Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. Forbes put the value of the Nets at their last sale, in a complex transaction, at $365 million in 2010. Suddenly we’re now in the middle of a basketball buying frenzy, and the Clippers are near-certain to exceed that by a wide margin. Donald Sterling’s name now may be badly tarnished, but whether or not he pays the NBA’s $2.5 million fine his bank account should end up just fine.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Market Now daily email. Click here to register and subscribe. Or here to follow @markgimein on Twitter.

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