Rich guys like to own professional sports teams. Private equity produces a lot of rich guys. So it’s little surprise that buyout billionaires have been snapping up NBA franchises for the past two decades.
In recent years, a few of those franchises have achieved unprecedented success. In fact, private equity tycoons have turned the league’s Eastern Conference into their own personal playground.
During the 2018-2019 season, the four top finishers in the East were all controlled by private equity pros, including the NBA champion Toronto Raptors. As the 2019-2020 season enters this weekend’s All-Star break, those same teams occupy four of the top five spots in the conference.
And all four ownership groups have at least one common factor in how they’ve achieved recent success, a trait that could tie back to their pasts in overseeing portfolio companies: Instead of meddling in every small decision, they’ve developed reputations for hiring the best talent available and getting out of the way.
PE’s basketball jones
The Milwaukee Bucks have been the NBA’s dominant team so far this season, sitting in first place in the East with a sparkling 46-8 record. The Bucks are co-owned by Wes Edens, a co-founder of Fortress Investment, and Marc Lasry, a co-founder of Avenue Capital, who teamed to acquire the franchise in 2014.
At second place in the East sit the defending champion Raptors. The Toronto franchise is owned by a group called Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which is in turn partially owned by Larry Tanenbaum, chairman of Kilmer Capital Partners and the longtime CEO of Kilmer Van Nostrand. Tanenbaum represents the Raptors on the NBA’s Board of Governors (the league now eschews the word “owner”), making him the team’s most powerful dignitary.
The Boston Celtics occupy third place in the East standings. Since 2002, the legendary franchise has been owned by an investor group led by Wyc Grousbeck (formerly a partner at Highland Capital Partners) that also includes Steve Pagliuca, a co-chairman at Bain Capital. Grousbeck is the son of Irv Grousbeck, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business.
And fifth place in the East is currently filled by the Philadelphia 76ers, who in 2011 were acquired by a wide-ranging group of investors that includes Josh Harris, a co-founder of Apollo Global Management, and David Blitzer, global head of tactical opportunities at Blackstone. Harris is the team’s principal owner.