Jac Sperling Rumors
Two groups have been identified as in bidding for control of the team, a California-based consortium led by swimwear manufacturer Raj Bhathal, in union with Larry Benson, Mike Dunleavy, and potential New Orleans-area minority investors, and former Hornets minority owner Gary Chouest. The Bhathal group, according to sources, is believed to be the one in the lead, as characterized last week by Stern, with Chouest as a backup. Hornets chairman Jac Sperling, the New Orleans native whom Stern appointed to provide stewardship for the franchise, improve its troublesome economics and broker a sale that would provide long-term viability and stability here, has been simultaneously negotiating with buyers and speaking with state officials about the framework of a lease extension that will keep the team in New Orleans through 2024, with no escape clauses.
Sperling said potential investors are unconcerned with the team’s present difficulties, preferring instead to focus on the possibilities. “I’d say they’re looking at the future,” Sperling said. “I think, all of us (are). You have young players out there who are getting a chance to play. And they’re showing what they can do. The younger players are coming through; they’re working hard, they’re learning. Monty has them playing at full strength. Nothing is ever perfect in terms of the way people play. But they’re learning and playing hard. “And as I said, if we had our three or four or five players who are injured playing, we would be playing a lot better in terms of our results. With two first- round draft picks (one acquired in the Paul trade) in a pretty deep draft, with what Monty has got the young guys doing, and the core of a team here, I think it’s going to be a good team next year.”
Sperling would offer no concrete information on individuals or groups that could still be actively negotiating. Former Hornets minority owner Gary Chouest, whose agreement in principle to buy the team from founding owner George Shinn twice fell through at the final hour, necessitating league intervention in December 2010, is said to be among the prospective buyers, while Saints owner Tom Benson and a group of West Coast investors fronted by former NBA coach and executive Mike Dunleavy have also been reportedly interested.
Sources with knowledge of the sales discussions indicated that the list of potential suitors has been whittled from a half-dozen or so, a number acknowledged by Stern on several occasions, and that all parties have entered into confidentiality agreements regarding sales discussions.
When the NBA assumed ownership of the team, Jac Sperling was appointed governor of the team by the league and was paired with team president Hugh Weber. The two set out to prove that not only were the Hornets a valuable and viable franchise, but that NBA business could be conducted in New Orleans on a much bigger scale. “When we started, the commissioner’s vision was to give New Orleans a chance to show what it could do in establishing itself as an NBA city for the long term,” Sperling explained to HOOPSWORLD. “That was our goal and our vision and we took it seriously from the very beginning. “There’s a great staff here. The governor and the mayor have been really supportive. Our fans are great. We just put our shoulders to the wheel from day one and came up with some ideas about what we needed to do to change.”
“It’s bigger than any one player, it’s bigger than any business transaction and our fans totally understood that. “We all miss Chris, but he’s off to other ventures and we wish him well. We’re on to different ventures ourselves. We’re in the next phase of the Hornets and we’re looking forward to it. We’ve got some good players. We have a great coach. We have a great general manager and perhaps the best fans in the NBA.”
For Jac Sperling, who has been involved in sports for more than 20 years, it was simply part of the business. “Individuals come and go,” explained Sperling. “As great of a player and a citizen as Chris was, he was a player for this city and this team. I think our fans have really understood that our situation is not about any one player. It wasn’t about the labor situation. It was about the future of the city of New Orleans.
The Hornets, currently owned by the league, will be sold at some point. Chairman Jac Sperling told the New Orleans Times-Picayune last month that “we’ve started having conversations with potential owners already” despite the lockout, adding, “The number of potential owners has grown. I think the commissioner mentioned there were four or five, and I think the number has increased a little bit. There are some potential owners who live in New Orleans and some who live outside of New Orleans.” David Stern would not only love to have Johnson in a prominent role in the NBA again — Magic remains a Lakers vice president, but with little day-to-day involvement — but the commissioner has said he expects Johnson to one day be part of an ownership group. Atlanta is an unexpected option again after the sale to Alex Meruelo fell through last week. Bruce Levenson, one of the heads of the ownership group that would continue to run the team, quickly said the Hawks are no longer for sale. That is either true or, just maybe, what he has to say. Either way, Johnson will probably find out for himself.
And when a new owner does take possession of the team, will there be any out clauses in the agreement that would allow him to move? No. The lease will have a term and the team will be required to stay here through that term. Our goal is to get to that point quickly.
So the labor situation is not a prerequisite to an ownership move? It’s not a prerequisite. I think we want to have the conversations now. It’s a dynamic situation, to see how things play themselves out. But in general, they’re moving in parallel. You mentioned the number of potential individuals or groups had increased a bit. Can you be specific as to a number? Probably two or three additional parties, in addition to the four or five. Are any of those potential investors outside of the country? All of the majority investors who are interested in owning 100 percent of the team live in the United States. Some of them live in the New Orleans metro area, some of them live outside. But they all know if they buy the team, the team is going to be here for a long time.
Can you update fans on where the ownership situation stands once the labor negotiation is settled? Actually, we’ve started having conversations with potential owners already. The number of potential owners has grown. I think the commissioner mentioned there were four or five, and I think the number has increased a little bit. There are some potential owners who live in New Orleans and some who live outside of New Orleans. But all of them understand that they would be buying a team that would have a long-term lease here. And that’s the goal — to extend the lease to a long-term arrangement with the state as part of finding a new owner.
Jac Sperling, the New Orleans native Stern appointed, is the franchise’s chairman and governor and has helped dramatically improve the team’s financial viability. He spearheaded a drive to sell 10,000 season tickets and is negotiating a long-term lease renewal with the State of Louisiana. Sperling believes once the season-ticket goal is attained, the Hornets will be able to introduce a new owner and new lease agreement simultaneously. Sperling sat down with Times-Picayune Hornets beat writer Jimmy Smith for a Q&A this week and addressed myriad subjects, including the fact there will be no exit clause in the new lease a new owner could exercise to threaten a future move, and how NBA owners view the Hornets’ plight. The Hornets, and many other teams, offered a money-back guarantee if games were lost. When can those folks expect that to happen? The fans will have to be in touch with their personal sales rep on that, and they’ll guide you in the direction you want to go.
Sperling’s impact is away from the hard court. Stern has asked a lot of Sperling. He wants the Hornets’ season ticket base to swell, and he wants Sperling to broaden the corporate sponsorship base. Much of that has to happen before any substantive talks can take place with state and local governments for additional support. All this is aimed at making the franchise attractive to a buyer, preferably one who would keep the team in New Orleans. “He’s done it all — operations, finance, investment banking and sales,” Stern said. “I could have done 100 Google searches and all would have yielded him as the right person for the job.”
Sperling was raised in the Crescent City. His dad owned a lumber yard and his mom worked there in the office. As a youngster, his family lived first in the city’s Broadmoor section, then near Tulane University and finally in Mid-City, near the business district. His sister, Gay, still lives in New Orleans, as do most of his childhood friends. “It’s a unique city in that most of the people who grow up there still live there,” Sperling said. “I’m one of the few who moved away. It has been great seeing people I haven’t seen in 40 years. That’s pretty cool. … This has been a chance for me to renew some of my relationships.”
When the NBA bought the teetering Hornets franchise from George Shinn late last year, Commissioner David Stern appointed Sperling the team’s acting chairman. Minutes into the first formal meeting between Sperling and Weber, the Hornets president knew the NBA had chosen wisely. “It was his approach that impressed me the most,” Weber said. “He’s very engaging, very approachable. We talked about our families, his background, my background. It didn’t take long before my intuition told me this guy not only gets it, but he really cares.”