HIS BASKETBALL team had shown second-half promise, the hockey team had just finished a second-half meltdown that still had the town buzzing about goalies and captains. But as we sat down together in his glass-walled office less than a month ago, Ed Snider's first impulse was to direct my eyes toward a pile of rubble outside, a pile that was once the Spectrum.
"Right there. That's going to be the world's largest sports bar. That's going to be the start of Philly Live!" he said, and right then and there you had to know that yesterday's report of an imminent Sixers sale was, well, imminent.
Because when I asked him if he liked the way the NBA was run that day, he said, "You want me to get fined?" And when I asked if he was selling the team that day, Snider didn't say no. "You've got reporters on it, tell me what they say," he said.
What they say, today, is that a majority stake of the team soon will be sold to a group of investors led by New York-based leveraged buyout specialist Joshua Harris, and which includes former Sacramento Kings executive Jason Levien. Both presumably would enter this ownership with eyes wide open toward a league that has undergone several franchise shifts in the 15 years Snider has owned the team, a league that has seen teams bolstered and buckled by the whims and demands of its stars. It's a cliché in pro sports these days to say the inmates run the asylum, but it was clear that day that Snider put professional basketball in a league of its own.
Owned jointly by Snider and Comcast-Spectacor, the Sixers were valued at $330 million by Forbes this season, 17th among the 30 NBA teams. Forbes media executive director Mike Ozanian told ESPN yesterday that the team's television contract, somewhere between $12 million and $13 millon, was "undermonetized" and that any new owners needed to double that, which he deemed "no problem." However, Comcast spokeswoman Maureen Quilter pointed out that the current deal extends to 2029, which suggests any additional television revenue would have to be part of the sale agreement.
At 78, Ed Snider is no dinosaur. He understands leagues and change and still sits on the NHL's rules committee. And as much as he professes his love for basketball - he reminds you repeatedly that he "played the damn sport as a kid" - it has been painfully clear almost since he took control of the team in the Pat Croce-brokered deal of 1996 that he has no patience for the compromise demanded by NBA talent, and no tolerance for a system that rewards teams that tank with the opportunity to rebuild quicker and better than those who play it straight.
He is a proud man, and he doesn't like waiting, doesn't like playing for second, or, worse, a tie. In any extended conversation, it doesn't take long for him to remind you that he "was offered a fortune to go across the river to Camden" when he built the Wells Fargo Center, that he's "the only one who built anything privately in this whole state.
"And we still have the mortgage," he said that day. "And it hurts. Damn right it hurts."
All that makes a sale right now a matter of perfect timing. With the July 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement looming, NBA commissioner David Stern asserted last week that 22 of its 30 teams will operate in the red this season, and that the NBA will lose $300 million after losing more than $700 million in the previous two seasons.
Players chief Billy Hunter contests this, of course, noting a continued increase in TV ratings, attendance and merchandise sales. The NBA says that revenue increases were about 10 percent annually when the last deal was struck in 2005, but are now in the 3 percent range. Such increases, said Stern, are choked off by the rise in player salaries, which represent 57 percent of all basketball-related income. The league would like to lower that percentage, and institute a hard cap like that of the NHL. Both sides say they want to avoid a lockout scenario, but the ugly truth is they are as far apart as NFL owners were last January.
Snider sounded that day like a man with no appetite for that, especially with that hurtful mortgage and Philly Live! finally taking root in front of his glass-walled eyes.
So why would a billionaire such as Harris want in? Maybe for the same reason Snider wants out. Harris can wait out a lockout, especially if the terms at the end of it increase the chance to make a buck, and/or increase the Sixers' value.
Or maybe it's that he's only 46, has all the money in the world, and wants to spend it in a way he hasn't before.
Toward the end of our meeting a month ago, Snider made precisely that point, that he was the last of a breed, guys who built their wealth through team ownership.
"So," he said then, "maybe I am a dinosaur."
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