EXPLAINER: Inside the proposed sale of the Suns and Mercury
Mat Ishbia’s career statistics at Michigan State went like this: He averaged 0.6 points, 0.3 rebounds and 0.3 assists per game.
Not exactly record-setting numbers.
But this is the number he’s about to be known by in the game — $4 billion. Ishbia’s offer to buy the majority stake of the Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, valuing them at $4 billion, is the biggest such deal in NBA history. The agreement means that embattled owner Robert Sarver’s era leading those franchises is about to end, once the league signs off on the sale.
A look at the sale, and the process that awaits:
WHO IS MAT ISHBIA?
Ishbia, who turns 43 on Jan. 6, is a basketball junkie. At only 5-foot-10, he was a good high school player, the top scorer on his Birmingham (Michigan) Seaholm High team as a senior in 1997-98 with a flair for dramatics — like a 36-point game and making both ends of a 1-and-1 late in regulation to help his team get into overtime and beat a crosstown rival.
He walked onto the team at Michigan State, played the last few seconds of the Spartans’ 2000 national championship game win over Florida and became so important to coach Tom Izzo that by the end of his career Ishbia was seated next to Izzo on the bench — serving as a de facto assistant coach.
He’s bled Michigan State green ever since. Several of his former teammates — Mateen Cleaves among them — have worked for Ishbia at United Wholesale Mortgage, the company his father founded and Ishbia now runs. And his $32 million gift to the school in 2021 helped, among other things, fund football coach Mel Tucker’s $95 million contract.
Some will say that he was given the keys to a company his father built, which is true. It should also be noted that Ishbia came up through the ranks and wasn’t immediately ushered into the CEO suite. UWM had fewer than 20 employees when his father asked Ishbia to join the company, and he told the Detroit Free Press in a 2020 interview that his first salary was $18,000.
UWM now has about 8,000 employees; Ishbia’s salary package was just under $8 million last year and his wealth is estimated by Bloomberg to be $5.26 billion.
His company went public in January 2021 and is a rival to Quicken Loans — the company that has Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert as its founder and chairman. Gilbert, like Ishbia and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, is also a Michigan State alum.
“My business is not designed to make my competitors like me,” Ishbia told CNBC in 2021. “That’s not how I’m going to do things. I’m going to win for my shareholders and team members and brokers.”
WHY IS THE PHOENIX FRANCHISE WORTH $4 BILLION?
It probably is not, though Ishbia clearly believes otherwise. It’s an investment and likely a very smart one.
The most recent valuation of the Suns franchise was listed by Forbes at $2.7 billion. Sports franchise values are skyrocketing, and in the NBA, a new media rights deal is on the way that could be worth three times the current $24 billion, nine-year pact.
That will make teams even more valuable, and NBA business is booming — league revenue topped $10 billion last season for the first time.
WHAT DOES THE DEAL MEAN FOR NBA EXPANSION?
Expansion is coming to the NBA, once the next Collective Bargaining Agreement — something that should be done in the next few months — and media rights deal gets completed. With this sale, and valuing the clubs at $4 billion, the NBA could easily command $5 billion or more as an expansion fee to the next groups who want to buy into the league.
“We need to renew those … then we will turn to expansion,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week. “As I’ve said in the past, it’s, I feel, our manifest destiny to continue to grow and not just grow in the United States but grow outside the United States as well.”
It’s not imminent. It’s hard to see the NBA expanding before 2025, at the earliest.
WHY DID THE SUNS NEED TO BE SOLD?
On paper, Robert Sarver would have been welcomed back as an owner once his one-year suspension ended in September 2023. But the reality was the suspension doomed him, as did the damning report that was commissioned after ESPN first reported about his years of boorish conduct.
Put simply, there was no way he could come back. Sarver quickly realized he had to sell and began courting buyers.
Sarver was the managing partner, which meant he could agree to the sale even though there are limited partners involved as well.
Ishbia and his brother Justin Ishbia are buying all of Sarver’s stake, plus some of what the limited partners own, and will control more than 50% of the team once the sale is approved.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Ishbia will be scrutinized by the NBA. The league will look for any red flags in his personal finances, in his company’s finances, in his personal conduct and more.
Once that process is complete, the league’s Board of Governors will vote to ratify the sale. The most likely timeline has Ishbia being approved to take over the Suns and Mercury by February or March.
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