By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on Jan. 2, 2015
Two of Atlanta’s top business leaders and their wives — Kelly Loeffler and Jeffrey Sprecher, CEO of the Intercontinental Exchange Inc.; and Mary and John Brock, CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises Inc. — are exploring an ownership stake in the Atlanta Hawks.
Their main interest, however, is the Atlanta Dream — the local WNBA team — which is owned by Kelly Loeffler and Mary Brock.
In a phone interview on Dec. 30, John Brock confirmed that he and Sprecher — along with their wives “would be interested in exploring the possibility” of becoming part of a new ownership team of the Atlanta Hawks.
“If it made sense from an Atlanta Dream perspective and an Atlanta Hawks standpoint, we would consider it,” Brock said. “The fact is that six of the 12 WNBA teams in the country are part of an ownership group with the NBA team. Here we don’t have that.”
Sprecher was out of town on vacation and was not available for a comment.
The advantages of having some common ownership of both the NBA and WNBA teams are numerous, according to people close to the situation. It allows for opportunities to jointly market and promote the teams; and it helps to build a loyal common fan base for both teams.
In the case of the Atlanta Dream, the owners have worked hard to build “an incredibly loyal and incredibly diverse fan base” — lessons that could be transferable to the Atlanta Hawks, according to one person close to the WNBA team.
Both Sprecher and Brock have another advantage. As business leaders who are based in Atlanta but who have lived in other cities, they have a good understanding of the local market as well as a national and international perspective.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has long stated his preference for local ownership of the Atlanta Hawks, a sentiment that he repeated Dec. 30 in a one-on-one conversation after the inaugural ride of the Atlanta Streetcar.
“I think it makes a difference,” Reed said when asked about his desire for local ownership of the Atlanta Hawks. “You need to look no further than Arthur Blank and the Atlanta Falcons. People understand that he cares about the city of Atlanta, and he cares about winning and having a great team.”
The mayor went on to say that “the same was absolutely true about Ted Turner when he owned the Atlanta Braves. Not one questioned his loyalty to Atlanta.”
Reed, who is fond of bragging about Sprecher and his company owning the New York Stock Exchange, has often joked that the Wall Street icon may be changing its name to the Atlanta Stock Exchange.
Reed was aware of Sprecher’s interest to consider being part of a new Atlanta Hawks ownership team.
“He [Sprecher] would be terrific,” Reed said. “I think local ownership is always preferable.”
Brock, who said he could not speak for Sprecher, acknowledged that the two couples — who already are close friends — had been talking about becoming more involved with the Hawks.
“All of us could be potentially interested in the Hawks,” said Brock, who was in New York City on business. “It probably would be a fairly modest position. We are not involved with any specific group, but we are open to participating with an group. If our participation could better interest the Atlanta Dream and the Atlanta Hawks, we would consider it.”
Two months ago, investment banking firms Goldman Sachs and Inner Circle Sports were hired by Bruce Levenson to help sell his interest in the Atlanta Hawks. Levenson, along with his partners in the greater Washington, D.C., area, has held majority interest in the team — 51 percent. Levenson announced several months ago that he would be selling his share after a 2012 e-mail that he had written surfaced and contained racially inappropriate and offensive comments related to the team.
The other owners in the team include an Atlanta contingent of Michael Gearon Sr., Michael Gearon Jr. and Rutherford Seydel as well as a New York group of investors.
“We are not currently commenting on the progress of the team’s sale,” said Garin Narain, vice president of public relations for the Atlanta Hawks.
Goldman Sachs apparently is working with the current owners to present a proposal to prospective buyers about what percentage of the team is for sale along with possible estimates of how much it would cost to buy the Atlanta Hawks.
Because of the divergent interests among the various owners, it has been challenging to get consensus among the different members of the ownership team, according to people close to the situation.
The Atlanta Hawks, a team that is enjoying a stellar season with a 22-8 record as of press time, provides an economic boost for the city. The Atlanta Thrashers hockey team left town for Winnipeg, Canada, in 2011. The Atlanta Braves announced they were leaving the heart of the city for Cobb County starting with the 2017 season.
Mayor Reed has stated several times that the Atlanta Hawks are staying in the city. The team currently plays in Philips Arena, which is owned by the Atlanta-Fulton County Recreation Authority.
Larry Gellerstedt III, CEO of Cousins Properties Inc. and 2015 chairman of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said that even if “big names from out of town” end up buying the Atlanta Hawks, he understands that they would want “local partners who would bring the community knowledge.”
Gellerstedt said it would be inappropriate for him to support one group over another.
“As Chamber chair, I don’t want to be endorsing one ownership structure versus another,” Gellerstedt said. “What we all want is an owner who is committed over the long term to bring a great organization to Atlanta — both on and off the court.”