TSD Memphis

Wed04162014

Sports

Grizz sale no reason for alarm, says mayor

Grizz yell-600x434

As elevator speeches go, Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has one ready and well-tested for the myriad Memphis Grizzlies fans who want to know his perspective on whether the team they have grown to love will stick around.

The uneasiness about the future ratcheted up on Monday morning when fans woke up to news that Memphis Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley had reached a deal to sell the team to tech-business owner and "billionaire" Robert Pera for a reported $350 million.

"We have every reason to believe and every confidence that they are going to stay here," Wharton told The New Tri-State Defender on Wednesday afternoon.

The transaction is pending approval by the NBA Board of Governors, antitrust clearance and other conditions.

Across from the FedExForum, where the Grizz have established a formidable home-court presence, Wharton fielded more of the questions that have been directed his way since news of the pending sale surfaced. First he noted that the mindset of the Memphis populace as a whole has changed, with people generally tending to focus on "what's possible, what we can do."

So with that context, Wharton said, "Everyone I have spoken with has said we can keep them (the Grizzlies) here. And they are taking so much heart out of the Oklahoma City Thunder. That's a new team, that's a small market area. So they are saying, 'Gee whiz, look what's happening with that young franchise. We're older than them. So hey, we can keep them here.'"

Wharton said he had reached out to the new prospective owner, with the expectation of talking soon with Pera.

"If necessary, I will go see him," said Wharton.

"When you look back, how many franchises have moved," Wharton asked, noting the Seattle Supersonics' move to Oklahoma City and the Grizzlies move from Vancouver.

Memphis, he said, has a state-of-the art facility in the FedExForum, and that Heisley has shown that is possible to attract talent here.

"What is the reason to go into the unknown," he asked, referring to moving the team out of the city. "You've got one of the most loyal followings you'll find anywhere."

Previous interested buyers wanted to head to the West coast, which was a turnoff to Heisley, who wanted a buyer committed to keep the city's needs in mind.

Existing terms and conditions indicate that the team could not be moved anytime soon without a stiff penalty. The franchise is bound to a current lease that keeps the Grizzlies in Memphis until 2021.

"I am excited about the opportunity to build on the work that has made the Memphis Grizzlies a highly competitive NBA team," Pera said in a statement released by the Grizzlies. "I look forward to getting to know the Memphis community and to continuing the team's success in Memphis."

Pera, the 34-year-old founder and CEO of Ubiquiti Networks, a publicly-traded technology company, is a former engineer at Apple. He left Apple at the age of 25 to start his own company, making wireless networking gear.

In March, Forbes magazine named Pera one of the ten youngest billionaires. At the time, his net worth was $1.5 billion. However, in recent months the shares in Ubiquiti Networks dropped, which placed him in the millionaire category (around $850 million).

The 75-year-old Heisley attempted to sell his stake in 2006 to Christian Laetter and Brian Davis. Then there was Larry Ellison, whose offer was placed on pause because he was adamant about moving the team to California.

"I have enjoyed my ownership of the Grizzlies and the support for professional basketball in Memphis," said Heisley. "I am confident that the franchise will continue its development toward being a perennial championship contender and an important member of the Memphis community."

Heisley said he was particularly gratified that "we have put together a team which is poised to continue its improvement. We have an outstanding team of players, coaching staff, and basketball and business management. In Robert, we have a new owner who has expressed a total commitment to build on our success in Memphis."

Heisley purchased the Grizzlies in 2000 when the team was located in Vancouver, Canada. In 2001, the Grizzlies were relocated to Memphis and in 2004 moved into FedExForum. Since moving to Memphis, the team has participated in the NBA playoffs five seasons, including the two most successful campaigns in franchise history in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

(This story includes a TSD newsroom report.)

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