The NBA’s Phoenix Suns are about to be sold...to some guy you’ve never even heard of. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Tuesday afternoon that a sale is being finalized that would transfer the team from current embattled owner Robert Sarver to Mat Ishbia, the billionaire head of Pontiac, Mich.-based United Wholesale Mortgage. Ishbia played on the 2000 NCAA champion Michigan State University team.
The deal is reportedly worth somewhere in the $4 billion range, which would put it in the vicinity of the most recent sale of an American sports team. The Denver Broncos were sold in August to a group that includes finance executive Mellody Hobson, former Secretary of State Condolezza Rice and Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton for $4.65 billion, a record sale for a North American team.
But while the Suns sale is in the same price range, it could look drastically different in so far as there’s no reported equity participation from nonwhite partners. That’s a significant detail given the fact that Sarver’s sale of the team was prompted by revelations of his own racist conduct while he was owner— from repeated use of the n-word inside team facilities, to inequitable treatment of women employees. In September, the NBA fined Sarver $10 million and suspended him from direct contact with his team for one year, a punishment that NBA superstars like LeBron James, Draymond Green and Chris Paul derided as too weak. Sarver announced he would sell the Suns and the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury shortly thereafter.
Unlike in the NFL, a league with its own myriad off-court racial issues, the NBA didn’t specifically lay out that it expected to see nonwhite equity participation in any deal for the Suns. Although its statement was vague and nonbinding, the NFL’s messaging along those lines was clearly received by the suitors for its available teams. In addition to the diverse group that bought the Broncos, other publicly-identified suitors included media entrepreneur Byron Allen and billionaire financier Robert F. Smith.
The Washington Commanders, which is similarly under consideration for sale after multiple investigations into improper behavior by its owner, Daniel Snyder, has rumored suitors that include Jay-Z and Kevin Durant.
It’s unclear when the transaction for the Suns and Mercury might close. The NBA is in the middle of its regular season, a time period when new ownership groups generally haven’t taken the reins. This time might be different, though, since Sarver’s suspension means he effectively hasn’t had contact with his squad since the first tip-off. Clarity around ownership, even in-season, might actually bring some stability to the organization.