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Volume 22 No. 35
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Forum: The education of Hawks owner Tony Ressler

There are a number of compelling storylines around the NBA this season, as you’ll read in this issue, and one team that I’m watching is the Atlanta Hawks. That’s because of what Tony Ressler, his wife, Jami Gertz, and their three sons are bringing to the team in their fifth year of ownership.

Tony Ressler’s successful background in private equity puts him among the NBA’s new breed of financially savvy, fast-moving risk takers. With his oldest son, Oliver, quietly influencing his press-shy father, the two sat down with me at our Sports Facilities & Franchises conference in Los Angeles and talked about the early learnings of ownership and how they feel their organization is poised to become a compelling story in the NBA. 

“We did have a little bit of the deer in the headlights look when we first bought the team,” Tony conceded. “I’m in the investment business, and buying a basketball team, it’s not a traditional business. You’re buying a community asset and sharing it with the community, whether you know it or not. You need to make clear what your objectives are and be present. It’s a lot more time and presence than I anticipated.” 

The team moved away from having one person oversee all basketball and coaching decisions to a bifurcated operations structure, while investing significantly in the team’s venues and event experience. “Maybe not in the first year, but every decision we have made, certainly in the last two or three years, has been focused exclusively on trying to win a championship,” he said. “It is not done overnight. But we have a clear set of priorities.” 

They completed a well-received $200 million transformation of State Farm Arena, which is the linchpin of their plans for nearly 12 million square feet of development across the street. They’ve added a G League team and a new facility for the team debuting this month.

“When we came in, we had maybe the worst arena in the NBA,” he said. “We would argue we have among the best today. We had maybe the worst practice facility in the NBA, and we would argue we are among the top practice facilities now.  We’ve done things in these past four or five years that we’re enormously proud of, which when we first came in thought would be a luxury, and very, very shortly figured out it was a requirement.” 

Asked how the publicity-shy private equity leader has dealt with the high-profile nature of ownership, Oliver humorously chimed in, “Forced by his son to talk on panels.” But Tony shrugged and said, “You can’t entirely avoid public exposure. It’s part of what we signed up for, whether you like it or not. I’m trying to do it thoughtfully, but I still believe that most of our fan base … want to know if ownership is making good decisions, are they involved and are they committed. I’m trying to make clear that we are completely focused on the Atlanta Hawks and its future success.” 

After a pause, he added, “There are other owners that want to be much more the face of their franchise. I say great, good luck to them.” 

Both stressed the important role of Gertz, a longtime actress, in the team’s approach. “My mother has a huge role,” Oliver said. “Getting up on a stage is rather uncomfortable for us. My mother spends time really being the face of the team.”

Tony was also quick to point out the role of their three sons. “Buying a business where your kids can actually help you run it is very beneficial,” he said. “Being able to identify with millennials and understand players and players’ perspectives, the idea of understanding sports betting and media, these are things that my boys have been enormously helpful in.”

At the league level, he sees global media and sports betting as “two of the most critical areas that the league is dealing with over the next 20 years.” Locally, he knows the team still has a ways to go. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “We won 29 games last year, so this season we need to show progress, meaningful progress.” 

Four years after buying the team for a reported $850 million, the Resslers feel they have learned from the past and are ready to move forward, bullish about the future.

“Did we buy a basketball team, or did we buy 350 hours of programming?” Tony asked. “We’re trying to figure out. When you add the arena and the community, it’s a really interesting business that is incredibly well positioned over the next 20 years. I love the position we’re in. We have to make sure the partnership we have with players remains exactly where it is, which is critical. The NBA is in a good place, and we feel really good about where we’re going.”

 

First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.