Despite their considerable success on the court over the past two seasons, the Memphis Grizzlies are in a precarious situation. With little in the way of an established NBA fan base in Tennessee, it's as yet undecided if the market is viable in the long term. If their pre-playoff seasons are a guide, it's unclear how much local interest they'll hold when the playoff appearances stop. In the NBA, that means they could be a target for a potential move.
A strong local owner could improve the Grizzlies' chances of staying in town. Yet, while current boss Michael Heisley is looking to sell the team, the franchise's future might soon be a whole lot more complicated. According to an interview with Heisley in The Commercial Appeal, billionaire Larry Ellison has shown interest in purchasing the Grizzlies. From Ronald Tillery:
Californian Larry Ellison, ranked as the third-richest person in the U.S., has inquired about buying the Memphis Grizzlies with apparent hopes of moving the team to San Jose.
But team owner Michael Heisley on Saturday downplayed the possibility of a sale -- and of a relocation, citing a lease that ties the franchise to Memphis and FedExForum until 2021.
"I can't downplay it enough. If it happens I'll be surprised," said Heisley, a Chicago-based billionaire who added that talks had not become serious.
"It's in the initial stages. We've handled this just like we've handled several other dozen requests. My situation in Memphis has not changed a lick. My preference will always be for somebody in Memphis to buy the team. There's not any interest in Memphis. But we've always made it known that if somebody wants to buy the team, we'll listen. If they're real buyers we'll probably be sellers. So far there hasn't been anyone willing to buy the team under my terms and for my price."
Heisley's price is a fairly high $350 million, and his downplaying of the situation means something. But it'd also be wrong to underestimate Ellison. While he was unsuccessful in his bid to buy the Golden State Warriors several years ago, he only failed because he got arrogant and underbid, thereby losing out to eventual winners Joe Lacob and Peter Guber. In most situations, Ellison gets what he wants: Recently, he brought the America's Cup yachting race to San Francisco despite ongoing questions about the financial benefits and the city's ability to pay for harbor upgrades. Ellison is the sort of guy who usually gets what he wants, even if it involves upsetting more people than it pleases. He's not especially interested in public opinion.
The NBA has shown a willingness recently to do whatever possible to keep franchises in their current cities, even if that means assuming control themselves, as they did in the case of the New Orleans Hornets. But there's no doubt that David Stern and Adam Silver would love to get Ellison's considerable bank account involved with the league in some form.
This particular sale would be difficult — fan outcry will be significant if the Grizzlies were to move, and Lacob has insisted that San Jose belongs to the Warriors — but not impossible. The current situation could change, and Ellison's the sort of person who will take advantage if it does.