BOSTON – With tens of millions of dollars in annual operating losses and a $3.5 billion Brooklyn arena and real estate deal in peril, New Jersey Nets owner Bruce Ratner has listened to overtures of two prospective foreign ownership groups, two league executives with knowledge of the talks told Yahoo! Sports.
The most serious advance, sources say, were made in recent months by Russian oligarchs, tycoons invested in the country's oil industry. The Russians' working plan would've been for full ownership of the Nets and control of the Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn, one source said.
Also, a Middle Eastern group, based in Dubai, expressed interest to the NBA and Nets ownership.
There are no ongoing negotiations, but the fact that Ratner was willing to listen speaks to the trouble he's had getting the Brooklyn arena built, as well as the financial beating that he has taken since purchasing the Nets in 2004. Sources say he's losing as much as $30 million a year on the team.
NBA commissioner David Stern didn't speak specifically about potential interest in the Nets, but confirmed overseas interest in owning NBA teams. "It is fair to say that we have had expressions of interest – no sales – from Russia, the Middle East and China," Stern told Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday night.
Then, Stern smiled and said, "But none in the last two weeks, and all of them when oil was $140 a barrel."
For now, the Nets are rebuilding with young players and remain lame-duck tenants in a Northern New Jersey market that is largely indifferent to them. The New York Daily News reported on Monday that Ratner met with a group of investors in the past year about selling the Nets, but the paper's story said that the proposed deal would not have included the Atlantic Yards.
So far, Ratner has resisted selling the franchise as he tries to revive the floundering arena project in Brooklyn. Most league officials have grown increasingly pessimistic that the economic climate will allow Ratner to obtain the hundreds of millions of dollars left to finance the construction. Stern declared optimism about the Nets getting the arena financed and moving to Brooklyn, but many others believe the situation is dire and ultimately unlikely to happen.
Plans for a 2011 opening of the Atlantic Yards project, which includes business and residential structures, were pushed back again recently. The Nets had hoped that the move to Brooklyn would be part of a plan that would trigger Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James to sign a free-agent deal with the Nets. James is close with one of the Nets part-owners, rapper Jay-Z.