Turnover in the Valley: Mat Ishbia Takes Over
More than a year after the start of the NBA’s investigation into now former Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver, it is reported that billionaire Mat Ishbia plans to purchase the two teams for a record $4 billion. Ishbia, the CEO of United Wholesale Mortgage and a former Division I college basketball player, will take over as majority owner at the age of 42, making him the youngest owner in the league. The sale comes as no surprise, after Sarver announced in September his intentions on selling the franchises. While the deal will not be finalized until it is approved by the NBA’s Board of Governors, the eventual sale of the championship-contending Suns and three-time WNBA champion Mercury marks the end of almost 20 years of workplace toxicity.
Robert Sarver purchased the two franchises in 2004 for a now measly $401 million. Since then, the Suns have gradually risen in value, in large part due to the famously high-tempo, Steve Nash-led Suns teams in the mid-2000’s. Following a lengthy postseason hiatus in the 2010’s, the team returned to the playoffs in glorious fashion in 2021, making it to the NBA Finals, only to lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. At the start of the current 2022-23 NBA season, the Suns were valued by Forbes at $2.7 billion, 13th in the NBA. However, the team’s $4 billion purchase price puts the Suns in the top five in NBA team valuation, next to last year’s championship runner-up Boston Celtics, and above its division rival Los Angeles Clippers.
In the WNBA, the Phoenix Mercury has seen even greater success in the years following Sarver’s takeover. The franchise won WNBA championships in 2007, 2009, and 2014. Of the four WNBA teams with at least three titles, the eight-year span between the Mercury’s first and third title is the largest, showing the franchise’s long-running success under Sarver’s tenure.
However, while the team experienced varying degrees of success over Sarver’s 18-year ownership period, it was what happened behind the scenes that led to the team’s eventual sale. An NBA investigation uncovered that Sarver used the N-word at least five times “when recounting the statements of others.” Additionally, Sarver was reportedly involved in instances of “inequitable conduct toward female employees,” including making comments on female employees’ appearances. Sarver was ultimately suspended by the NBA for one year and fined $10 million for his behavior. However, after backlash from star players such as LeBron James, Chris Paul, and others calling on him to step away, Sarver released a statement in September 2022 announcing the start of the selling process. Now in December, that process has reached its conclusion.
The Suns and Mercury’s new owner, Mat Ishbia, is no stranger to basketball or the NBA. According to ESPN, Ishbia has been pursuing the purchase of NBA and NFL teams for several years. Over that time, Ishbia developed many good relationships in the league office, including NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, and with other team owners. Ishbia’s brother Justin Ishbia, a founding partner at Shore Capital, will also make a significant investment in the team and serve as alternate governor. Ishbia’s purchase will include all of Sarver’s interests and a portion of that of some of the minority owners. The Suns’ purchase continues the trend of rising valuations of NBA teams, with Joe Tsai buying the Brooklyn Nets for $2.35 billion in 2019, Tilman Fertitta buying the Houston Rockets for $2.2 billion in 2017, and Steve Ballmer purchasing the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion in 2014.
If history is any indication of what is to come, Suns fans might be able to expect major changes to the team in the coming seasons. Following his purchase of the Clippers in 2014, also ending a long tenure of workplace toxicity under former owner Donald Sterling, Steve Ballmer completely rebranded the team, with new uniforms, courts, and an announcement of his plan to build the Clippers a new arena. Additionally, following the free agency exit of star point guard Chris Paul, Ballmer wasted no time rebuilding, trading away fan favorite All-Star Blake Griffin, trading a record number of first round draft picks for All-Star Paul George, and signing two-time NBA Champion Kawhi Leonard. Joe Tsai’s start to owning the Brooklyn Nets followed a similar trend. A year after purchasing a 49% stake in the Nets in 2018, Tsai signed star players Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, acquired the remaining 51% stake in the Nets, and bought the Nets’ arena, all in a two-month span.
Ishbia takes over as owner of the Suns in a critical stage of their championship-contending window this season. While star players Devin Booker, Deandre Ayton, and Mikal Bridges are contractually locked up until at least the 2025-26 NBA season, rising prospect Cameron Johnson is set to hit Restricted Free Agency this summer. In addition, starting point guard Chris Paul enters the second year of a four-year, $120 million contract signed with Phoenix in 2021. At 37 years old, Paul is currently averaging career lows in points per game and field goal percentage, having already missed fourteen of the Sun’s first 32 games due to injuries. With the Suns already over $15 million into the Luxury Tax, Ishbia will have many tough decisions to make regarding the team’s financial commitments and roster construction going forward.
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