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Robert Sarver to sell Phoenix Suns and Mercury after NBA suspension backlash

Billionaire ‘seeking buyers’ as sponsors and vice chair call for him to go following misconduct findings.

22 September 2022 Josh Sim

Getty Images

  • Minority owner Sam Garvin to be Suns interim governor as sale process begins
  • Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and ex-Disney CEO Bob Iger among those interested in Suns acquisition

Majority owner Robert Sarver has announced he will sell both the Phoenix Suns and the Phoenix Mercury following the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) decision to suspend him as a result of its investigation into workplace misconduct.

North America’s elite men’s basketball competition banned the 60-year-old from any involvement with teams for one year and fined him US$10 million after he was found to have used racist language and repeatedly displayed misogynistic behaviour during his tenure as owner.

In the immediate aftermath of the NBA suspension, PayPal, a key sponsor of both teams, threatened to cancel its deal if Sarver did not sell his ownership stake. Pressure on Sarver was further ramped up when Jahm Najafi, Suns vice chairman, called for Sarver’s resignation in an open letter to fans after the investigation’s findings were made public.

Sarver has now conceded he will have to sell both teams, issuing a statement on 21st September: ‘As a man of faith, I believe in atonement and the path to forgiveness. I expected that the commissioner’s one-year suspension would provide the time for me to focus, make amends and remove my personal controversy from the teams that I and so many fans love.

‘But in our current unforgiving climate, it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible – that whatever good I have done, or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past.

‘For those reasons, I am beginning the process of seeking buyers for the Suns and Mercury.’

Sam Garvin, a minority shareholder from Sarver’s original ownership group who took on interim governorship following the NBA investigation, will remain in operational control of the Suns and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) team as the sale process begins.

In the wake of Sarver’s announcement, ESPN reports that Suns chief executive Jason Rowley told fellow employees that there remain issues in the NBA’s investigation report that the team will examine and that it would take ‘corrective action’ where appropriate. He is said to have reinforced that it was crucial for the franchise to ‘recognise some missteps’ it had made in the past.

Reports in the US indicate that there is wide interest in acquiring the Suns and Mercury. The Suns were recently valued at more than US$2 billion by Sportico and at US$1.8 billion by Forbes. According to The Athletic, the combined price for the Suns and Mercury could end up around US$3 billion.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, as well as Laurene Powell Jobs, who is a current minority governor of the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, have already been named as parties interested in acquiring the Phoenix franchises. Last year, former Disney chief executive Bob Iger was also linked with a takeover deal for both teams and his name has emerged again as a potential buyer.

It is unclear at this stage how the sales will be conducted. The suspension’s terms mean that Sarver will have no interaction or connection with anyone at either the Suns or the Phoenix. When Donald Sterling was banned by the NBA and forced to sell the Los Angeles Clippers in 2014, his wife Shelly Sterling conducted the US$2 billion deal with former Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer. Sterling later settled an antitrust suit with the NBA in relation to the sale.

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