First Chinese Professional Sports Ownership on the Cusp

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With Tiger out, Chinese ownership may further catapult LeBron

The net result of these efforts more than doubled the Cavs revenues...

It’s been a front page story for more than 6 months now. A Chinese group is about to become the first foreign owners of a US based professional sports team. Given the recent demise of Tiger Woods, there is no doubt that the Chinese ownership in the Cavaliers and their superstar, Lebron James, will only further catapult his position as the most popular US sports figure in China. The story of how Cavaliers may have pulled off this ultimate chess move actually started 18 months ago.    

It was the early summer of 2008, the Cavaliers behind the scenes owner David Katzman had personally overseen a dramatic turn around on the business side of the team. Katzman, and his partners at Camelot Ventures, were part of the ownership group, along with majority owner Dan Gilbert that purchased the Cavaliers in March of 2005. As the Vice Chairman and 2nd largest shareholder of the Cavaliers, Katzman and his team were responsible for overseeing the business side of the Cavaliers, which included ticket sales, suite sales, sponsorships, arena improvements, a new practice facility, TV contracts, and hiring of the General Manager, Danny Ferry and Coach Mike Brown. “I’m very proud of what we accomplished on the business front since we acquired the team” said David Katzman. “The net result of these efforts more than doubled the Cavs revenues and we now rank in the top 5 of almost every revenue category measured by the NBA.”

Having successfully accomplished what they had set out to do on the business front, the 4 partners of Camelot decided to break away and form a new investment group called Camelot Venture Group. Contrary to earlier reports, during the summer of 2008, it was Katzman and his 3 partners who started to quietly look for a buyer of their ownership stake in the Cavaliers. With the NBA announcing their desire to extend their footprint into China, the Camelot group reached out to their business contacts in China to find a potential buyer. By the end of 2008, they had narrowed the list of possible buyers down to two groups. “It was very important to us that whoever acquired our ownership piece be able to add value to the team and also realize the appreciation to the value of the team that was created over the past 4 years” said Mr. Katzman. “Both of the parties we were focused on possessed those qualities.”

For almost 12 months, the group negotiated with the various parties and only a few weeks ago came to an agreement with one of them to acquire the second largest holding of the Cavs. This group of Chinese businessmen has agreed to bring many important sponsorship deals to the Cavs from leading Chinese companies interested in marketing in the USA. Some say that the deal may even entice Lebron James, who has claimed he wants to be the first billion-dollar athlete, to re-sign with his hometown team next summer. James is hugely popular in China and it seems the feeling's mutual. Playing for a team with links to China, "should be fun," James told a Cleveland newspaper, The Plain Dealer. "It's a big market; they love the game of basketball .I've been over there the last four or five summers, and I know how much they are inspired about the game."

All of the necessary regulatory requirements have been approved by the NBA and a final meeting with the new Chinese owners and a committee of the NBA owners is scheduled to take place in NY this week in order to close the deal before the year end. This historic event would be one of the largest paid for an NBA team and make this group the first Chinese owners of a US based professional sports team.

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