Could there actually be an ownership shake-up in the works for the Knicks and Rangers? On Tuesday morning, Madison Square Garden Sports president/COO David Hopkinson said on the company’s earnings call that they would consider selling off a share of the New York Knicks or Rangers.
So what does that mean?
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For starters, Hopkinson was clear that MSG had no plans to sell the team themselves, but that “we would certainly not rule out selling a minority stake in the Knicks or the Rangers.” The obvious questions are whether James Dolan would allow these minority owners to have any say in the decision-making process for either team and how much say he might give them.
Dolan, who runs both MSG companies and the teams, has stated bluntly in the past that, despite rumors to the contrary, he would not sell either team. Recently, he went on WFAN and reiterated the same point saying, “I have no plans whatsoever to sell at this point…It’s a family-controlled asset, so someone in the family will eventually own it.”
However, since an MSG executive mentioned selling off even a portion of the team, it’s worth exploring what this might look like or mean for fans of the Knicks and Rangers.
MSG itself has already sold a minority stake in its company to Silver Lake Group, L.L.C., which is an American global private equity firm focused on investments in technology, technology-enabled and related industries. In December of 2018, Silver Lake filed an SC 13D/A form with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) “disclosing ownership of 939,996 shares of Madison Square Garden Sports Corp,” which represents 4.9 percent ownership of the company.
As of 2019, it was reported that Silver Lake was “looking to acquire significant stakes in the New York Knicks and Rangers.” A move like this would add to a growing number of private equity firms that are purchasing stakes in professional sports franchises.
In a 2019 interview with CNBC, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred explained that “franchise values have escalated, and the capital structures in the clubs have become more complicated. The idea of having a fund that would essentially be a passive equity investor in a club or clubs is one that is helpful in terms of facilitating sale transactions in clubs.”
In the NBA, private equity companies can individually own up to 20% of a team.
CNBC reported that many of these big private equity firms have been buying minority stakes in teams recently because they are “attracted to the economic moat around sports leagues, including the increasing value of media rights and global expansion.” Given the NBA’s global market and its increasing expansion into Africa and China, any of these firms see buying into the NBA as a big investment opportunity.
Chris Lencheski, chairman of private equity consulting company Phoenicia, added that “within the next 20 years, you’ll have supersonic travel, which will allow an NBA team to travel within three hours anywhere in the world. So, it’s easy to see a Madrid versus the New York Knicks. And the NBA, by the nature of their product, is perfectly suited for that.”
With all of this information, it stands to reason that, if MSG was indeed selling a minority stake in the Knicks and Rangers to Silver Lake or another private equity firm, it wouldn’t impact the management of the teams in any meaningful way for fans. However, there is currently no information about who potential buyers might be.
Ted Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals, Wizards, and Mystics seemed to suggest that the move to bring in a private equity firm is most beneficial if you plan to eventually sell the team: “The only way you could really [take advantage] is if you sell the team. There are some really big funds that can give you growth capital for you and your partners with some liquidity.”
While Dolan has stated that he has no plans to sell the Knicks and Rangers, it’s clear that his focus has become even more fixed on The Sphere, a performance venue he’s building in Las Vegas. However, the project has hit some obstacles and “has seen its budget rise from $2 billion to $2.175 billion.”
In fact, Dolan recently began exploring the sale of Tao nightclub and restaurant, allegedly to help fund The Sphere project. If the project continues to grow in scale, could Dolan be tempted to sell a larger portion of the teams despite his adamant denial that he would?
When you remember that Hopkinson said “we have no plans to sell the team ourselves” and then factor in that Leonsis claims including private equity firms is a beneficial way to have them help you see off the team, it’s possible the MSG president is leaving open a window for a firm to be the one selling off the Knicks.
Or we could be reading into it too much.
For now, it appears to be more speculation around the future of the Knicks and Rangers with little tangible impact. However, as the speculation continues to mount and the pieces continue to assemble, it’s possible we could see an ownership change in the future, despite Dolan’s claims to the contrary.