After word leaked Tuesday from the sports business website Sportico that Glen Taylor was working with investment bank Raine Group in courting offers for the Timberwolves, Taylor quickly made it known to the Star Tribune and other local media outlets that it was his intent to make sure the team remains in Minnesota.
Anybody interested in moving the franchise was not a prospective buyer.
Two high-profile names with local ties quickly emerged as potential buyers: Former Wolves star Kevin Garnett said he was working with a group to buy the team, while the Wilf family, who owns the Vikings, had some dialogue with Taylor — though sources said last week those talks aren’t active. On Friday, a group led by former NBA player Arron Afflalo, which would keep the team in Minnesota, also reportedly emerged.
But if there’s another potential buyer — Taylor indicated a family from out of state is further along in the process than others — can provisions be put in writing that would marry the new owners to Minneapolis? Would the NBA approve those provisions? Would they hold up in court?
The Star Tribune spoke to a number of lawyers and the consensus was that doing so doesn’t seem as simple as baking it into a contract and tying the new owners to Minneapolis permanently. A deal likely would have to have parameters about how long such an agreement, or covenant, would last, and any financial penalty for breaking that covenant couldn’t be overly severe.
The league has not responded to Star Tribune requests for comment regarding the sale of the Wolves.
“You could have some contingencies … and I’m sure there could be a provision that relates to keeping the team in place,” said Eldon Ham, an author and professor of sports law at Chicago-Kent College of Law. “But I don’t think it would be able to extend forever.”
At the crux of any guarantee to keep the Wolves in Minnesota would be how long that guarantee would last or how harsh the financial penalty would be for breaking it. Ham said any kind of agreement that makes outlandish demands, like a 30-year promise to keep the team in Minnesota, might not make it past league approval, which requires a $1 million fee just to apply, he said.
“The league itself has to approve all this,” Ham said. “So if you have a ridiculous contract, they’re just going to tell you: ‘We’re not approving this stuff.’
“If there’s something in there that says the applicant shall not apply to remove the team from the city or the state or whatever for a year or something like that, you might try to get that to fly. I don’t see anything in the bylaws that says you couldn’t have that in the contract, but the NBA itself might say, ‘We don’t like it.’ ”
The same could apply to a court, which could rule that restrictions might be too stringent to the business’ ability to operate as the owners see fit. For instance, if the economy in Minneapolis or the state tanks and a move would make financial sense for the league or owners, a court could rule any previous agreement to not move the team would be too harmful to the overall business.
To Scott Andresen, a sports law attorney and professor at Northwestern, promises from an owner pledging to keep the team in a city despite selling it can amount to a public-relations ploy. Any sale that includes these restrictions can become a headache for the buyer — especially if unforeseen circumstances, such as issues with an arena, arise in years following a sale.
“You buy yourself a whole lot of headaches …” Andresen said. “But you could do it. A guy is selling the team, wants to leave some sort of positive legacy in the community and doesn’t want to be seen as the guy who sold the team, and next thing you know they’re doing the Baltimore Colts move out in the middle of the night.”
Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune, said he views the Wolves as a “state asset” and feels he owes it to Minnesota to keep the team here. But by not opening the Wolves up for relocation, he is limiting his pool of potential buyers and lowering the purchasing price. In other words, Taylor’s loyalty will cost him money.
“There’s not a lot of guys who can write a check for that much money,” Andresen said.
Andresen said one way of executing what Taylor wants could be to sell to a buyer for a certain price, hold some of the money in abeyance, and give that back to the buyer if the team is still in Minnesota after a certain number of years.
“That’s one way to do it, basically saying we’re going to give you a discount,” Andresen said.
There could also be a more direct financial penalty for moving the team, where the new owners would agree to pay a sum of money if they relocate.
But if that happens, how much would it take to prevent a new owner from making a business decision to pay that penalty and move the team in hopes of growing the value of the franchise in another market?
If you set that price too high, or set too long a time limit on a buyer’s ability to move the franchise, would the NBA see the deal as unreasonable and reject it? Would it hold up as fair and enforceable in a court? What happens if the new owners want to resell the team? Would the subsequent owners be bound by the same caveats?
“If there’s something underhanded going on to injure competition — there’s always some risk somebody might raise that, too,” Ham said. “It’s an interesting question: How far can you push the envelope with these things?”
That’s the fine line it seems Taylor and any new buyer must walk.