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Ballmer overbids by one billion

By Adam Grossman


On Sunday, the NBA approved the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion. From a brand management and crisis perspective, it is easy to see why the NBA wanted to approve this sale as quickly as possible. I, among many others, have written about the damage that current owner Donald Sterling has done to both the team and the league.

From an economic perspective, it becomes clearer why the NBA wanted to approve the sale as well. Using virtually any standard valuation metric that exists today, Ballmer has agreed to vastly overpay for the Los Angeles Clippers.

Finance industry professionals (investment bankers, venture capitalists, and private equity firms) primarily use three valuation approaches: inherent valuation, relative valuation, and comparable valuation. Using any of these approaches, it is virtually impossible to see how the Clippers are worth $2 billion.

To complete a valuation of a sports team, you need to start with understanding an organization’s revenue streams. Six revenue streams account for virtually all money earned by a sports organization. Like many new owners buying sports franchises, Ballmer is betting that two revenue streams will increase significantly to make his investment profitable: media rights and subsidy. Media revenue refers to the television, mobile, and digital distribution agreements signed by an individual organization. Subsidy revenue includes all revenue shared by a sports league with individual franchises.

The Los Angeles Clippers revenue will increase significantly in both areas after the 2015-16 season. Both the team’s local media rights deal and the NBA’s league wide revenue deals expire after that season. According to Forbes, the Clippers’ local television rights deal can increase to as high as $75 million per year from its current $18 million per year value. In addition, the NBA’s league wide media rights deal is expected to double from its current $930 million per year value. This means the Clippers will receive double its current media rights subsidy from a new deal – about $30 million per year.

Minnesota Timberwolves-LA Clippers game at Staples Center. Photo by David Jones, 2012. CC BY 2.0 via davidcjones Flickr.

Minnesota Timberwolves-LA Clippers game at Staples Center. Photo by David Jones, 2012. CC BY 2.0 via davidcjones Flickr.

While this is all great news for the Clippers, it does not make the team worth $2 billion. An inherent valuation approach uses a discounted cash flow model to evaluate an asset’s worth. This essentially means looking at how much profit is generated by an organization and discounting the profits based on the potential risk factors. Factor in both idiosyncratic (risk associated with owning the Clippers specifically) and systemic risk (risk associated with any financial asset). In our analysis, the Clippers generated an estimated $11 million in annual operating profit from now through 2015-16 season. Starting in the 2016-17 season when the new media rights and subsidy revenue streams start, the Clippers would generate $54 million in annual operating profit in perpetuity. Using this approach, we found the Clippers to be worth $1.05 billion.

We don’t want, however, to rely on a single technique for our assessment of the Clippers’ value. Therefore, employ a relative valuation approach that compares a company’s value using a standard valuation metric. The most common metric used is a price to earnings (P/E) ratio. This means that you compare the price of an asset compared to the amount of annual profit that asset is generating. For example, the average P/E ratio on the S & P 500 is currently at 18.3. The Clippers would have an estimated 36.8 P/E ratio given our estimated operating profits after the 2016-17 season after Ballmer purchases the team. Using the average P / E Ratio of the S & P 500 would produce a value of $990 million.

The only real argument that could be made for the Clippers being worth $2 billion would be by using a comparable valuation. With this approach, an investor looks at what other similar assets have been sold for to determine a value. You only have to look at the Clippers’ baseball neighbors to see a team that recently sold for a similar amount. The Los Angeles Dodgers were recently sold for $2.15 billion to a group led by Guggenheim Partners. While both are sports organizations, the Clippers and the Dodgers are actually very different types of properties. Because it has a bigger venue and plays many more games, the Dodgers currently make as much or more in annual ticket sales revenue than the Clippers make from all revenue streams. The Dodgers also recently signed a $7 billion 25-year local media rights agreement that will pay it far more in average annual dollars than any new media rights deal the Clippers could negotiate. A more appropriate comparison would be to examine the Clippers compared to other NBA franchises. The Milwaukee Bucks recently sold for a league record of $550 million. Ballmer is now paying 3.6 times more than the record amount paid for an NBA franchise.

To be fair to Ballmer, both the media rights and subsidy deals could far exceed expert expectations. The Los Angeles Lakers recently signed two new media rights deals for their English and Spanish broadcasts for $4 billion over 20 years, an average of $200 million per year. The NFL has recently signed new media rights deals that pay the league $7.25 billion in annual revenue, an average of $227 million per team. If the Clippers end up receiving $150 million per year in media rights revenue and the NBA contract triples from its current value then we would estimate the team being worth $2.05 billion. It is also likely that ticket sales and sponsorship revenue will increase significantly with a new owner.

ESPN’s Bill Simmons recently stated that the sale of the Clippers resembled the purchase of a home without the buyer being able to complete a home inspection. The sale of the Clippers was happening so quickly that it was impossible for Ballmer to know what exactly he was buying. However, Ballmer can (and likely has) completed an inspection of the Clippers similar to the one we just described — and he will discover there is no way to generate a $2 billion valuation for the Clippers.

Adam Grossman is the Founder and President of Block Six Analytics (B6A). He has worked with a number of sports organizations, including the Minnesota Timberwolves, Washington Capitals, and SMG @ Solider Field, to enhance their corporate sponsorship and enterprise marketing capabilities. He is the co-author of The Sports Strategist: Developing Leaders for a High-Performance Industry with Irving Rein and Ben Shields. Read his previous blog posts.

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