The owner of the Suns and Mercury plans to sell the teams after a scandal.
Robert Sarver, who owned most of the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. teams in Phoenix, was fined $10 million and suspended for a year for mistreating employees and using racial slurs for many years.
Robert Sarver said on Wednesday that he would sell the Phoenix Suns and Mercury because of what he called a “unforgiving climate.” An NBA investigation found that he had mistreated team employees for years.
It was a quick change of heart for Sarver, who seemed determined to keep his shares in both basketball teams even after the NBA fined him $10 million and banned him from running teams for a year last week. According to the report of the investigation, Sarver had been bad at work for more than a decade, doing things like using racial slurs, making sexual comments, and treating women unfairly.
But after the punishments, the public put more pressure on Sarver and the NBA to give a harsher punishment for behavior that N.B.A. Commissioner Adam Silver had called “beyond the pale.”
In a statement released Wednesday, Sarver said that his one-year suspension would have given him time to “make amends and remove my personal controversy” from the teams he owns.
“But in our current unforgiving climate,” he said, “it has become painfully clear that that is no longer possible. Any good I have done or could still do is outweighed by things I have said in the past.”
The owners of the Suns and Mercury, Silver and Suns Legacy Partners L.L.C., said in separate statements that Sarver’s choice was the best for the team and the community.
“We also know that today’s news does not change the work that is still in front of us,” the ownership group said. “We acknowledge the courage of the people who came forward in this process to tell their stories and apologize to those who were hurt.”
When asked if Silver had told Sarver to sell the teams, an NBA spokesman didn’t say anything. Last week, Silver said that Sarver’s fine and suspension were fair punishments and that he had not asked Sarver to sell the teams on his own. He also said that the NBA’s board of governors had not talked about getting rid of him as an owner. Silver could have banned Sarver for more than a year, but the most he could do was fine him $10 million.
The NBA announced the penalties on September 13 after the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz made public a 43-page report about Sarver’s behavior during his 18 years with basketball teams. The report was the result of an investigation that took almost a year. The NBA started its investigation after an ESPN article in November 2021 said that Sarver had been mistreated. The law firm said that its investigators talked to more than 100 people who had seen behavior that “violated applicable standards.”
The report says that Sarver told bad jokes, said “the N-word” at least five times, shared inappropriate text messages and photos, and talked down to employees. During the investigation, Sarver tried to defend himself by talking about how he had worked for social and racial justice and helped women’s basketball.
A time out of school and a fine. Robert Sarver, the main owner of the Phoenix Suns, was suspended for a year and fined $10 million by the NBA after an investigation found that he had mistreated his employees. What you need to know:
How it started. Sarver, who is 60 years old, was the leader of the group that bought the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury for $401 million in 2004. He is known as a hands-on owner who isn’t afraid to draw attention to himself by doing things like dunking off a trampoline at halftime.
A bad news story. An ESPN report from November 2021 said that Sarver, who is white, often used an anti-Black racial slur in front of and about employees and players and made misogynistic and sexual comments about women at work.
Sarver’s response. When word got out that ESPN was looking into Sarver, the Suns put out statements ahead of time denying that Sarver had ever been racist or sexist. Sarver told ESPN that most of the accusations in the article were false.
Investigation by the NBA. After the article came out, the league started to look into the claims that Sarver had been mistreated. They hired the law firm Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz to do an independent investigation.
A damning assessment. In September 2022, the firm and the NBA released a 43-page report about what they had found. The report said that Sarver “clearly broke common workplace standards” by using racial slurs and making inappropriate comments and acting in inappropriate ways toward employees.
Growing anger After the report came out, several well-known players, one of the teams’ minority owners, and a major sponsor all called for a harsher punishment. Mr. Sarver said that he was going to sell the Suns and the Mercury in the end.
In a statement released Wednesday, W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said the league was committed to diversity and inclusion and was happy to hear that Sarver had decided to sell the Mercury. She had said that his suspension and fine were “right and necessary.”
Last week, Chris Paul, a guard for the Phoenix Suns, and LeBron James, a forward for the Los Angeles Lakers, were quick to say that the NBA’s punishment wasn’t enough. Paul said that what he read in the report “horrified and disappointed” him, and he called Sarver’s actions “atrocious.” The head of the NBA players’ union, Tamika Tremaglio, said last week that Sarver should be kicked out of the league for life.
The president of the NBA players’ union, New Orleans Pelicans guard CJ McCollum, said in a statement on Wednesday that Sarver made “a quick decision that was in the best interest of our sports community.”
After Sarver said he was going to sell the Phoenix teams, James said on Twitter that he was “proud to be a part of a league committed to progress.” This was different from a week ago, when he said the NBA “definitely got this wrong” with its punishment.
“I love this league, and I have a lot of respect for the people in charge. But this is wrong,” James wrote last week in a tweet. “Misogyny, sexism, and racism have no place in the workplace. Whether you own the team or play for it, it doesn’t matter. We use our league to show what we stand for, and this isn’t it.”
The worst punishment the league has ever given to a team owner was when Donald Sterling, who owned the Los Angeles Clippers at the time, was banned from owning a team for life after making racist comments about Black people in a private conversation that was recorded and then made public.
One month later, Steve Ballmer, who used to be the CEO of Microsoft, agreed to buy the Clippers for about $2 billion. The sale went quickly because doctors said Sterling was “mentally incapacitated.” This meant that his wife, Rochelle, could be the sole trustee of the team and negotiate a deal on its behalf.
Still, it can take months or even years to sell a professional sports team.
Most owners hire one of a few bankers who specialize in these kinds of deals. This banker asks for bids from billionaires, companies, and, more and more, large groups of people working together. There are times when the auction goes in a more traditional way. Once an agreement is reached, the potential new owner or owners must be vetted and approved by a vote of the N.B.A.’s board of governors, which is made up of owners from all 30 teams.
There are many things that can make it hard to sell something, and the Phoenix Suns have some of them.
Sarver is in charge of both the Suns and the Mercury, but he only owns 35% of Suns Legacy Partners L.L.C., which is the legal entity that owns the teams. Possible buyers may want to buy all of the teams, which would mean negotiating with the other owners. However, some of the other owners may also want to buy the team and may have an advantage because they have already been vetted and approved by the NBA.
Arenas and the commercial development that goes with them can also make sales harder. The Suns’ owners run the Footprint Center, where both the Suns and the Mercury play their home games, but the city of Phoenix owns the arena.
Most of the time, teams sell to those who are willing to pay the most. Sometimes, owners care about things that have nothing to do with money, like an agreement to keep a team in a certain city. The way a team is paid for can also be important.
When team owners have been forced to sell their teams, the results have been very different.
In 2017, Jerry Richardson said he was selling the Carolina Panthers after Sports Illustrated said there had been problems at work. Five months later, after a pretty normal sales process, David Tepper agreed to buy the Panthers for at least $2.2 billion, which was the highest price ever paid for an NFL team at the time.
The sale of the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake took much longer. In August 2020, M.L.S. said that Dell Loy Hansen would sell the team. Hansen was said to have made racist comments, so M.L.S. said that Hansen would sell the team. Hansen and M.L.S. had to look for a buyer for 17 months, and the league had to run the team for a season.
When investigations have found wrongdoing at work, the NBA has also agreed to less harsh punishments.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, agreed to give $10 million to women’s leadership and domestic violence groups in 2018. This came after an NBA investigation confirmed that employees in the team’s front office had engaged in sexual harassment and other bad behavior.
Cuban wasn’t accused of being bad, but the investigation found that he wasn’t a good supervisor. The report said that Terdema Ussery, the former president and CEO of the team, was one of several high-ranking team officials who had treated female employees in an inappropriate way.
After the report came out, Cuban said he was sorry and that he had missed chances to change the culture of his company.