NBA teams are going cheap and whoever can pony up the cash is being given a shot at buying a club. Whereas there used to be exclusivity, now a scion of a Soviet Union apparatchik with a list of scandals tied to his name is being fast-tracked into a seat at the table of the NBA's board of governors. The Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and the New Jersey Nets basketball team, a union who would have never been allowed when both came to life in the late 1960s, now appears to be a distinct possibility.
Unofficially, the club have been on the market for some time. Anyone who is familiar with basketball knows that the Nets do not draw big crowds, existing as they do in the shadow of the nearby New York Knicks. Yet the Nets play just outside Manhattan, the basketball centre of the universe. This is not a bad place to have a team. If nothing else, the club's management are trying everything to change the team's financial reality. As of September 9, the name of New Jersey's PNY Technologies is now proudly emblazoned on the Nets practice uniforms, the first time an NBA team have sold logo rights on practice jerseys to a sponsor.
The deal had a scent of desperation, especially considering that NBA insiders have long believed that the Nets were losing money hand over fist. The club's fate has been in flux ever since the Cleveland, Ohio, real estate developer Bruce Ratner took control five seasons ago. Ratner's plan has been to use the Nets as a centrepiece in an elaborate real estate play. Dubbed the Atlantic Yards project, this proposal hopes to rip up an existing neighbourhood in the New York borough of Brooklyn to build a sports arena along with a significant commercial and residential real estate development. Local residents have fought Ratner and appear to have drained his finances.
Enter Prokhorov's billions. The Russian achieved notoriety in Europe when it was alleged by French authorities that he procured prostitutes from Russia to visit clients who were on holiday at France's swish Courchevel ski resort. France's then presidential hopeful Nicholas Sarkozy is reported to have uttered at the time: "There's a man who wants to please." The French authorities eventually dropped the charges.
This wouldn't be the first time Prokhorov has saved a basketball club, although it might be the first time he has done so of his own volition. When the iconic CSKA Red Army basketball team were floundering, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, persuaded Prokhorov to finance the club. Putin is known for wanting to use sporting success to inspire the Russian nation. Seemingly overnight, CSKA became the best basketball team in Europe, albeit because of an American player, Trajan Langdon, the man they call the Alaskan Assassin because of his deft shooting skills.
With a budget that surpassed several NBA franchises, CSKA won the Euroleague basketball championship in 2006 and 2008. It is doubtful that Prokhorov would have the same sort of instant success in bringing a title to New Jersey, or to Brooklyn in the event that the Nets move. The NBA have a salary-cap, so even a free-spending foreigner wouldn't have much impact in producing on-court results. A final thought: if someone with Prokhorov's reputation can be embraced by the American sports establishment, one can only imagine how precarious the US economy has become.