Originally created 04/01/04

Hawks, Thrashers sale is finalized



ATLANTA - The $250 million sale of Atlanta's professional basketball and hockey teams from media conglomerate Time Warner to a nine-member group was finalized Wednesday with a promise of wins to come but few details about how that will be achieved.

Atlanta Spirit LLC officially took control of the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena, where the teams play. Time Warner sold the teams to reduce its heavy debt.

The first order of business: Longtime sports executive Bernie Mullin was named chief of operations for both teams, and former Hawks star Dominique Wilkins was elevated to vice president of basketball for the Hawks.

Mr. Mullin said the ownership group of investors from Boston, Washington and Atlanta are committed to turning around the two teams' losing records and making the franchises profitable.

But he would not say how the group plans to do that, other than stating its goal to sign more free agents. One of the new owners referred to the plans as "secret strategies."

"At this point in time we're going to restructure the organization to make it one organization instead of two, and there will be some changes inherent in that," Mr. Mullin said.

The Hawks and Thrashers share woeful histories of losing.

The Hawks have never won a championship since moving from St. Louis in 1968, and they haven't been to the playoffs since 1999. This year, they're 24-50 as of Wednesday, second to last in their division.

The Thrashers are now in their fifth season but still haven't seen the postseason. They're 32-36-8-4, second in their division but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.

The new owners said they will put more emphasis on marketing and use their experience in the business world to fill the seats of Philips Arena. They promised to be accessible to the public and to make management decisions with one voice.

"There are those in the industry who don't think Atlanta is a good sports market," Mr. Mullin said at a news conference. "Well, they are wrong, and we are here to prove it."

The change in ownership completes a sale process that had dragged on for nearly a year. Dallas auto dealer David McDavid began exclusive talks to buy the teams last April, but could never close the deal.

With Mr. McDavid still believing his offer would work out, Time Warner suddenly changed course in mid-September. The media conglomerate announced it was selling the teams to a group headed by Steve Belkin, founder and chairman of the Boston-based marketing and investing company Trans National Group.

The other owners are Michael Gearon Jr., Bruce Levenson, Ed Peskowitz, Rutherford Seydel, Todd Foreman, Michael Gearon Sr., Bud Seretean and Ted Turner's youngest son, Beau Turner. Ted Turner previously owned the teams and baseball's Atlanta Braves but lost control through a series of corporate mergers.

Turner Broadcasting, a Time Warner subsidiary, will retain 15 percent ownership of Atlanta Spirit, but will have no say in operations. Time Warner has backed off its efforts to sell baseball's Braves.