The Work

July 14, 2011 7:12 PM

Wachtell, Davis Polk Handling Sale of NBA Team to Private Equity Titans

Posted by Brian Baxter

The Philadelphia 76ers became the latest National Basketball Association franchise to change hands Thursday, as the team's current owners agreed to sell the club to a group led by two private equity bigwigs, a hedge fund manager, and a former attorney from Greenberg Traurig.

Comcast Spectator, a unit of Philadelphia-based cable giant Comcast Corporation, announced that the deal would only include the 76ers, not the team's 20,000-seat Wells Fargo Center or sports network Comcast Sportsnet (both of which Comcast also owns).

Terms of the deal were not disclosed, but various news sources put the price of the 76ers at $280 million. Comcast Spectator chairman Edward Snider, brother-in-law of noted sports attorney and executive Earl Foreman, will retain a 10 percent ownership stake in the team.

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz corporate partners Andrew Nussbaum and David Silk, real estate partner Stephen Gellman, tax partner Deborah Paul, and associates Joey Shabot, Kendall Fox, and Lauren Cooper are advising the investor group taking control of the 76ers. (As we've previously reported, Silk advised NBA legend Michael Jordan on his $275 million acquisition of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats last year; the league also hired Wachtell four years ago to probe its referee program.)

The group taking control of the 76ers includes Joshua Harris, cofounder of alternative investment giant Apollo Global Management, David Blitzer, a senior executive at private equity firm The Blackstone Group, Art Wrubel from real estate-focused hedge fund Wesley Capital, and sports agent Jason Levien, who left Greenberg Traurig in 2007 to start his own sports agency. (The New York Times reported several years ago on Levien's international travels as an agent.)

The group's Wachtell lawyers are hardly strangers when it comes to dealing with Comcast, having represented The Walt Disney Company when Comcast attempted a $54.1 billion hostile takeover in 2004, according to our previous reports. (As The Am Law Daily reported in a separate story, Thursday was a busy day for Wachtell's corporate department: the firm was tapped by Houston-based oil giant ConocoPhillips to advise on a planned division of the company into two separate entities.)

An in-house Comcast legal team is taking the lead in advising on the company's sale of the 76ers. Team general counsel Phil Weinberg, who also serves as general counsel for Comcast Spectator, is working on the deal, along with Comcast Spectator assistant general counsel Linsey Levine. From parent company Comcast, senior deputy general counsel Derek Squire and assistant deputy general counsel Johannes Wirtz are advising on M&A aspects of the transaction.

Wirtz is a former Davis Polk & Wardwell associate who was part of a team from that firm advising Comcast on its $30 billion acquisition of NBC Universal from General Electric in December 2009. Comcast is a longtime Davis Polk client--the firm advised Comcast on its ill-fated Disney bid seven years ago, and last month helped new Comcast unit NBC Universal take control of a theme park unit in a $1 billion deal.

But as previously noted by sibling publication Corporate Counsel, it's Comcast general counsel Arthur Block, a former partner at now-defunct WolfBlock, who ultimately determines which firms get the call for the company's outside legal work. (Three years ago, Comcast restructured the legal group in its sports department, according to sibling publication The Legal Intelligencer.)

For the sale of the 76ers, Davis Polk tax partner Neil Barr and associates Kay Ng and Joshua Ruland--who we assume is no relation to ex-76er Jeff Ruland--were tapped to serve as special counsel to Comcast on the sale of the team.

The deal requires the approval of the NBA's board of governors and is expected to close later this year. One member of the 76ers' prospective ownership group, Levien, served as general counsel and assistant general manager for the NBA's ailing Sacramento Kings until July of last year. Levien is reportedly in line to become the next general manager for the 76ers.

The sale of the 76ers is the latest deal involving an NBA team to yield transactional work for Am Law 200 lawyers. The Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Golden State Warriors, New Jersey Nets, and Washington Wizards have all been sold in recent years.

Negotiations for yet another franchise sale, this one for the New Orleans Hornets, eventually collapsed, which led the NBA to seize the team and place it under the control of former Hogan & Hartson partner Jac Sperling.

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