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Sunday, August 7, 2011

Atlanta Hawks To Become First Hispanic-Owned NBA Team

ATLANTA -- The Hawks and Philips Arena will be sold to California developer and pizza chain owner Alex Meruelo, but the NBA team will remain in Atlanta, a person familiar with the deal said Sunday.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity to The Associated Press because no official announcement has been made. The deal, subject to the approval of the NBA, is to be announced on Monday.

The Hawks ownership group, led by Michael Gearon Jr. and Bruce Levenson, also recently sold the NHL Atlanta Thrashers to a group that has moved the team to Winnipeg. The Thrashers deal was for a reported $170 million.

Meruelo, who will have controlling interest of more than 50 percent of the Hawks, founded La Pizza Loca. It has over 50 franchised and company-owned restaurants in Southern California.

Meruelo also heads The Meruelo Group, a Downey, Calif.-based investment firm, which recently acquired the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., for a reported $42.45 million.

A tearful Gearon said at the news conference to announce the sale of the Thrashers on May 31 that the owners failed in attempts to find someone to keep the hockey team in Atlanta. Gearon said no local buyer emerged with a serious offer for the Thrashers.

The ownership group, called the Atlanta Spirit, also had to look outside of Atlanta to find a buyer for the Hawks. This time, there was no threat of moving the team.

The group bought the Hawks, Thrashers and operating rights to Philips Arena, where the teams play, in 2004. There was almost immediate dissension among the owners.

The ownership split began in 2005 over Boston-based co-owner Steve Belkin's objection to the Hawks' trade of Boris Diaw, two first-round draft picks and a $4.9 million trade exception to the Phoenix Suns for guard Joe Johnson in 2005.

The people selling the Hawks, called The Atlanta Spirit Group, also recently sold the Atlanta Thrashers to a buyer that subsequently moved the team to Winnipeg. Turns out, Canada likes hockey more than Georgia does - who knew? The Atlanta Spirit Group had originally wanted to keep both teams in Atlanta, but no serious offers for the Thrashers emerged (because, once again, people in Georgia don't care about hockey).

The Hawks have seen some success recently, both on the court and with their fans, so here's hoping the franchise stays in Atlanta. With that said, I'm not holding my breath. As an Atlanta native, I can tell you that college sports will probably always remain number one in people's hearts and wallets down there. Clearly the professional franchises can also do well, but when a guy with no local ties who also happens to come from a different, larger market buys your team, it is generally not a good sign.

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