Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver has a picture of the first Suns team, circa 1968, hanging in the hallway leading to the team’s clubhouse at Phoenix Suns Arena, where the West Finals against the Los Angeles Clippers opened Sunday with a 120-114 Phoenix win. It’s a potent reminder of a simpler time in the NBA.
“I always try to remember the past,” he said with a chuckle in an exclusive interview. “I had a vinyl made. There was one coach, one trainer, and I think there were 12 players. It was a whole different animal.”
It’s a different league and a different business these days, coming off two seasons shortened by the coronavirus that featured 40% revenue losses, according to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, meaning about $3.5 billion.
The Suns are succeeding through it all.
“This season has been a success. There’s no doubt about it,” Sarver said. “But I would say our fans and players, they want rings. The goal is to win a championship. I just hope to God we can bring that home for our fans.”
Joe Lacob, who owns the Golden State Warriors, said during a Sportico online event back in March that his club had financially written off the season: Even with vaccinations and fans returning to the arena, his club was expected to lose more than $200 million. The Warriors, of course, own and have funded construction of the relatively new $1.6 billion Chase Center and the surrounding business district just south of the Giants ballpark on the San Francisco side of the waterfront.
Sarver said he’s also taken a monetary bath, although he declined to say how much he’s lost. But it’s not in Lacob territory. The fact is, the Suns didn’t have fans in the arena at any appreciable level until the playoffs. Normally, the Suns have about 1.85 million people a year come through the building for various events.
“We took a large hit, just like any business,” Sarver said. “When some of my friends in business asked how we were doing, I said, ‘If you have any ideas how to run a business model without revenue, please let me know.’ We’re in the business of entertaining, and that requires people coming into our building to watch concerts and basketball games. And when that’s closed it creates a major problem.
“We lost a lot,” he said. “Add that to what we spent on the arena and practice facility, and it’s a lot of money.”
Sarver doesn’t own the arena; the Suns just operate it. He pays rent and shares cash flow with the City of Phoenix, which built the arena when Jerry Colangelo was the owner back in 1992 for $89 million in public funds.
More recently, after the usual arduous negotiations, the city helped fund a $230 million renovation, paying $130 million of it. Sarver said he paid $100 million on the building, plus a new $50 million practice facility he proudly calls “the best in sports, the best in the U.S.” Sarver said the Suns paid cash for the practice facility and financed their share of the building.
“It’s been a great relationship,” he said about his partnership with the city. “This has been the anchor of downtown. It helped spur development downtown.”
Sarver, with a deep background in banking and real estate, said the Suns had reserves to draw from to help weather the recent financial storm.
Sarver said the NBA also helped.
“The league took some borrowings down and made some distributions, and that along with our excess liquidity and reserves helped us through,” Sarver said. “It’s been a painful 15, 16 months for us, but it’s been a painful time period for everybody. I can’t complain.”
Sarver bought the Suns from Colangelo in 2004 for $401 million, a record price at the time for an NBA team. By Sportico’s most recent valuations of NBA franchises, the Suns are now worth $1.64 billion, 23rd highest among the league’s 30 clubs.
The recent on-floor success wasn’t instant.
“We had a plan about developing our young core and getting that core to a point where they showed enough success that seasoned veterans and stars could look at us and say, ‘Yeah, I want to join that team,’” Sarver said.
After former general manager Ryan McDonough drafted Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton, Sarver opted to change the club’s basketball culture by replacing McDonough with James Jones, who brought in Monty Williams to coach. Jones also added to the mix veteran guard Chris Paul, who has tested positive for COVID and wasn’t available for the start of this series.
Sarver said Jones and Williams are “just two people I have a lot of trust in.”
“My dealings with Robert have been off the charts,” Williams responded. “He’s given us everything we need to succeed. Everything is at a high, high level. And personally, we have a great relationship. We talk frequently about lots of stuff, family. I think he likes my boys more than he likes me.”
How far does Sarver go back with basketball?
Sarver recalled growing up in nearby Tucson, but vacationing often in a small San Diego property rented by his family. His father would take him to the even-then-archaic San Diego Sports Arena to see World Team Tennis and the old San Diego Clippers, the team the Suns have to get past to make their third trip to the NBA Finals. They lost in 1976 and 1993. The Clippers are in the West Finals for the first time. Thus, neither team has ever won the championship.
The Clippers left San Diego after the 1983-84 season citing problems in that same arena. Sarver remembers seeing players like Lloyd Free (who later changed his name to World B. Free) and Swen Nater. He was about 12 years old when one night a kid named Moses Malone walked into the building.
Sarver said he looked at his dad and said, “That’s not our Moses,” referring to the biblical figure.
Sarver still has business ties in San Diego, and the Sports Arena is about to undergo its own renovation.
“They’re a customer of mine at our bank,” he said. “We’ve given them money to remodel. They do a pretty good job with what they’ve got, but the city could definitely use a different facility.”
Sarver said he’s so steeped in San Diego sports business lore, during his own arena renovation he often referred to the problems then San Diego Padres owner John Moores had building and funding a new ballpark for his baseball team. There were more than a dozen lawsuits and a long delay in construction before Petco Park opened in 2004.
“And then as soon as it was done what [an impact] it had on that area and neighborhood,” Sarver said. “The growth, the construction around it, the sales tax and development fees and what a success it was. But that process was not easy.”
The Padres history is much like the Suns: The Suns came into existence in 1968, the Padres in 1969. Both teams have been to the championship round twice in their respective sports, but neither have won.
Like the Padres this season, everything has come to together for the Suns.
They have a young and exciting team, the renovation of what has always been a beautiful arena to watch basketball, and widespread vaccinations among the population at large. Like elsewhere around the sports landscape, fans are back and rocking at near capacity in the 17,000-seat building, which is in the heart of the Legends Entertainment District in downtown Phoenix.
Unlike San Diego, which has been left with just one pro sports team after the NFL’s Chargers followed the Clippers to Los Angeles, pro sports in Phoenix has expanded.
The Suns share downtown with the Arizona Diamondbacks. The arena and Chase Field are separated by a multi-tiered parking garage owned by both clubs. The D-backs won the World Series in 2001 but are now struggling financially and artistically. They need a $500 million renovation of the ballpark and are pondering whether to borrow money based on a user fee on all ballpark sales transactions to do so. They have set an MLB record by losing 23 in a row on the road, are currently on a 17-game overall losing streak, and are facing a massive rebuild.
The Suns have just come through their own desert of defeat, having missed the playoffs under Sarver’s watch 10 seasons in a row until making it now. On the floor, they are a little ahead of schedule.
“Going through a rebuild is not an easy choice to make as an owner. It is obviously rewarding when plans work,” Sarver said. “This is all a plan we’ve been working on for the last five years, which has really been centered around an investment in physical facilities and human capital. You take all the losses on the chin. Quite frankly we owe it our fans to provide them with a world-class arena, and also a team that has a goal of excellence and never stops competing. We’ve been able to deliver both.”