It's been a busy couple of months for Mark Mastrov, chairman and co-founder of private equity firm New Evolution Ventures (NeV), Lafayette, CA. Since Mastrov became part-owner of the NBA's Sacramento Kings in mid-May, the Kings have hired a new head coach, a new general manager, a new president of basketball operations and added players in the annual NBA draft.
But the dizzying past few weeks were nothing compared to the drama earlier this year surrounding the Kings, who were strongly pursued by a group in Seattle that planned to move the team there. In the end, Mastrov's group, led by software billionaire Vivek Ranadive (pronounced "rah-nah-DEE-vay"), won the Kings for a reported NBA-record $535 million.
"I always felt from day one we would prevail," says Mastrov, who first expressed interest in owning the Kings in January and later stepped back to support Ranadive as he took the lead in the ownership group.
Landing the Kings was a vindication of sorts for Mastrov, who lost out on a bid to own the Golden State Warriors three years ago. But you won't hear a lot of celebratory talk from Mastrov, who instead would rather discuss the strength of his ownership group.
In his first lengthy interview since becoming part-owner of the Kings, Mastrov, the founder of 24 Hour Fitness, talks to Club Industry about becoming an NBA owner for the first time. He compares the pursuit of the Kings to landing a deal in the fitness industry and says his friend, Bahram Akradi, CEO of Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, MN, could be the next fitness club operator to one day own a professional sports team. He also is looking forward to making the hour drive from his office to Sacramento on game night.
Landing the Kings
Club Industry: What was this whole process like to obtain the Kings?
Mark Mastrov: It was a very crazy process, of course. Lots of twists and turns. A lot of drama. A lot of politics. The deal came on very fast, and we had a very limited amount of time to buy an NBA franchise at an all-time record high. And we had to close it in a short window and perform. We had to do everything in a 30-day window. I don't think any deal in the NBA's history has been as complicated and interesting. I think David Stern, the [NBA] commissioner, would say that what we were able to pull as a group and put together in that window—led by [Sacramento] Mayor Kevin Johnson and the partnership—was not only amazing but probably a miracle.
CI: Did you go through the roller coaster of emotions amid the reports of the team's staying or going?
MM: There's no doubt it was a roller coaster ride, but no different than anytime you've been in the fitness industry whether you were trying to acquire a piece of real estate to build your club site on and you were competing with other realtors or other club groups and the roller-coaster ride you go through on that, or whether you were trying to buy a chain of clubs to add to your portfolio or grow into a new country. For us in this industry, it was a very similar process of competing for something that you desperately wanted to win on. The only difference is you were competing with one of the wealthiest men in the world in Steve Ballmer and a very strong group led by Chris Hansen trying to move into Seattle. We put together a phenomenal group ourselves led by Vivek Ranadive, a good friend of mine, who is just a phenomenal businessman and leader, and then the Jacobs family out of Qualcomm, and then Raj Bhathal and his family and many others, such as Chris Kelly and Andy Miller. We put together a very good core group of people who are passionate about basketball, who are business leaders up and down the state of California, and we fought for the right to keep the team here in Sacramento for the overarching cause of goodwill towards the community and not moving the team. And that gave us a little bit of an edge over Seattle, and eventually we prevailed.
CI: How influential was Kevin Johnson in the process?
MM: If you step back, it's not common today that you can see a city step up and pledge money for a new arena. And for the mayor of Sacramento to do that not only once but several times to keep the Kings in Sacramento was huge. But on top of that, [for Kevin] to be a former All-Star, an NBA player who had connectivity to the league, the owners, the commissioner, adds a lot of credibility and value to what we're all trying to achieve. I think you have to tip your hat to the mayor and say that he probably was one of the biggest chips that we had on our side to help keep the team in Sacramento. Without him, it probably makes it very difficult for us to have had a chance to do so.
One of the big criteria from the NBA to Seattle and to Sacramento was building a new arena, and the mayor was instrumental in helping us achieve that, as was, in the early days, Ron Burkle (an early investor candidate who backed out during the process) in helping us craft a stadium opportunity in the downtown core, leveraging off of his experience in building a stadium in Pittsburgh for the [NHL's] Penguins.
CI: What was it like to step back and not be the lead owner of the team?
MM: I don't think there's any ego issue involved. The way the NBA works is you have to have a general partner, so there's one partner who speaks for the partnership group. Vivek is a good friend of mine but made it very clear in the early stages that he was one of the leading investors in the Warriors, and he really coveted being in that lead spot [for the Kings]. And as much as I or others would have coveted being in that lead spot, Vivek stood up and said, "I really want to be the lead owner and be the general partner." Stepping in behind him is not an issue for me. He's a good friend. I still have a significant stake in the team and will play a significant role with him and others going forward, so it will be a lot of fun. I'm looking forward to it.
CI: How do you compare the disappointment of not landing the Warriors to the excitement of now owning the Kings?
MM: Obviously, I learned a lot through the Warriors process, and I think that helped a lot through the Kings process. You've been there and kind of understood some of the things you needed to do to get to the end. Joe [Lacob] did a phenomenal job winning the Warriors, and I took my hat off to him. He put a big number out there at the time, and he prevailed. On the Kings, obviously we put an even bigger number out there, and we prevailed.
Teamwork, the Draft and Shaq
CI: When you met the media in New York in April, you talked about the importance of having a great team in place from top to bottom in the organization. Do you still feel that way?
MM: I think we've gone beyond even my expectations of the quality of people we've been able to bring into our GM spot, our coaching spot, the president of operations, the development of our arena. We just have been very fortunate to have been able to hire some amazing people who are excited about coming to the Kings to resurrect and redevelop that brand and build a great team and at the same time develop a new arena and move into a brand new arena in the next three years. It's not often you get that opportunity, and we're excited about it.
CI: Were you in the Kings' draft room on draft night (June 27)?
MM: I was in the draft room. It was a lot of fun. They call it the war room. Obviously, we leaned on our basketball experts, Coach [Mike] Malone and [General Manager] Pete D'Allesandro and their team. Vivek was very, very involved. We had ranked our top 100 players from one to 100 and then the draft ensued. We had Ben (McLemore, from the University of Kansas, the Kings' No. 1 pick) up top, and we were surprised he was still available to us. We just got lucky as some of the teams made some surprising choices. We had him No. 1 overall, in our opinion, for best player for a whole bunch of reasons.
CI: You and Vivek Ranadive took Shaquille O'Neal to dinner recently. What was that dinner like, and how involved do you think Shaq will be with the Kings?
MM: I've been friends with Shaquille for a long time, and he happened to be in town. He and I were getting together to catch up, and I had Vivek join just to meet him, so we had a very nice dinner. I don't know that we made any decisions on either side of what we might do in the future, but Shaquille's the best of the best, and I just love that guy, and Vivek got a chance to meet him and loved him as well. He's a true gentleman but a character beyond characters. Just a fun-loving guy, smart as a whip. A great guy to spend some time with.
CI: Shaquille O'Neal called the Sacramento Kings the "Queens" several years ago and again during his jersey retirement ceremony with the Lakers. Will Sacramento be miffed if he's going to help the Kings?
MM: Things change over time. I think if we're all held for every quote we've ever made at the moment, a lot of us would have difficulty moving forward. I think Shaquille, everybody knows he's a humorous guy. He's just a big fun-loving man, and I think it could be interesting in any role he might play, although we haven't really had any serious conversations with Shaquille to date. We just had a nice dinner with him, and we'll take it from there.
The Media Spotlight
CI: Are you getting used to more media attention?
MM: Media's a non-issue for me. Once you're involved in any kind of a scaled business, you're involved with the media to a certain degree. I've done a tremendous amount of speaking all over the world and media all over the world. It's very, very easy for me. It's not something I worry too much about.
CI: How excited were you to make those comments at that press conference in New York?
MM: If you talk to people who know me and spend time with me, I'm more of a team guy. I always liken myself to the point guard on a team. I want to distribute, make sure everybody gets their shots, gets their points, is happy and in the right positions and orchestrate and help drive the team to success. So when you talk to me about owning an organization or being involved in an organization, whether it's Crunch or UFC Gym, whether it's the Kings, it's all about the team you put together. It's not about any one individual. It's about the team.
As Vivek always says, it's not like a marching band where everybody knows their role and they all march in succession and it's all orchestrated. Today, it's more like a jazz band where everybody kind of does their own thing, but when they come together, they play beautiful music together. And that's kind of what you have is you have this jazz band up there in Sacramento with amazing people, and you're only going to be as good as each person is in their particular area. So you have to have the best coach, a great GM, a great president of your total operations to build a new arena, and we've been fortunate to announce that we're bringing on Chris Granger, one of the lead guys inside the NBA who worked with David Stern and [Deputy Commissioner] Adam Silver and reported directly into them. It's like anything else. You have to have a lot of luck. You have to have a lot of great people. You have to have a great culture. And I'm a big team guy. That's why I love basketball and professional sports because they're all team-based, not individual-based.
CI: What has been the reception like for you and the new owners in Sacramento?
MM: When you step back and look at what we're embarking upon, it's a pretty exciting opportunity. The fans, I don't know how many times I've had people just walk up to me at airports now or at a restaurant in Sacramento or at events just shake my hand and say, "Thank you for keeping the Kings here in Sacramento." And I thank them. It's more them than even us.
I think this global view of the Kings through Vivek's eyes and then my experience having developed businesses in north of 25 countries around the world, I think we all see the Kings as something in a bigger light and the NBA in a bigger light as the NBA continues to be this global brand and continues to develop over the years ahead. It's going to be a lot of fun. I think we have a lot of attraction power in Sacramento, even though a lot of people would not think so.
We're going to work hard and we're going to be competitive. But we're not going to promise anybody we're going to win a world title in the near future. It's going to take us a little bit of time to build, but we're going to do it the right way.
CI: How much did the recognition from Shaq and Magic Johnson after you won the Kings mean to you?
MM: They're great human beings. Earvin's (Magic) one of the best human beings you've ever met. He's a caring person. Smart as hell. He's a guy that never forgets. We have a great relationship. It's always nice to hear from him. It was very kind of him to say the nice words that he did.
Splitting Time with his 'Day Job'
CI: How is your attention going to be divided with Crunch and UFC Gym and all your other ventures with NeV now that you're with the Kings?
MM: Not a lot different. With the Kings, we've got a professional group in there that we've hired, and they will take over and run the business. And we have a board that will support them, so it will be like any investment you make. Time will be as needed, but I've got plenty of time if needed to help those guys out.
On the NeV side, we have a phenomenal team of professionals, led by Jim Rowley. We're rolling along very nicely right now. We're doing great work and having a lot of fun and really enjoying what we're doing. From that standpoint, nothing will change. I'll have the same level of involvement, if not more, from the day to day. All the investors [with the Kings] have companies and day jobs, as we call it, to keep us busy. Basketball is played at night, so at the end of my day job, I'll be able to drive up and catch a few games and have a lot of fun. My kids, my family are very excited about that. I'll get Bahram Akradi out there to come see some games with me and try to get him into the NBA one day. I know he's also showed an aspiration to one day get involved in professional sports. I'm sure he will. He's super bright, super passionate and the most competitive guy I've ever met.
I'm sure there will be more to come [from the fitness industry]. I'm sure there are a lot of guys like me who are passionate about professional sports. All I can say is that it's a ton of fun, and it's very similar to a lot of the things that we've learned and that we do. It lends itself nicely to the experiences we've had around the fitness industry.
CI: What's your opinion of the merger and acquisition activity in the fitness industry so far this year?
MM: It's been quieter than I would have assumed. The debt markets are pretty strong. The capital markets have a lot of cash on the sidelines. It's been a lot quieter than you would think at this point in time. LA Fitness made a big splash last year and picked off a lot of the platforms that were available. There just hasn't been that much on the market at this point in time. People are in the building mode—I'd call it growth mode. From what I can tell, people are performing well, the industry seems very strong and people are excited about the future. Everybody seems like they're having a good year so far.