Atlanta Spirit owner: Lawsuit didn’t hurt teams

Michael Gearon Jr. won an “entrepreneur of the year” award in 1997 for building his cellular tower business into a fast-growing enterprise that he sold for $100 million.

Michael Gearon Jr.But growing fast has not been his fate as part-owner of the Atlanta Spirit – that money-losing, litigious group of eight which owns the Hawks and Thrashers.

In business and sports, Gearon said, it’s important to build a strong foundation. But that has proven to be more elusive on the court and ice than in the cellular-tower fields.

Why?

I sat down with Gearon, 44, at his Vinings office last week to try to find out. With the start of the hockey and basketball seasons and a fresh court ruling on the prolonged ownership dispute, I thought the timing was right.

Gearon, an Atlanta native who attended Marist and then Georgia State, doesn’t see the dichotomy that I do when discussing his business and sports careers.

In business, his record has been impressive. He took a $3,000 real estate commission to start a cellular tower company that was hailed by the Ernst & Young accounting firm and Inc. magazine.

When he was 32, he sold his business, which went from zero to $22 million in revenue in six years. He then helped the purchaser expand substantially, not only in the U.S. but in Central and South America, too. Now, he has a new cell tower company that he’s developing in Asia.

In the process, Gearon said, he was able to build a well-oiled management team.

“Eleven of us have worked together for an average of 13 years,” he said.

But the sports teams have been anything but well-oiled, in my view. Post-season disappointments on the court and ice, and a much-publicized four-year legal battle over how to value one owner’s stake, are just two examples. Losing millions of dollars and rumors about the Thrashers moving from Atlanta are two more.

Gearon, however, sees things differently. And with all the public abuse the Spirit has taken over the past few years, he’s entitled to speak his mind.

First, he said, the ongoing ownership dispute has not affected the teams’ performance.

“It been painful for me personally, but it has had zero impact on the performance and stability of the teams,” he said. “We’ve invested over $100 million to make these teams better.”

He sees the Hawks and Thrashers as building on previous seasons with the help of a “youthful core.”

“I think both teams will be competitive and have a good chance of making the playoffs,” he said.

Financially, Gearon said, the owners are exploring the possibility of adding new investors. They’re also looking into saving money in this era of low interest rates by refinancing the bonds that paid for Philips Arena.

Gearon was quite clear on whether he thought Atlanta would lose an NHL team for the second time: “I didn’t get involved in this to move a team.”

But he was unclear on whether the ownership dispute will get resolved soon. The judge told the owners to try to reach a deal outside of court. Gearon and six of his colleagues have been trying to buy out Steve Belkin.

“We may or may not buy him out,” Gearon said.

It was the only time he was equivocal during the interview. The sports business can do that to you.

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10 comments Add your comment

Joe

October 13th, 2009
7:24 am

Thanks for the softball questions.

Matt

October 13th, 2009
8:42 am

Wow, what a PUFF piece this was. Your article fails to show you asking any meaningful follow up questions or challenging his statement that the dispute did not affect the teams. Disappointing.

"Chef" Tim Dix

October 13th, 2009
9:06 am

Where can I find blue eye contacts like his?

BJohnDawg

October 13th, 2009
11:02 am

Henry,

You could have asked some tough questions of the guy. Instead I have to agree with earlier comments. To soft.. to puffy an article.
Where is the beef?

Pre-AtlantaSpiritGroup Hawks Fan

October 13th, 2009
11:50 am

Why doesn’t some journalist press this guy on how condescending he was to Atlanta sports fans and insinuated they were ignorant and “potentially insensitive” when they voiced their legitimate concerns to him, as PAYING CUSTOMERS, about not wanting to pay high ticket prices to take their children to see tattooed, piereced, profanity-using, deadbeat & illegitimate-fathering, poorly educated thugz, felons and social degenerates instead of clean-cut, law-abiding athletes who hustle on the court, are good citizens off the court and who respect both the game and their fellow human beings?

Pompano

October 13th, 2009
12:58 pm

Wow – I’ve seen college interns write more challenging pieces. Looks like Henry is just trying to score some free tickets

[...] A brief piece on Michael Gearon, co-owner of the Thrashers (AJC Business) [...]

The Bigger Fool Theory

October 14th, 2009
9:40 pm

We are so screwed. It does not matter if Belkin is in or out because all these guys are waiting for is a BIGGER FOOL than they are to come along and pay even more for the Hawks,and Thrashers. This is called THE BIGGER FOOL THEORY. This economic slowdown is not helping, therefore they have cut expenses all around Philips Arena to the bone and pay just above the league minimun for player salaries.

Haven’t they been trying to refinance the Philips Arena bonds since they day they bought the teams in 2004? I’d be interested in what the hold up is with that. Could it be that the ownership mess has scared the bankers away?

IMO Atlanta is not a hockey town but the arrangement with Philips Arena means they will stay put and continue to produce a lousy product in a league that has a worthless national TV contract and almost invisible local radio and TV coverage.

I cannot be sure, but I believe the only reasons they have not chosen bankruptcy is 1) would reduce the amount the BIGGER FOOL would pay and 2) the Hawks have been saved (somewhat) by making the playoffs the last two years. No guarantee the Hawks will make it again this year – stuff happens, you know.

Next time, a little more depth to your questions to the only Atlanta Spirit owner we seem to hear from around here. OR maybe you could get some insight from some of the others in the ownership group? What’s up with the rest of the Atlanta Spirit ownership group?

Lloyd

December 16th, 2009
9:13 am

once again, proof that a one newspaper town produces low quality journalism… perhaps skip the interview, and just let Gearon write it..

Failure

June 7th, 2010
8:27 am

Both franchises have been failures—they are losing money with poor products, but raising prices during a depression. The morons that own and run this group should be incarcerated for incompetence.