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Find Out How Two Former ABA Owners Make Millions Off the NBA

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(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
I mentioned on the air on Thursday my favorite sports business story of all time and possibly my favorite sports story period, and it was included in a recent episode of ESPN Films: 30 for 30. It was about the Spirits of St. Louis basketball team of the old ABA.

Almost 40 years ago, St. Louis had a basketball franchise in the American Basketball Association. The ABA was a rival league to the NBA and boasted numerous stars such as Julius Erving, Moses Malone, George McGinnis, Artis Gilmore, and many others. The ABA introduced innovations like the three point shot and the slam dunk contest at the All Star game, both of which were later adopted by the NBA. But by 1976, the ABA wasn’t doing well. Several teams had ceased operations and the league needed a merger with the NBA, which they got, with conditions. There were six teams left in the ABA, but the NBA only wanted four of them: the New York Nets, San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, and the Denver Nuggets.

The owner of the Kentucky Colonels took a lump sum to go away (reportedly around $3 million), but the owners of the Spirits, the Silna brothers rejected a lump sum and negotiated a different payment; they would get one seventh of the television revenue of each of the four former ABA teams in perpetuity. Those last two words, in perpetuity, would be key. At that time, NBA games were rarely broadcast nationally; the NBA finals were show late at night on tape delay. As you probably know, the television rights for the NBA now go for billions of dollars and the Silna brothers get a cut of that.

The New York Times says they have raked in more than $250 million over the years and they haven’t had a team in 37 years. Supposedly, the NBA had lawyers take a run at getting the agreement voided, but so far it has withstood legal scrutiny.

The vision that the Silna brothers had in realizing that television was the future of the league when the people running it didn’t realize it, is stunning. While it may not be George Lucas giving up his directing salary for Star Wars in return for merchandising rights, it is a great story nonetheless.

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