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Saturday, May 18, 2024

‘Baseless Corporate Conspiracy’: Hedge Fund Heats Up Feud Between NBA Owners

  • Suns owner Mat Ishbia accused his business rival, Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, of orchestrating a negative story about his company.
  • The hedge fund behind the story said Ishbia was ‘making s*** up.’
Kirthmon F. Dozier/Detroit Free Press / USA TODAY NETWORK

Mortgage billionaires Dan Gilbert and Mat Ishbia have quietly hated each other for years. The two NBA owners and Michigan natives—Gilbert bought the Cavaliers in 2005, while Ishbia bought the Suns from the disgraced Robert Sarver last year—have had an intense business rivalry for more than a decade. As recently as this week, it seemed to be just that: a fun story for the business press but nothing particularly relevant to sports fans.

On Tuesday, ESPN ran a story about the Gilbert-Ishbia feud. While it detailed a history of passive-aggressive comments from Ishbia about Gilbert’s Rocket Mortgage, the dynamic between the two men was described as “not contentious.” A Gilbert spokesperson told ESPN, “They have never met. From Dan’s perspective, there is no rivalry.”

That’s no longer the case. 

Shortly after the ESPN story published, the hedge fund–cum–news site Hunterbrook ran its first story, a lengthy investigation into the possibly fraudulent and anti-competitive business practices of Ishbia’s firm, UWM. The story leads with what is purported to be a voicemail from Ishbia to a friend:

“We f***ing took those c***suckers down, f*** them, and we’re gonna keep f***ing sticking it to them forever,” Ishbia said of Rocket in the recording, according to Hunterbrook. “I f***ing hate them with all my heart and we’re gonna keep kicking their ass every f***ing day.”

Hunterbrook’s motivations are, if nothing else, transparent. It’s the media arm of a heavily capitalized hedge fund that researches companies and bets against their stocks before publishing stories about them. In this case, it took long positions in Gilbert’s company, Rocket, and shorted Ishbia’s company, United Wholesale Mortgage. (On its website, Hunterbrook strenuously asserts that its research is entirely based on publicly available information and not material non-public information, which would be against the law.) Hunterbrook said it funneled information to one of the U.S.’s most powerful white-shoe law firms, Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, which filed a class-action suit against UWM this week alleging that “UWM has systematically and intentionally corrupted the wholesale mortgage channel through fraudulent practices to line its own pockets and those of its senior executives, including Mr. Ishbia, at the expense of everyday Americans.”

Ishbia and UWM attacked Hunterbrook for what they say is an activist campaign against UWM’s stock. A UWM spokesperson called the story “riddled with inaccuracies and incorrect information,” and said that “a hedge fund scheme using journalists to short a stock is not only unethical, it may be fraudulent.” Ishbia also claimed that Gilbert orchestrated and paid for the Hunterbrook story. “That’s Rocket Mortgage and Dan Gilbert doing Rocket Mortgage and Dan Gilbert things,” Ishbia told reporters Thursday. “And that’s just what it’s been funded by.”

Hunterbrook Media, run by publisher Sam Koppelman, the son of Billions creator Brian Koppelman, has been on the defensive. “Neither Dan Gilbert nor Rocket Mortgage have invested in nor have any financial relationship with Hunterbrook Media, Hunterbrook Capital, or the nonprofit Hunterbrook Foundation,” the company said in a statement. The statement went on to call Ishbia’s reaction “a baseless corporate conspiracy theory” and said that “Ishbia is just making s*** up about the one NBA owner who declined to approve his purchase of the Suns.”

Through a spokesperson, Rocket vigorously denied any involvement in the story. “Rocket Mortgage and Dan Gilbert have no involvement in the deep, detailed 50-page Hunterbrook Media article exposing the business practices of Mat Ishbia and United Wholesale Mortgage,” the spokesperson, Aaron Emerson, said. “Dan Gilbert and Rocket Mortgage have no investment, other financial interests or relationship to Hunterbrook Media. The professional investigation speaks for itself and appears to be based on factual, public information uncovered by the journalists who conducted the investigation.”

A Suns spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Hunterbrook statement refers to Gilbert abstaining from the vote to approve Ishbia as the new owner of the Suns and the WNBA’s Mercury. With pressure on Robert Sarver to sell after reports detailing Sarver’s track record of racist and misogynist behavior, the other owners approved the sale to Ishbia by a vote of 29–0.

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