Saturday September 30, 2023

Mat Ishbia Wants to Make Phoenix America’s Greatest Basketball City

  • The new owner of the Suns got everyone’s attention during a sideline skirmish with Nikola Jokic in Game 4.
  • His vision for Phoenix goes well beyond this series — "I'm going to own this team for my whole life."
Phoenix, AZ, USA; Phoenix Suns owner Mat Ishbia speaks to the media at an introductory press conference at Footprint Center.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
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PHOENIX — If you didn’t know that the Phoenix Suns have a new owner, you almost certainly found out during yesterday’s dramatic playoff game.

Late in the second quarter of Game 4, play spilled over into the courtside seats and the ball wound up in the hands of 43-year-old billionaire Mat Ishbia. Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic rushed to snatch it back, triggering a sequence of events that ultimately led to the two-time MVP shoving Ishbia with his left forearm. He was issued a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct.

While that bizarre tussle may have been Ishbia’s introduction to the mainstream NBA audience, he hopes that his plans for Phoenix, the Suns, and the WNBA’s Mercury become his legacy.

“I’m not selling this team ever,” Ishbia said during our conversation at Footprint Center on Sunday afternoon before Kevin Durant and Devin Booker’s masterclass helped tie the series at 2-2 ahead of a road trip back to Denver. “I’m going to own this team for my whole life.”

Ishbia acquired the Suns and Mercury in February for a record price of $4 billion, completing the ouster of disgraced former owner Robert Sarver.

“It’s only been three months, but he’s been great about letting us do our jobs. He’s not a micromanager,” said Suns chief financial officer Jim Pitman. “He identifies the two or three important things that he wants to improve and he gives us the resources we need to make sure that we’re an elite organization.”

One of his first orders of business has been to challenge the dominant structure of NBA media rights deals. In April, the organization announced that it would forgo a long-running cable television model to instead broadcast all home games on local channels and a direct-to-consumer streaming platform. Shortly thereafter, the nation’s largest regional sports network owner and recently bankrupt Diamond Sports Group filed a lawsuit against the teams for “deliberate disregard” of contractual duties.

“The media rights deal is about the number of eyeballs, and Mat’s talked considerably about that,” said Suns chief revenue officer Dan Costello. “We’re gonna go from about 800,000 eyes to about 2.8 million households across the state of Arizona.”

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Elder millennial Ishbia is one of the youngest team owners in the NBA. He made his fortune as CEO of America’s largest mortgage firm United Wholesale Mortgage, which went public at a $16 billion valuation in January 2021.

The company’s chief marketing officer, Sarah DeCiantis, credits Ishbia’s success as a mortgage lender to his aversion to complacency. She says the idea that “the minute you think that you’ve made it is when you’re going to get passed by” is a core tenet of his business philosophy.

“I have more to prove to myself than anyone,” said Ishbia. “I don’t think my age has any bearing. It actually gives me an advantage on a lot of things because I’m coming in with fresh eyes.”

One thing you consistently hear from Ishbia and every member of his C-suite in The Valley is the importance of community. It’s almost cliché coming from owners and executives, but in Phoenix the community does in fact represent a unique business opportunity.

Phoenix is quietly the fastest-growing city in the U.S. and its fifth-most populated, thanks in part to an influx of new residents priced out of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. With that, Ishbia has a chance to take the city’s basketball clout to new heights.

“He wants to make the Suns and Mercury the premier franchises across all of sports,” said chief executive officer Josh Bartelstein. “There’s no silver bullet in doing that. You can say it all you want, but it’s day-to-day execution that brings you there.”

Over the last few years, the 17,000-person capacity Footprint Center, originally opened in 1992, underwent a $230 million renovation process, and Ishbia says he’ll “continue to invest in the arena.” He also wants to bring a G League team to the city, and All-Star Weekend, which it hasn’t hosted in 14 years.

“I feel like we have a team that can win a championship,” Ishbia — who was a walk-on guard on Michigan State’s national championship basketball team in 2000 — said about the Suns. He’s equally excited about the Mercury. “The trajectory of the WNBA and women’s basketball could not be better. The Phoenix Suns was a dream for me, but having both is the ultimate.”

Last week, Ishbia turned heads with comments about mortgage industry rival and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert. “He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him,” he said on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Gilbert was the only owner in the league who voted against approving Ishbia’s purchase of the Suns.

Outside of that feud, Ishbia told me that he’s been warmly welcomed into the exclusive fold of billionaires and heirs at the helm of NBA franchises.

“All the NBA owners have been extraordinarily nice. Even the Kroenkes — we’re playing the Nuggets — they’ve been great. [Steve] Ballmer last series. Jeanie Buss has been great. And I’ve looked up to these owners. I’m a fan! Mark Cuban coming to say hello to me is the coolest thing,” he said. “It’s exciting for me because I’m gonna make sure I pay that forward to the next new owners that come in. That’s one of the best parts about being an NBA owner so far.”

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