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Making Sense of the Phil Knight-Jody Allen Stalemate Over Trail Blazers' Future
A recent Wall Street Journal story has the Nike founder's pursuit of the team in the headlines again.
Almost exactly a year ago, Nike founder Phil Knight began his public campaign to buy the Trail Blazers from the trust of late owner Paul Allen that's been overseen by his sister, Jody, since his death in 2018.
A report by ESPN on June 2 of last year that a group headed by Knight and Los Angeles-based real estate developer Alan Smolinisky had offered $2 billion for the team was met with a statement by Jody Allen that the Blazers and Seattle Seahawks are not for sale. That was followed in early July by a story in the New York Post that quoted former Blazers and current Nike executive Larry Miller, as well as several anonymous sources, to portray Allen as "toxic."
Things were quiet after that, until over the weekend, when the Wall Street Journal published a story authored by Rachel Bachman titled "The Mystery of the NBA Team That Billions Can't Buy." The story detailed the continued efforts of Knight and Smolinisky to engage with Jody Allen and Vulcan Sports vice chair Bert Kolde on a potential sale of the Blazers, which have thus far been rebuffed.
The Wall Street Journal story also featured rare on-the-record comments from Jody, who has not given a formal interview or press conference since her brother's passing but answered some emailed questions about the status of the team's ownership. The message from the Vulcans remained the same as it has for over a year: the Blazers are not for sale.
Eventually, that is going to change. NBA commissioner Adam Silver said it last year, the same day Knight's initial offer was reported. Even Jody Allen said it in her July statement. By the terms of Paul Allen's trust, all of his assets must eventually be sold, with the proceeds going to his various charitable interests. That process has already started, with his superyachts "Octopus" and "Tatoosh," as well as his massive art collection, hitting the auction block in the past two years.
The Wall Street Journal story quotes multiple experts in complex estate law who are skeptical of the 10- to 20-year timeline the Vulcans have publicly laid out for the sale of the Blazers and Seahawks. The story also says that the NBA requires teams held in an estate to be sold "within a reasonable time period."
An NBA spokesperson declined to comment when I reached out this week for clarification on what "a reasonable time period" means and whether the league has put a hard timeline on a Blazers sale.
As we covered here last summer in the weeks following the New York Post story, Jody Allen is incentivized to wait until at least 2025 to sell the Blazers. That's when the NBA's new national broadcast rights deal, which is expected to be even more lucrative than the last one in 2016, kicks in, creating a huge influx of cash for the league and its owners and players. Since the terms of Paul Allen’s trust state that the proceeds from the sale of his assets will go to charity, getting her piece of the TV windfall would be a way for Jody to still pocket some money before selling the team and fulfilling her brother's wishes.
Longtime Oregon sports columnist John Canzano put two more details together this week: that Kolde is expected to earn a commission for brokering the eventual sale, and that Jody collects a management fee each year for overseeing her brother's estate, which given the size of his assets could easily be into nine figures.
The NBA, meanwhile, would like for this to be put to bed while the 85-year-old Knight is still around. There will be other interested buyers whenever the team does go up for sale, but none with this much name recognition or clout in the sports industry, or in the state of Oregon. For Knight, buying his hometown pro basketball team is a legacy move—he's already built the biggest sports apparel company in the world and singlehandedly made his alma mater, University of Oregon athletics, into a national brand, so what's left? Apparently, this.
Clearly, Knight and Smolinisky still very much want to own the Blazers despite their previous efforts being shut down by the Vulcans. That's why the media offensive that began last June is continuing a year later.
Their initial bid of $2 billion last year was not a serious offer—it was the opening of what they are evidently prepared to have be a public negotiation.
Whenever the team does get sold, the price is going to be a lot higher than that. The Phoenix Suns' sale to Mat Ishbia, which was agreed to in December and finalized in February in the aftermath of a prolonged NBA investigation into former owner Robert Sarver's workplace behavior, valued the team at $4 billion, a new record for an NBA franchise. And while Phoenix is a much bigger media market than Portland, the Blazers own their arena, which is not true of the Suns. The final number for the Blazers won't be what the Suns went for, but it will be closer to that than to Knight's opening bid.
When the Vulcans rejected that initial bid last summer, Knight's camp went the hit-piece route with the New York Post story. Larry Miller was the only source that spoke on the record, and was only identified in the story as a "former Trail Blazers president." Nowhere was it mentioned that Miller, both before and after his five-year stint running the Blazers from 2007 to 2012, has worked for Nike in various capacities and currently serves as chairman of Jordan Brand. Given the obvious conflict of interest—a high-ranking Nike executive giving an interview advocating for the team to be sold to the founder of Nike—it would have seemed worth disclosing Miller's current job.
Elsewhere, that story detailed allegations from years past that Jody Allen sexually harassed bodyguards and was involved in smuggling animal bones out of Africa and Antarctica, all of which had been reported on previously.
The aim was to publicly embarrass Jody into selling the Blazers by airing out unflattering things from her past in a major tabloid. But allowing Miller to give that interview may have been a tactical error for Knight—even after his recent offers to increase the price, the Vulcans seem more resistant than ever to the idea of selling the team to him.
In late April, Knight and his wife, Penny, announced a $400 million pledge to revitalize the Albina district around the Moda Center. It's not a coincidence that they picked that neighborhood out of all the parts of Portland they could have directed their money—it's an olive branch and a bridge to what he hopes is his eventual ownership of the basketball team that plays in that area. Committing that much money to rebuild an area whose gentrification primarily affected the Black community in Portland is unequivocally a good thing (although certainly at odds with Knight's recent political donations).
The Sunday story in the Wall Street Journal—as Rupert Murdoch-owned papers go, a more serious and respected one than the Post—takes a different approach to accomplishing the same goal as last year’s media blitz. It goes lighter on the animal-bones allegations and other personal attacks on Jody Allen. This time, the argument for Knight to buy the Blazers is some combination of his concern about the city's homelessness crisis and the idea (not a real fear but never one that seems to quite go away) that the team could leave Portland just like the Sonics left Seattle 15 years ago if he doesn't step in to save them.
If Knight had tried this more pragmatic, low-key approach last summer, rather than opening the public negotiations with the would-be bombshell in the Post story, maybe this thing would be done by now. But he might have overplayed his hand and killed any willingness from the Vulcans to play ball with him—at the very least, he probably added another half-billion to the cost if he ever does succeed in buying the team.
For whatever it's worth, my own view, based on observations and conversations with people in the Blazers organization, is that the common public sentiment that Jody Allen is a disinterested owner, or is holding the franchise back, is somewhat overblown.
I will preface all of this by saying that I do not know Jody at all. I've never met her, spoken to her or interacted with her in any way. She's never been made available to reporters, and when she's at Blazers games, she's surrounded by security detail. I know Bert Kolde in passing—enough to say hi when we run into each other at games or team events, but nothing beyond that. I have expressed a few times to people high up in the organization that I would love to do a proper interview with Jody if she was ever open to speaking on the record, and the sense I've gotten is that she's not really interested in being out there publicly.
With all of that said: people on both the business and basketball sides of the organization have told me consistently over the past several years that Jody Allen has been nothing but supportive as an owner.
You can say most of that stuff is baseline expectations for a sports team owner, but plenty of other franchises have cut costs in those areas or gone out of their way not to spend. It's hard to put the Vulcans in that category.
This part of it may just be optics, but Jody was also at games throughout the last two seasons, well past the point when the Blazers were tanking and she could have been forgiven for staying in Seattle, where she's based. And Kolde has been present at nearly all of the team's predraft workouts in Tualatin over the past few weeks. Wherever you land on the overall state of the organization, the idea that the Blazers have had absentee ownership since Paul Allen's death doesn't hold water.
I don't work there, so I can only go on what I'm told by people who do. And Jody herself doesn't do interviews or make any public statements beyond the occasional press release or answers to emailed questions that are undoubtedly worked over by a lawyer or publicist before going out.
The more she stays in the shadows, the easier it is to let herself be vilified. In the case of Phil Knight's pursuit of the Blazers, the other side is highly motivated to craft the public narrative to suit their interests. Maybe she's too rich to care what people think about her. But she'd do well to put herself out there more than she has if she wants to change the conversation.
Would the NBA like to have a more permanent owner in place for the Blazers rather than have the franchise be in limbo while Paul Allen's estate gets sorted out? Yes. Would they love for that owner to be Knight, one of the most powerful and influential people in the entire sports world? Absolutely. Are the Blazers doomed to irrelevance for as long as Jody Allen serves as caretaker? That part I'm not as convinced about as a lot of the public seems to be.
It's not clear where all of this goes from here.
Everyone involved has made their position known for a while. Knight and Smolinisky want the Blazers. The NBA wants the situation resolved. Jody Allen isn't ready to sell yet, and probably doesn't want to sell to Knight at all after a year of public pressure and scare tactics.
Without seeing the terms of Paul Allen's trust, it's hard to say how much control the Vulcans will ultimately have over the Blazers' new owner. It's possible the trust lays out a formal auction process that will result in the team being sold to the highest bidder regardless of anyone's feelings about who they want to buy the team. Maybe all of this energy will have been spent on the idea of Phil Knight for nothing. Or, he'll up the offer so high that Jody can't say no.
It probably won't actually take "10 to 20 years" for the Blazers to be sold, but it's not going to happen tomorrow, either.