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Steve Ballmer’s Clippers Buyout Makes Social Media Stocks Look Cheap

Consider this a vanity buy, because the former Microsoft CEO grossly overpaid to snatch up Donald Sterling's team


If Steve Ballmer were still running Microsoft (MSFT), this tweet would have me dumping the stock and questioning Ballmer’s judgment and sanity.

Steve Ballmer just agreed to pay a record $2 billion to the Sterling family for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers franchise — a franchise that Forbes estimated to be worth $575 million just this past January.

LA Clippers Steve BallmerLet’s take a look at the numbers here.

The Clippers brought in about $128 million in revenues last season and generated $15 million in operating income. Calculating a “price/earnings” ratio on the purchase would give you a bubbly 133. To put that in perspective, Facebook (FB) trades at “only” 82 times earnings. LinkedIn (LNKD) and Twitter (TWTR) have no current earnings but trade at forward P/E multiples of 65 and 131, respectively.

Yes, Steve Ballmer paid a higher valuation for the Clippers than what is being currently paid for some of the most expensive stocks in history.

Remember, the Clippers are L.A.’s “other team.” And the Lakers — Los Angeles’ premier basketball team and one of the most storied franchises of any sport anywhere in the world — were estimated by Forbes to be worth “only” $1.4 billion. The New York Knicks were estimated to be worth about $50 million more than the Lakers.

I’ve been watching the sports bubble for a while now. As far back as 2010, I questioned whether the boom in sports stadium building was coming to an end. As I noted then:

“Between 1992 and 2010, well over two-thirds of all major North American sports venues were replaced: 67% of baseball teams, 69% of football teams, 77% of basketball teams, and a shocking 83.3% of hockey teams got new homes or had their old ones substantially renovated to the point of being virtually new.”

And the prices paid reached the levels of the absurd.

Someone has to pay for all of this, and much of it has been “financed” by lucrative TV deals. But this model seems to be reaching its limits. As I wrote recently, the cost of monthly cable bills has been increasing at a rate of about 6% annually. The average cable bill is forecast to go from $86 monthly in 2011 to $123 by 2015 — that’s not sustainable given years of stagnant income growth.

Ironically, Disney’s (DIS) ESPN is the No. 1 culprit; the ESPN channels alone are responsible for about $5.50 per month.

The problem with calling the top of a bubble is that, because they are irrational to begin with, they can always get more irrational. But I’m taking the view that Ballmer’s $2 billion purchase of the Clippers will go down in history as one of the dumbest financial moves in history.

Is there a trade to be made here? If you think the bubble has longer to inflate, consider shares of Madison Square Garden (MSG), the owner of the New York Knicks and the New York Rangers hockey team. If the Clippers are “worth” $2 billion, then the Knicks are “worth” double or triple that amount. And MSG, trading at a P/E of 31, looks “cheap” relative to that of the Clippers.

Just be smart enough to know that you’re trading a bubble.

Charles Lewis Sizemore, CFA, is the editor of Macro Trend Investor and chief investment officer of the investment firm Sizemore Capital Management. Click here to receive his FREE weekly e-letter covering top market insights, trends, and the best stocks and ETFs to profit from today’s best global value plays.

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