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Joe Tsai and David Levy: a case of mismatched expectations

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Philadelphia 76ers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Matteo Marchi/Getty Images

Of all the crazy ups-and-downs the Nets franchise has gone through since last summer, one of the biggest head-scratching surprises had to be the short tenure of David Levy who Joe Tsai hired as CEO on the day he closed the $3.4 billion purchase of the team and Barclays Center, then dumped less than two months later.

At the time, Oliver Weisberg, Tsai’s No. 2 with J Tsai Sports, issued a statement that provided little information on what divided Tsai and Levy, saying, “As we enter an exciting next chapter of our organization, it’s important that ownership and management are completely aligned on our go forward plan.”

As it turns out, Tsai provided Bloomberg News with a more fulsome explanation late last month. The difference, Tsai said, was over mismatched expectations, as Bloomberg’s Ira Boudway put it.

Levy, Boudway wrote, wanted to stay focused on the big picture while Tsai, a billionaire co-founder of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., wanted more attention to detail.

“He was already looking ahead at how to grow the J Tsai sports portfolio, but we also needed someone to do the nuts and bolts,” Tsai said during the interview. “Maybe he thought that he wanted to do something that’s bigger and he could just bring in other people to do it, and I’m of a view that before you outsource something you should do it yourself.”

Indeed in Levy’s interviews with the media when he took over from Brett Yormark, Levy described a vision for the Nets and Barclays Center that was both far-reaching and grand.

In an interview with Mike Francesa of WFAN, Levy suggested Tsai’s operations could include a sport book at Barclays, mobile betting, all backed by 5G, the fifth generation mobile technology, at Barclays Center. He even suggested that Barclays could be a test bed for new sports technologies that could then be exported to other venues and arenas.

Similarly, in his interview with NetsDaily, Levy said, “On the investment side, we can leverage the building for esports, sports technology and data,”

Tsai wooed Levy, a 33-year veteran of Turner Sports, with a heavy portfolio. He was named CEO of the Nets, Barclays and J Tsai Sports, Tsai’s holding company that also controls the New York Liberty and his other sports investments in lacrosse, soccer and esports. Levy was also named an “alternate governor” of the Nets and a “venture partner” in Tsai’s family investment vehicle.

Still, one team insider told NetsDaily that Levy was surprised to be managing something as small as the Nets after running Turner Media. And in fact, Levy told Bloomberg last month, “It wasn’t the job I signed up for and we agreed to part ways.” Both Tsai and Levy told Boudway they remain friends.

Tsai installed Weisberg as the interim CEO after Levy departed. He’s splitting his time between Hong Kong, where he runs Tsai’s family investment vehicle, Blue Pool Capital, and Brooklyn. There’s no indication that arrangement will change anytime soon.