(Reuters) - The owners of the Atlanta Hawks said Thursday they have unanimously approved a plan to sell the franchise, a move triggered last year by a racism controversy.
Bruce Levenson vowed to sell his majority interest in the club last September after his email became public in which he made racist remarks that included "the black crowd scared away the whites" at Phillips Arena.
The Hawks announcement comes less than a year after the National Basketball League forced owner Donald Sterling to sell the Los Angeles Clippers because of racial comments he made.
Several groups are interested in buying the Hawks and Goldman Sachs and Inner Circle Sports will advise the team owners on the sale of the franchise and other assets.
"The Atlanta Hawks today announced that its owners have unanimously approved a plan to sell the franchise and the Philips Arena operating rights," the team said in a statement. "The sale will commence immediately."
Among the interested groups, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, are former NBA star Grant Hill, former Toronto Raptors President Bryan Colangelo and billionaire businessman Sheldon Adelson.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass said the team will remain in Atlanta, regardless of buys the team.
"The Atlanta Hawks are not moving to another market," Bass told Reuters.
An investigation that uncovered Levinson's email began after Hawks general manager Danny Ferry made racist remarks about African-born British NBA forward Luol Deng.
During a conference call discussing the team's free agent options, Ferry said Deng "has a little African in him" and "he's like a guy who would have a nice store out front and sell you counterfeit stuff out of the back."
In the wake of the controversy, Levinson said he would sell the team.
Former Microsoft official Steve Ballmer bought the Clippers last year for $2 billion after Sterling was forced to sell the team for making racist comments.
The Hawks' price tag is expected to be appreciably lower despite a nine-year, $24 billion broadcast and digital rights package that the NBA struck last year with ESPN and TNT.
Anne Torres, a spokesperson for Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, called Thursday's announcement to sell the team "an important milestone."
"The mayor is confident that a well-qualified group will purchase the team and bring an end to this unfortunate chapter for the Hawks organization," she said.
Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Bill Trott