Fred Wilpon may sell Mets baseball team stakes
DETROIT (Reuters) - The family of New York Mets principal owner Fred Wilpon might sell minority stakes in the baseball team because of a lawsuit that seeks to recover money from Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme.
Confidential talks with the Madoff trustee continue, Wilpon said. The lawsuit led the family to examine its options for the stakes, which sit in a family investment firm, including adding one or more partners.
Fred Wilpon said the family could sell up to 20 percent to 25 percent of the Major League Baseball team, but declined to say how much money the family was trying to raise.
Court-appointed Madoff trustee Irving Picard last month sued Fred Wilpon, his firm Sterling Equities and other defendants in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York to recover money.
The owners of the Mets made about $48 million in dealings with the swindler Madoff, known to be a lifelong fan of the team, court documents filed in October 2009 showed.
Picard targeted investors he said withdrew more from Madoff than they deposited, a position that angered many former Madoff customers. The trustee has called such profits "fictitious" and argued they should be returned for the benefit of other Madoff clients who lost money.
Officials said there was no timetable for a sale or any other move. Wilpon's son Jeff, the team's chief operating officer, said other options could include seeking more financing or borrowing against the team's stake in SNY.
Regardless of the outcome, Fred Wilpon said, the family's Sterling Equities investment firm would remain the principal ownership group, and control and manage the team's operations.
"We will continue to control the franchise and govern its operations," he told reporters on a conference call.
Wilpon said he saw no scenario in which the family would sell control, and said baseball executives had not pressured them to seek partners.
He reiterated that the team had the financial and operational resources to compete, pointing to the fact that the Mets have one of the highest payrolls in baseball.
Jeff Wilpon said the Mets' home ballpark Citi Field and the club's stake in its regional sports network SportsNet New York (SNY) would not be part of any deal.
Bankers and analysts said the Wilpons talked to family and close friends about minority stakes, but were unsuccessful and were moving beyond that circle.
"There certainly is a market for minority interests in the Mets, especially in New York, a glamour market with a lot of high net-worth people and businesses that might want to invest," said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd.
If any sale did include a proportional stake in SNY, the value of such a deal could top the record $845 million paid for most of the Chicago Cubs in 2009, bankers and analysts said.
"Obviously, the Mets are an attractive franchise," said Randy Vataha, president of sports banking firm Game Plan llc, citing the ballpark and New York market. "There will clearly be interest."
In April 2010, Forbes ranked the Mets as the third most valuable team in baseball at $858 million, behind the New York Yankees at No. 1 and the Boston Red Sox.
Making a sale tougher is the number of assets available -- the Houston Astros are for sale and the New York Times is trying to sell its minority stake in the Boston Red Sox. In addition, the acrimonious divorce of Los Angeles Dodgers owner Frank McCourt has led to speculation about that team's future.
Wilpon said the family has hired Allen & Co managing director Steve Greenberg as an adviser. Greenberg is a member of the Mets board and is leading the sales process for the Astros.
(Reporting by Ben Klayman. Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Robert MacMillan)
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