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* Blackstone to contact potential bidders within weeks
* Potential bidders include private equity, strategic buyers
* Anschutz wants more than money, wants firm intact in sale
By Nadia Damouni and Ronald Grover
NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES, Sept 20 (Reuters) - Billionaire Phil Anschutz's sports and entertainment business, AEG, is sparking interest from a range of media and private equity firms including Liberty Media Corp and Guggenheim Partners LLC, in a deal that could fetch more than $6 billion, sources said.
Others possible suitors include Thomas H. Lee Partners LP, Bain Capital LLC and Colony Capital LLC, said the sources.
Anschutz, who is in his mid-70s, launched an auction of Anschutz Entertainment Group on Tuesday, as he looks for a buyer to take on the company that owns some 100 entertainment venues globally and sports assets that include the Los Angeles Galaxy Major League Soccer team, possibly best-known for star David Beckham, and a stake in the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Lakers.
Sources familiar with AEG's assets said the company could fetch between $6 billion and $8 billion in a sale. One of the sources said AEG has asked for at least $7 billion. AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke declined to confirm the price tag but said a deal would be in the multibillion-dollar range.
Another source familiar with the matter said that as a private owner, Anschutz is under no pressure to sell AEG. Anschutz would sell it only as a fully integrated platform and not in pieces, the source said. Further, he would sell it only to a buyer with the resources and commitment to keep the platform as it is, the source added.
"The Dodgers were supposedly going to be sold for a billion dollars," said Leiweke, referring to the $2 billion acquisition of the Los Angeles Major League Baseball team by a Guggenheim Partners-led group earlier this year. "We will get a premium because you don't find those kinds of real estate developments anywhere else. This is more unique than the Dodgers."
"When we started on this path 15 years ago with Anschutz, he made it very clear at the time that this is about an equity play," Leiweke added. "He is not a man that has a huge ego. This has never been about toys; this has always been about business."
Blackstone Advisory Partners, AEG's investment banker, intends to begin contacting potential bidders over the next few weeks. The firm is compiling a list of potential buyers, which include sovereign funds, private equity, large pension funds and strategic partners, but some have already said they would be interested, according to people with knowledge of the process.
Given the size of the business and the diverse portfolio, according to sources familiar with the thinking of potential buyers, some parties could be compelled to break AEG into separate units. That would result in a holding company for the sports assets including the National Hockey League's Los Angeles Kings and another holding real estate that includes its London 02 entertainment district.
Guggenheim, which recently bought Dick Clark Productions in addition to the Dodgers, could express interest. So too could Colony Capital, the Los Angeles-based private equity fund whose assets include the Miramax film studio. A spokeswoman for Guggenheim declined to comment. A Colony spokeswoman was not available for comment.
John Malone's Liberty Media is also considered a logical bidder, although if Liberty participates in the sale, it would likely be in concert with private equity, said one source familiar with the situation. Liberty owns a 21 percent stake in Live Nation Entertainment Inc, a rival concert promoter to AEG, and would likely need regulatory approval.
A Liberty spokeswoman did not return phone calls.
Thomas H. Lee Partners (THL) and Bain also have preliminary interest in AEG although the valuation expectation could be hard for a private equity firm to meet, sources familiar with the situation said. If they decide to bid, the private equity firms are likely to seek a partner, they said. Representatives for Bain and THL declined to comment.
Once the sale of AEG is kicked off, it will be treated as a classic two-step M&A sale process, where initial indications of interest will be taken from prospective buyers, leading to more serious contenders. The company hopes to wrap up a deal by the first part of next year.
The auction is expected to be closely watched by the city of Los Angeles, where AEG is planning to build a $1.2 billion football stadium and convention center, called Farmers Field. AEG won approval from a Los Angeles planning commission for the stadium on Sept. 13, a key milestone for a project that is expected to create an estimated 23,000 jobs.
Leiweke said the sale of AEG would not affect the development and construction of Farmers Field.
Signaling its intention to finish the project would help allay fears among National Football League teams that might want to relocate to Los Angeles. The stadium needs a team to serve as anchor tenant to help it service $228.7 million in low-interest bonds.
"I have the commitment from them that this won't affect plans for an NFL team to return to Los Angeles in the near future," said Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in a statement.
Councilwoman Jan Perry, whose district would include the new stadium, said she has been assured that a new owner would honor commitments made by AEG.
"The stadium will go ahead, with no public money and 23,000 jobs," she said, although she added that she would have to see whatever agreement AEG signs with the new owners.
"We're taking it day by day," she said.