March 28 (Reuters) - He didn’t go to a Major League Baseball game until he was 20, yet at age 51, Mark Walter is leading the group buying the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record $2.1 billion.
Walter, CEO of financial services firm Guggenheim Capital LLC, is the money guy in a disparate consortium that includes basketball icon entrepreneur Earvin “Magic” Johnson, long-time baseball executive Stan Kasten and Hollywood heavyweight Peter Guber.
The group preempted an anticipated auction for one of baseball’s most storied franchises with a jaw-dropping offer that far exceeded expectations of near $1.5 billion, which rival bidders were prepared to pay.
Walter grew up in rural Iowa, near the location used to film “Field of Dreams.” He shuttles between New York and Chicago, where he is seen frequently at Cubs games with his young daughter.
A source close to Walter said he still plans to keep his season tickets for the Cubs, but will soon find a residence in Los Angeles. “Mark views this as a long-term investment in the tradition of baseball and something his daughter’s daughter may one day enjoy,” said one person who knows him.
While Walter handles the money, it’s expected that Kasten, who ran both the Atlanta Braves and Washington Nationals franchises, will oversee the team’s baseball and business matters. The gregarious Johnson will be the face of the franchise.
Guber, who ran Sony’s Columbia pictures movie studio in the early 90s, owns five minor league teams, none of which are affiliated with the Dodgers. Last year, he and Boston Celtics minority partner Joe Lacob acquired the NBA’s Golden State Warriors.
“I have a lot of faith in Mark and his abilities,” said Ken Lombard, Johnson’s former business partner and a longtime friend of Guber. “These are a lot of smart guys who have taken a careful look at the assets and this is a jewel of a franchise.”
Walter and Kasten sought out Johnson to join their bid soon after Dodgers’ team owner Frank McCourt and major league baseball announced on Nov. 1 that the team was for sale, a person familiar with the process said, with the Hall of Fame point guard providing the local presence the league wanted.
”Both guys are about winning and making a difference in the L.A. community, Johnson told the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 2. “I love baseball. I’ve been a Dodgers fan and gone to the park many, many times.”
Johnson brings deep connections to the local business community as well. His Magic Johnson Enterprises owns movie theaters, health clubs and other properties in the LA area.
Kasten, who had a long-time business relationship with Atlanta media mogul Ted Turner, became the general manager of Turner’s NBA Atlanta Hawks’ in 1979 at age 27.
He later became the Hawk’s president and then president of the Atlanta Braves’ baseball franchise.
The 60-year old Kasten took over as president of the Washington Nationals in 2006 for billionaire real estate developer Theodore Lerner, who bought the team that year for $450 million.
The Dodgers acquisition thrust the usually low-key Walter and his Guggenheim Baseball Management LLC into the spotlight with a bid that seemed to some outsized for a storied franchise with an aging stadium and a team in need to better players.
“There’s a lot of smart money in town that wouldn’t do this deal,” said Lloyd Greif, president of investment bank Greif & Co. “It’s hard to justify this price in economic terms. It’s a trophy buy.”
The groups’ saving grace may be the TV rights for the nation’s second largest media market. News Corp’s Fox owns the team’s broadcasting rights through the end of 2013, with an exclusive negotiating window to renew its deal beginning in November.
Experts have suggested the lucrative broadcasting is worth north of $3 billion and Time Warner Cable has also been talking with bidders with an eye toward getting a piece of the media rights when it is able.
Many expect the two media giants will face off in a bidding war for the rights.
Major League Baseball, which pressured McCourt to sell, seems satisfied wit the transaction.
“This price is an obvious reflection of the overall health of the team under the leadership of Commissioner Selig,” said Pat Courtney, a spokesman for MLB.
The deal still has to be approved in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, but nobody expects any problems with such a lofty price.