CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Tribune Co has agreed to terms for the sale of the Chicago Cubs to a group led by private equity investor Marc Utay, giving the company two possible offers to submit to the bankruptcy court, two sources familiar with the sale process said on Tuesday.
It is the latest twist in a long-running effort by the bankrupt media company to sell the baseball team famous for its “lovable losers” image. Several people involved said Utay’s renewed interest could be a way to pressure the Ricketts family into an improved offer.
On Monday, a source said Tom Ricketts and his family had agreed to terms for the purchase of the team and other assets for slightly less than the $900 million offered in January. The source called it a “handshake” agreement and not a signed document.
One of the sources reporting the Utay group’s deal said the new offer is “a higher price but less cash upfront” than the Ricketts’ bid.
“I don’t think it’s completely over yet,” said the source, who asked not to be identified because the sale process is continuing. “By the same token, Ricketts has a real edge here.”
Tribune, which has been trying to sell the team for more than two years to reduce the company’s debt burden, said no agreements are in place.
“We have not reached an agreement on terms with either party,” Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said.
However, a source in Major League Baseball and another source familiar with the sales process said the draft agreement with Ricketts has been submitted for league review. Nothing has been sent in for Utay, the league source said.
These two sources said Tribune is telling the Ricketts family only its bid will be submitted to the court and baseball.
Utay and a spokesman for the Ricketts family declined to comment.
Tribune Co, which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune newspapers, filed for bankruptcy in December due to its heavy debt load and the weak U.S. publishing sector.
The company put the Cubs, the team’s famous Wrigley Field home and a 25 percent stake in a local sports TV network, on the block in April 2007, when it agreed to an $8.2 billion buyout led by real estate magnate Sam Zell.
Last month, Tribune reopened talks with private equity investors Utay and Leo Hindery in a move that some analysts saw as a way to pressure Tom Ricketts, CEO of Chicago investment bank Incapital LLC and son of the founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp, into settling on terms Tribune sought.
The first two sources said both offers are likely to be submitted to the bankruptcy court for review, with the Tribune recommending one.
Before any deal can be final, Major League Baseball and the bankruptcy court must approve it. The Cubs are not part of the Tribune bankruptcy, but the court must approve any deal because it is a major company asset.
“I think they will submit two bids to the court and Tribune will make a recommendation,” the first source said. “This is my understanding of the situation. Who knows what Zell will ultimately do.”
Sports franchises’ values have been hurt by the recession and tighter credit markets. Analysts initially had expected the Cubs to draw bids topping $1 billion.
Buyers are eager to take control of the National League team, which, despite not winning a World Series title since 1908, has a huge fan base helped by its national exposure on cable television.
Reporting by Ben Klayman and Megan Davies; editing by John Wallace and Tim Dobbyn