On Opening Day of the 2007 baseball season, owner Tribune Co. announced itis putting the Cubs on the block as part of its $8.2 billion sale to realestate tycoon Sam Zell. Tribune Co.'s 25 percent interest in broadcast partnerComcast SportsNet Chicago also will be sold.
But there is a catch that might elicit frowns from some potential bidders:the "Friendly Confines" of Wrigley Field might not be for sale. The Tribunepress release announcing the sale made no mention of Wrigley, and companyofficials Monday declined to comment on whether the ballpark -- which is asmuch a part of Cubs lore as the team itself -- is on the market.
The Cubs could fetch "anywhere from $500 million to $600 million" from abuyer even without Wrigley, said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professorwho specializes in baseball economics. The Comcast stake is believed to beworth at least $50 million.
Wrigley would be expected to add as much as $90 million to the askingprice. With its unique red marquee at the corner of Clark and Addison Streetsand its trademark ivy-covered walls, Wrigley's value to Chicagoans goes beyondmere dollars and cents.
Yet the ballpark's landmark status limits an owner's ability to change thelook of Wrigley. Tribune Co.'s efforts to expand the bleachers were delayed byintensive negotiations with the city and neighbors. Even changes outside theballpark are prohibited by the landmark status.
With or without Wrigley Field, prospective buyers are expected to line upto purchase the Cubs. And the sale will represent a big return for Tribune,which paid only $20.5 million to buy the club in 1981.
The list of prospective buyers is expected to include well-known sportsfigures such as Jerry Colangelo, a Chicago Heights native who was managingpartner of the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series. Alsoamong the likely bidders is Mark Cuban, the brash technology entrepreneur whosits courtside and jaws with officials as owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBAteam.
"Whenever you can find viable local ownership, that's a good thing. A verygood thing," Selig said. The Comcast investment "will probably get sold rightalong with the ballclub," Selig added.
White Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf figures Selig will not have to lookvery far. "I know of seven different groups that are interested in buying theCubs," Reinsdorf said.
Expect "some wild bidding," Reinsdorf added. "The Cubs are a premierfranchise. They will go for a good number."
Local bidders may include Don Levin, the owner of minor-league hockey'sChicago Wolves who made an offer for the Cubs last fall. Andy McKenna, theseptuagenarian Chicago civic leader who served as chairman of the Cubs earlyin the Tribune Co. ownership, is mentioned as capable of putting together aninvestor group. Chris Reyes, chief executive of privately owned ReyesHoldings, might consider a minority position in the Cubs, sources said.
The ballclub has a unique cachet, with a national reputation as "lovablelosers" that current Tribune Co. management has struggled to overcome,spending $300 million over the past winter to upgrade the roster. The Cubshave not won a World Series since 1908, and last appeared in one againstDetroit in 1945 . Yet they retain a loyal national following, settingattendance records in each of the last three seasons by drawing more than 3million fans.
One such fan is Cliff Zeider, a 75-year-old resident of Port St. Lucie,Fla., who grew up watching the Cubs in LaPorte, Ind. These days, Zeider says,sometimes he thinks the Cubs "should just move to Japan. I am sick of thisbunch of losers." That didn't stop Zeider from tuning in to see the Cubs lose5-1 in Cincinnati on Opening Day.
Yet, Zeider doesn't entirely blame Tribune Co. "Tribune has nothing to dowith it," he said. "They don't know enough about baseball to hurt anything."
Ownership of the Cubs has been a mixed blessing for Tribune Co. Among thenewspaper's readers are many White Sox fans who believe the Chicago Tribunefavors the Cubs because of its parent company's ownership. Even Mayor Daleysometimes chides the Tribune. In 2005, as the White Sox bore down on theirWorld Series title, Daley scoffed at a Tribune story about the Black Soxscandal of 1919. "Why do they have to bring that up? Here [the Sox] are cominginto a tough game tonight. They won't do it against the Cubs, I'll tell youthat."
Tribune Chief Executive Dennis FitzSimons made reference to the Cubs' longdrought while talking about the Zell sale to Tribune employees Monday. "Wehave one more chance in our 25 years of ownership," FitzSimons said. "Maybethe 25th time will be the charm."
FitzSimons in an interview Monday said he has fielded offers to buy theCubs for years, and Tribune Co. management looked at the prospect of a Cubs'sale during the course of its months-long strategic review. The idea to sellthe team as part of Zell's purchase process occurred during negotiations,FitzSimons said.
Zell has an interest in baseball. For years, he has owned a minorityinterest in the White Sox. But the Cubs emerged as a part of the company thateasily could be sold to raise cash.
"It made sense to sell what is a really valuable asset, and use theproceeds to pay down debt," FitzSimons said in an interview.
FitzSimons declined to talk about Wrigley. But Cubs President JohnMcDonough at least acknowledged that the future of Wrigley is an openquestion. "There's a lot of things, going forward. We're doing everything wecan to go through this process and gather as much information as we can," hesaid.
Zimbalist, the sports economist, said negotiations for the Cubs could getcomplicated. Because of Tribune's ownership of WGN television and radio, thereis speculation that the company has not always negotiated the most aggressivetelevision deals. Such a tactic might help the corporation shield income fromthe baseball players' union, Zimbalist said.
"Unless you know where the revenue streams are and how long they last, youreally can't tell what the Cubs are really worth," Zimbalist said.
Tribune Co.believes the value of the Cubs will be enhanced by the fact thatit has long-term contracts with WGN-Ch. 9, Comcast SportsNet Chicago, and WGNradio. Zell wants to keep his options open, in part because he believesWrigley might have more value sold separately from the Cubs, sources said. Oneoption may be to sell Wrigley, and then allow the ballpark's new owner tolease it to the team's new owner.
Tribune Co. management will manage the process of selling the Cubs, whichis planned to be completed before Zell closes on the Tribune Co. deal latethis year. Having the team sold before Zell finalizes his deal eliminates anyneed for Major League Baseball to approve Zell as an owner. It also avoids anycontroversy over the fact that Zell owns a minority stake in the White Sox.
Even if the deal does not happen on schedule, Selig said he would not havea problem with what would be a unique crosstown situation: Zell briefly owningan interest in both the Cubs and White Sox.
"His ownership of the White Sox is not inconsistent with our rules," Seligsaid. "There are other owners at various times who have owned clubs and boughtclubs, and I always give them a little time to sell because there's a strainon both the club and the individual."
Among the likely bidders, Colangelo seems to have done the most upfrontwork. He began talking to prospective partners last November. "My attitude isthis: This is what I anticipated, that they'd be sold after the 2007 season,"Colangelo said. "Now we'll revisit it. It's fresh, it's new. I'm going to bewatching with interest."
Cuban, in an e-mail to the Tribune, wouldn't confirm his interest in theCubs. "Saying something is for sale in nine months isn't the same as sayingits for sale now," his e-mail said. But Reinsdorf intimated what many in MajorLeague Baseball have hinted: That Cuban's strong personality might make him ahard sell to baseball's conservative owners.
"It is a matter of public record that when Cuban was approved to buy theDallas Mavericks, the vote was 29-1," said Reinsdorf, who is also the Bullschairman.