Cubs' owner finalists down to 3

January 8, 2009 4:42:54 PM PST
The three finalists attempting to purchase the Chicago Cubs have been asked by The Tribune Company to refine their bids for the baseball team, Wrigley Field and other related assets. In these troubled economic times, those willing to pay the most may not necessarily be the eventual winner in this baseball bidding war.

Yes, if were just about the bottom-line math, it would be much clearer who's going to walk away with one of the biggest franchises in sports. But there's a credit crisis, The Tribune Company is under bankruptcy protection, and more than just owner Sam Zell has an interest in how what is paid for the assets actually gets distributed.

Months ago Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban offered $1.3 billion for a package that includes the baseball team, its park, the Cubs TV contract and a quarter share of Comcast SportsNet. But now that he has taken himself out of the process. Analysts say what he might have been willing to pay is nowhere near what the Cubs will fetch now.

"I think that after what happened with the credit crisis, no one's money is as good as it was and no one's going to be paying the dollars they were going to be paying before," said Ann Saphir, Crain's Chicago Business.

The finalists are all men with strong Chicago ties.

Tom Ricketts was born in Omaha to the founder of TD Ameritrade brokerage. He came to Chicago in 1983 and started his own investment bank, Incapital LLC. He once lived atop a bar in Wrigleyville and met his wife in the bleachers.

Glenview-raised Cubs fan Marc Utay runs Clarion Capital Partners. He is a leveraged buyout specialist based in New York. He went to New Trier High School with Rahm Emanuel in the 1970s.

The third finalist is Hersch Klaff, head of Chicago's Klaff Realty. Klaff is a publicity-shy South African who moved to Chicago in the 1970s and made his fortune buying distressed properties. Klaff Realty is knows for aggressive deal making.

Sources say, what's going to count is who among these three can structure a deal that nets the most cash, after tax, to the creditors of Zell's debt-laden Tribune Company.

"All the creditors are looking over his shoulder and making sure that he gets the best deal for them and that is what they are going to want to see, is top dollar for this deal," Saphir said.

Sources say the winner will offer a package likely structured as a joint venture where a new company is created, The Tribune keeps a tiny stake -- say 3 percent -- in that company, and the Cubs are the asset of the company. The buyer would be the partner and would get the assets transferred to him inside that holding company, thus avoiding a lot of tax from the proceeds of a more traditional sale.