Mets owner could find financial solution in stands
By Jeffrey Goldfarb
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
The biggest moment in New York Mets history involves a baseball squirting through the legs of an opposing player. Now the home team looks in danger of letting one slip away. Mets owner Fred Wilpon probably will struggle to find a buyer of a 25 percent stake in the team to ease his financial burden. But a solution may be no further than the Citi Field bleachers: a Mets IPO.
It’s not clear whether a partial sale would help Wilpon. He and his partner are accused by the trustee cleaning up Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi mess of receiving $300 million of fictional gains. That’s about a third of the estimated value of the Mets, according to Forbes magazine. Yet the trustee wants to recover $1 billion from the team’s owners.
Even setting aside the legal mess, there’s rarely much interest in owning a small portion of a sports team. The New York Times has been shopping its minority stake in a venture that owns the Boston Red Sox for two years. Such trophy assets aren’t usually stellar investments and the lack of control removes the fun of getting to call the shots in the big leagues. Box seats are a cheaper way to get closer to the action.
But one set of folks could see past these obstacles: Mets fans. Selling spectators something more than tickets and beer has produced decent results on and off the field. The community-owned Green Bay Packers just won American football’s Super Bowl. And British soccer club Tottenham Hotspur not only ranks among the elite in the Premier League this season, but over the last five years its London-traded shares have increased by 50 percent.
If recent history is any guide, Wilpon could have a sporting chance. More than a dozen British soccer clubs launched IPOs in the mid-1990s, often selling shares at hefty premiums to their fair value. Closer to home for Wilpon, the Florida Panthers hockey team saw its stock triple after a stock market debut 15 years ago. And even baseball’s Cleveland Indians went public briefly in 1998.
These days, Major League Baseball’s bigwigs prefer to scrutinize all new team owners closely, something it couldn’t do for shares sold to thousands of fans. And the disclosure required of a public listing might worry the cloistered group. But by all accounts, Wilpon is a beloved member of the club. And average attendance across the league has tumbled for three consecutive seasons. As any baseball aficionado knows, teams losing big late in the game need to swing for the fences.