Jeff Wilpon Says Control of New York Mets Not for Sale as Suitors Line Up

The New York Mets’ owners aren’t willing to sell a controlling interest in the franchise, Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon reiterated after several ownership candidates surfaced in recent days.

Wilpon and his father, Fred Wilpon, the Mets’ chairman, said on Jan. 28 that they may sell as much as 25 percent of the Major League Baseball team because of a lawsuit tied to the Ponzi scheme created by Bernard L. Madoff.

Making an appearance today in the Mets’ spring-training clubhouse in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Jeff Wilpon told reporters that his family won’t be forced to give up control of the franchise.

“We’re not selling controlling interest in the team,” Wilpon said, according to several news organizations including the New York Daily News. “It’s not on the table.”

Trustee Irving Picard wants to recover $300 million in alleged phony profits from Madoff’s scheme made by Sterling Equities Inc., which owns the Mets, and as much as $700 million in principal, his lawyer, David Sheehan, said on Feb. 11.

Jeff Wilpon’s comments came the day after executives from the investment bank and brokerage firm Tritaurian Capital Inc. created BuyTheMets.com, which would sell $999 shares in an ownership group that would give fans a voice in running the team.

Donald Trump, the billionaire real estate developer, said he contacted the Wilpons about two weeks ago to set up discussions on potentially buying a majority stake in the club, according to the New York Times.

Repole’s Interest

Michael Repole, the co-founder of Glaceau Vitaminwater sports drink, said in an interview last month that he has tried to contact Steve Greenberg, a managing director at Allen & Co., who was hired as the Wilpons’ adviser to address the situation created by the Madoff lawsuit. Repole, an avid Mets’ fan, sold Vitaminwater to Coca-Cola Inc. for $4.1 billion in 2007. He now owns a colt that races in the Mets’ orange and blue colors and is the favorite for this year’s Kentucky Derby.

BuyTheMets.com was started partly out of love for New York sports, said James Preissler, a managing director at Tritaurian Capital, who created the investment vehicle with partners John Calce and William Heyn.

“It just stings when your team stinks and the reason why it stinks is because one billionaire screwed over another billionaire,” Preissler said.

Specified Purpose Acquisitions

Preissler, a 39-year-old from Northport, New York, said in a telephone interview that he has a background in creating specified purpose acquisition corporations, where capital is raised and put in escrow, keeping the money safe while finding an investment. When one is found, shareholders can either go along with the transaction or get their money back.

“This methodology could be used for a bunch of different things,” Preissler said. “Here it would be used to buy the Mets or a controlling interest in the Mets, and if it doesn’t work out, the people are as protected as possible.”

The goal of the initiative would be to provide Mets’ fans with a voice in running a franchise that’s missed the playoffs all but once in the past decade, while also making the investments potentially financially lucrative, Preissler said.

‘Hands of Fans’

“To the extent it’s possible, we could put as much in the hands of the fans as possible that Major League Baseball would allow,” Preissler said. “That’s the trick, that’s not our call.”

Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball, declined to comment in a telephone interview.

The Cleveland Indians went public at $15 a share in June 1998, with about two-thirds of the team and 99 percent of the voting rights remaining in the hands of Chairman Richard Jacobs. The team was sold in its entirety to Lawrence Dolan in February 2000, with former shareholders receiving $22.66 a share.

Preissler said he was unsure of how many potential investors had signed since launching BuyTheMets.com yesterday because of technical difficulties created by traffic on the website.

The Mets were the third-highest-valued team in the major leagues at $858 million, behind the Yankees ($1.6 billion) and Boston Red Sox ($870 million), Forbes magazine said in April 2010. It said the Mets’ value had dropped 6 percent from 2009, with $268 million in revenue and operating income of $26.2 million.

Stadium, Network

The Wilpons said on a Jan. 28 conference call that any sale wouldn’t involve Citi Field, their home stadium, or SportsNet New York, their regional sports network. That unit was created by Sterling Entertainment Enterprises, Time Warner Inc. and Comcast Corp. in 2006, according to the network’s website.

Preissler said he would also consider buying a minority interest in the team, even if the Wilpons maintained control.

“You could buy a minority interest as long as the minority is well represented and the business is run properly,” Preissler said. “This is nothing against the Wilpons per se. They unfortunately found themselves in a bind. The problem is that bind may affect the best interest of the Mets.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Mason Levinson in New York at mlevinson@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Sillup at msillup@bloomberg.net.

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