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Disney Makes an Offer to Add Angels to Its Lineup : Baseball: Firm agrees to buy 25% from Autrys and operate the team. It would get option to buy the rest later.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Walt Disney Co. took another major step into professional sports Thursday, announcing that it has agreed to buy a 25% interest in the California Angels baseball team, with an option to buy the rest later.

The deal will eventually give Disney controlling interest in the two major sports franchises in Orange County. Gene and Jackie Autry have said that majority interest in the team will not be sold until after the death of Gene Autry, 87.

“When the deal is consummated, Disney will be the managing partner and run the day-to-day operations of the baseball club,” said Richard M. Brown, Angels president and chief executive officer. “There will be a lot of discourse over the next several months.”

The announcement called the deal an agreement in principle. A sale requires the approval of three-quarters of the 14 American League owners and a majority of the 14 National League owners, but Brown said he foresees no difficulties.

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Allan H. (Bud) Selig, owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and acting baseball commissioner, said he was delighted with the prospect of Disney ownership. The next baseball owners meeting is June 6-7 in Minneapolis, but Selig said there is no timetable for a vote on a Disney-Angels deal.

The acquisition would add a second major league franchise to Disney’s entertainment and marketing portfolio. The company, which put Anaheim on the map when it opened Disneyland in 1955, obtained a National Hockey League expansion franchise for Anaheim in December, 1992, and named that team the Mighty Ducks after a Disney movie.

The prospect of Disney management of the Angels, who have played in Anaheim since 1966, was immediately endorsed by beleaguered local officials.

“What a shot in the arm for Orange County,” County Supervisor William G. Steiner said. “It’s a great time for this to happen. Our self-esteem hasn’t been the best because of the bankruptcy [filed by county government last year]. This is nothing but a plus for the county.”

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City Manager James D. Ruth said the announcement soothes some of the sting caused by the football Rams’ move from Anaheim to St. Louis this year. “This should restore faith in the area,” he said, adding that he expects to add basketball and football franchises.

Asked whether this investment would prevent Disney from getting a pro football franchise for Anaheim, Disney Sports Enterprises President Tony Tavares said: “Anything’s possible. If you’re asking me to rule it out, I’m not going to rule it out. This is a big company.”

He said Disney entered baseball before football because “something was for sale.”

There has been talk of an Angels sale for more than a year, and as recently as May 5, former baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth was considered the front-runner among possible buyers.

The team’s founder, former singing cowboy Gene Autry, bought the expansion franchise for about $2.5 million in 1961. Recently, Financial World magazine estimated the team’s worth at $88 million, but that figure was considered low by others.

Insiders said Ueberroth, who had gathered six to eight investors, was offering $130 million--$30 million for the initial 25% ownership, the rest upon Gene Autry’s death.

But the Angels reported losing $11 million in 1994 because of the players strike. They are expected to lose more this season, and Ueberroth’s reported reluctance to assume future losses put a strain on the deal, insiders said.

“We’ve been told that the Disney offer exceeded ours,” Ueberroth said Thursday. Disney officials declined to elaborate on the terms of their agreement.

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“The most important thing for us to do is to say nothing until this is approved,” Tavares said. “The only thing that can happen from us talking is to muddy the issues and place ourselves in a situation that is detrimental to the approval process.”

Brown said a sale would be a boon for Disney and the team. “Teams that are owned by individuals [as the Angels are], who don’t have their own stadium, are always going to have a difficult time competing,” he said.

Disney, however, has shown with the Mighty Ducks that it can not only compete, but dominate in such areas as sports merchandising. In the Mighty Ducks’ first season, team merchandise was the No. 1 seller in the NHL.

Disney, saying it would transform rough-and-tumble pro hockey into family entertainment, added ice dancers, cheerleaders, a mascot that descended from the rafters, laser shows, scoreboard cartoons and trivia quizzes.

“If anything, what they have done with the Ducks so far is maybe a forecast of what they can do with baseball,” said Joe Zemla, merchandise manager for the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team.

“They listen to what the fans want and that’s what they give them,” said Zemla, who helped to open the Anaheim Pond, the Ducks’ arena, when he worked for its manager, Ogden Services. “I grew up in Detroit, a hard-care hockey town, where if there had been cheerleaders, [fans] would have thrown beer at them.”

Autry bought the Angels franchise in 1960 when he found that he could not otherwise sew up the broadcasting rights for his radio station, KMPC. The team played in Los Angeles until 1966, when it moved to Anaheim and changed its name to the California Angels.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, Autry invested heavily in his team, signing free agents such as Don Baylor, Bobby Grich and Reggie Jackson to make the Angels winners. His spending paid off with division titles in 1979, 1982 and 1986, but the Angels never advanced past the league championship series.

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The most crushing defeat came in 1986 when the team came within one pitch of reaching the World Series. The Angels have had only one winning season since.

Times staff writers Lon Eubanks, Robyn Norwood, Elliott Teaford and Chris Woodyard contributed to this report.

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