Zell says Cubs are No. 1 -- to be sold off

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

On his first day in charge of Tribune Co., Sam Zell set an ambitious goal: Sell the Chicago Cubs by opening day.

The Cubs, one of baseball’s most storied yet least successful clubs, are expected to command a record sale price for a major league team.

If Tribune were to package the team with venerable Wrigley Field and the Cubs’ stake in Chicago’s cable sports channel, the price could exceed $1 billion, two sports finance experts said Thursday.

However, in an effort to make more money, Zell is exploring whether to sell those assets separately.

In his introductory news conference Thursday in Chicago, Zell even raised the possibility of selling what he called “extraordinarily valuable” naming rights to the historic ballpark: “Wrigley Field, the Cubs, all the land around it, everything is an asset of the company, including the right to name the park.”

Zell’s timetable appears highly optimistic, because the bidding has not begun and major league owners must investigate and approve a potential buyer. Even one of Tribune’s sale advisors, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sale, said the deal would be more likely to close when the season ended next fall than when it starts in April.

In the meantime, baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wants to examine the Cubs’ management under Tribune’s new ownership. Cubs President John McDonough left the team last month.

The Cubs’ new management and pending sale are on the agenda for the Jan. 16 owners meeting in Arizona, Major League Baseball President Bob DuPuy said.

“The commissioner will review the situation,” DuPuy said.

The Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908 and have not even appeared in the Fall Classic since 1945.

The team is famous not for dynasties or dramatic victories but for fans lovingly disparaged as “Bleacher Bums” and the late legendary announcer Harry Caray. Their fans like to say the team is cursed -- in popular lore by a billy goat ejected from Wrigley, in later days evidenced by a fan named Steve Bartman, who prevented a Cubs player from making a catch that would have all but sealed a World Series berth in 2003.

Yet the Cubs sell out their creaky ballpark almost every game, and national broadcasts on WGN have helped cultivate a following beyond Chicago, so there has been no shortage of interest since Zell said in May he would take over Tribune but sell the Cubs.

DuPuy said Tribune had asked for -- and major league officials have granted -- permission to share the Cubs’ financial information with several prospective bidders. He declined to say how many or identify them.

The most publicized bidders have been Chicago businessman John Canning, an ally of Selig, and Mark Cuban, owner of basketball’s Dallas Mavericks, but the sale advisor said more than a dozen groups or individuals were pursuing the Cubs.

The bidding has yet to begin because Tribune has yet to distribute the “bid books,” enabling prospective buyers to examine the Cubs’ confidential financial statements.

“It’s hard to send out the books unless you know what you’re going to put in them,” Zell said Thursday.

That means Zell must first decide whether he wants to sell the Cubs alone or in conjunction with Wrigley Field and/or the 25% stake in the cable channel.

In 2002, the Boston Red Sox sold for a then-record $660 million, a price that included ownership of Fenway Park and an 80% stake in the local cable sports channel.

Zell said he had had discussions about selling Wrigley Field to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, the government agency that operates U.S. Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. The sale advisor said Zell also had considered selling Wrigley Field to private interests.

However, experts said Zell would complicate and probably delay the deal by selling the Cubs separately from Wrigley Field, even if he would make more money that way.

“That’s a problem if you’re a buyer,” said an advisor to one prospective buyer, speaking on condition of anonymity. “How are you going to buy the team if you don’t know your lease?”

If Zell opts for separate sales of the Cubs and the ballpark, a new team owner might condition a higher bid on time-consuming agreements on sharing revenue and renovation expenses with a landlord at Wrigley Field.

The new owner also could threaten to move out of the beloved ballpark without such agreements, and either a Cubs owner or a ballpark owner could endorse selling naming rights to Wrigley Field.

David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, said all parties could lose financially if the Cubs moved to a new ballpark.

“The brand value of the Cubs is inextricably linked to Wrigley Field,” he said.

Carter also cautioned a new Cubs owner -- or ballpark owner -- against the sale of naming rights to Wrigley Field, at least in the immediate future.

“Any owner that comes in and wants to be an integral part of the community has got to get acclimated and work his way into credibility in that community,” he said, “and not go in there rocking the boat.”