Atlanta businessman might buy Braves

After months of would-be buyers kicking the tires on the Atlanta Braves, an investment group led by Ron Terwilliger, president and CEO of Trammell Crow Residential, has emerged as a leading candidate to purchase the baseball franchise from Time Warner, ESPN.com has learned.

Terwilliger has been approved by Major League Baseball to enter into negotiations that could lead to the purchase of the NL East club. That means he has been given clearance to go through the team's books and conduct due diligence on the franchise's operation. Terwilliger met Tuesday in Atlanta with other potential investors, and the investment group has retained New York-based Galatioto Sports Partners to represent it in negotiations.

The Braves and parent company Time Warner are represented by Steven Greenberg, managing director of New York investment banking firm Allen & Co. A spokesperson said Greenberg had no comment Wednesday regarding efforts to sell the club. Terwilliger could not be reached for comment.

On Dec. 13, 2005, Time Warner acknowledged its interest in selling the Braves, winners of an unprecedented 14 straight division titles. Since then, local media in Atlanta have been fixated on the possibility of Falcons owner Arthur Blank gaining dominance of the Atlanta market with the purchase of a second pro franchise. Sources close to the negotiations, however, suggest that Blank's interest might have been oversold to advance the bidding, noting also that it is unlikely a public company like Time Warner would sell the club off a single bid.

Blank, who amassed a fortune as co-founder of Home Depot, stepped away from negotiations last month. Though he could re-enter the picture if the selling price of the Braves drops considerably, industry sources suggest Blank will have more than enough on his plate as a result of the NFL's new collective bargaining agreement recently hammered out between the owners and players association.

Terwilliger fits Major League Baseball's preference for local ownership, as he has headed the Atlanta-based Trammell Crow since 1986. The company ranks as one of the largest developers of apartments and condominiums in the country, and has assets in excess of $3 billion.

An honor graduate of the United States Naval Academy (Class of '63), Terwilliger served five years in the Navy before receiving his MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business. To date, his most notable tie to the sports world is that he serves as subcommittee chair of the Naval Academy Athletic Committee.

Last year, Forbes.com estimated the value of the Braves at $392 million, which ranked them eighth among baseball franchises. The sale of the club is likely to fetch something close to $400 million. Unless the process speeds up dramatically, it's doubtful any sale will be final until late in the season, at the earliest.

Part of the reason the Braves are attractive is they have a solid management team in place, with general manager John Schuerholz and manager Bobby Cox both under contract through the 2007 season, as well as one of the top minor-league and player development systems in baseball. The club also plays in a relatively new stadium and in a large, growing regional market.

The Atlanta market, however, is loaded with pro franchises, and it traditionally has been a college sports town, drawing on Georgia and Georgia Tech as well as SEC and ACC fans who have relocated to the regional hub. The area also caters to a substantial NASCAR fan base. Braves attendance was up last year for the first time in eight seasons.

Whoever buys the Braves will have some interesting numbers to ponder. Ticket sales, though good, don't match what might be expected of a club on a run of 14 consecutive postseason appearances. So it could be argued there is room for improvement and growing profit margins. Then again, what will happen at the turnstiles if, and when, the Braves play less than playoff baseball?

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at michaeljfish@gmail.com.