CHICAGO -- Tribune Co. made a stunning pitch to investors on
baseball's Opening Day: The Chicago Cubs will be sold at season's
The announcement Monday came as the ailing media conglomerate
announced its acquisition by billionaire investor Sam Zell. It puts
one of sports' most storied and star-crossed franchises on the
block, a year shy of the 100th anniversary of its last World Series
Zell, a real estate magnate who already owns part of his
hometown Bulls and White Sox, issued no comment about why he's not
interested in keeping the Cubs in connection with the $8.2 billion
deal. The team is one of Tribune's richest assets.
Bidding for the ballclub and historic Wrigley Field, however, is
certain to be fiercely competitive. Analysts have estimated the
Cubs could fetch $600 million or more, a far cry from the $20.5
million Tribune paid in 1981.
While the total may not exceed the record $660 million paid for
the Boston Red Sox in 2002 by a group headed by John Henry,
analysts and baseball insiders all agreed the price should top
those paid since then for the Washington Nationals ($450 million),
Los Angeles Dodgers ($430 million) and Milwaukee Brewers ($223
million), and agreed to for the Atlanta Braves ($461 million).
"The Cubs are a great franchise. Great history, great
tradition," baseball commissioner Bud Selig told reporters in
Chicago, where he was attending the White Sox opener against
Cleveland. "I'm not going to speculate on price."
The Cubs' popularity as a sports franchise -- and the lure of
potentially steering them to their first championship since 1908 --
has attracted the interest of many potential buyers since a sale
became a strong possibility last year. Billionaire entrepreneur
Mark Cuban, Phoenix sports executive Jerry Colangelo and actor Bill
Murray are among those reported or rumored to have interest, along
with numerous Chicago business figures.
Cuban, the most prominent and wealthiest of the bunch, did not
immediately respond to a request for comment, nor did Colangelo, a
Chicago-area native who said in a November interview that he would
have "great interest" in the Cubs.
Tribune hopes first to erase or at least lessen the Cubs' stigma
of losing following 99 years without a championship, more than a
quarter of them under its watch.
"In our last season of ownership the team has one mission, and
that is to win for our great fans," said Dennis FitzSimons,
Tribune's chairman, president and chief executive officer.
Speculation that the Cubs might be destined for new ownership
ramped up last fall when Tribune put itself up for possible sale
under pressure from disgruntled shareholders. It intensified with
the club's offseason spending spree, including signing outfielder
Alfonso Soriano to an eight-year contract for $136 million -- the
fifth-richest contract in major league history.
Tribune had said for months that it would focus first on a sale
of the entire company before considering selling individual pieces,
which also include 23 television stations and 11 newspapers. That
sale was announced Monday morning when it said it had agreed to a
complex deal in which the company will go private and Zell will
invest $315 million.
While the Cubs are renowned for their losing ways, they also
have become more of a box-office success under Tribune's ownership
and have spent dramatically more money in recent years.
Nevertheless, its stewardship will go down as checkered if it fails
to win so much as a single pennant.
"It's a marquee franchise," said sports economist Andrew
Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College who pegs the
club's value at $500 million to $650 million depending on any
changes to TV contracts and how Wrigley Field factors into the
deal. But, he added, "My guess is this is probably good news for
Cubs fans. I don't think Tribune Co. has done a lot positive for
Tim Speiss, who advises sports team owners for New York
accounting firm Eisner LLP, pegged the Cubs' value based on 2005
revenues at roughly $465 million, excluding any debt, but said
that's not only the factor in bidding for a sport franchise.
"There's always a lot of emotion, for a lot of reasons," he said.
Selig contended that Tribune's ownership shouldn't be evaluated
solely on on-the-field results.
"There are a lot of different ways to evaluate ownership," he
said. "I understand completely the won-loss parameters people use
to judge people in this business. The Tribune Company has, as far
as I'm concerned, been outstanding owners."
The ownership issue overshadowed the start of the season in
Cincinnati for the Cubs, who are given a chance to contend in a
weak NL Central Division but are not the favorites. The Reds beat
Chicago 5-1 in the opener.
Lou Piniella, the Cubs' new manager, said he met with his
players before the game and told them not to let the news affect
"We're not to going to change," he said. "The club's going to
be run the same way it's always been run. I told the players that
with the business end, they don't have any control over that. The
only thing they can control is what they do on the field."
Asked whether the impending sale could be a distraction, catcher
Michael Barrett said: "It's a change. At the same time, we're more
focused than we've ever been. We feel good about what Lou has
accomplished in spring training, getting everyone to have a daily
Cubs president John McDonough said there hasn't been any
indication Tribune will cut back on resources for the team in its
lame-duck ownership season, although he declined to say whether the
announcement might affect negotiations with pitcher Carlos Zambrano
on a multiyear contract.
"I feel confident that if during the [season's] midpoint we
need to improve the ballclub, those resources will be there," he
General Manager Jim Hendry called the Cubs one of the premier
franchises in sports.
"Everywhere we go, half of the fans are Cubs fans," Hendry
told reporters in Cincinnati. "We play in the greatest ballpark in
the world. It's the greatest city to play in. Who wouldn't want to
be part of the Cubs?"