Cubs sale process moves slowly

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CHICAGO -- Five months after Tribune Co. announced plans to sell the Chicago Cubs, the first-place ballclub is making much more noise on the field than its corporate owners have been about the slow-moving sale process.

But whether the Cubs make the playoffs or even manage to capture their first World Series in 99 years, an emerging lineup of deep-pocketed bidders has put Tribune in strong position to net a record sale price for the franchise.

Tribune put the team and historic Wrigley Field on the block in April, saying it would sell the team after the season and intended to do so by the end of the year. But its bankers have yet to send out detailed financial information to prospective bidders and are not expected to do so until mid-September, jeopardizing that timetable.

A source familiar with the sale process said there's no chance of the sale being completed this year, with a more realistic target now baseball's opening day in spring 2008. The source, who declined to be identified out of concern of disrupting the process, said "five or six legitimate groups" have emerged as would-be buyers, but declined to give details.

Tribune, which is in the process of going private in an $8.2 billion buyout being led by real estate magnate Sam Zell, isn't talking about dates, names or numbers. A spokesman for the media conglomerate, Gary Weitman, said the company doesn't want the process to be a distraction to the season.

"We'd like to get the sale done as soon as possible after the baseball season ends," Weitman said. "But I can't and wouldn't predict what the timing will be."

Currently, the Cubs are clinging to a slim -- and rare -- lead in the National League Central Division and trying to get to the World Series for the first time since 1945. They haven't won one since 1908.

That legacy hasn't scared off potential buyers.

While the price remains impossible to peg before the first bid is even placed, sports economists say the expressed interest of several billionaires, among other well-heeled investors, make it a good bet it will exceed the record $660 million paid for the Boston Red Sox in 2002 by a group headed by billionaire commodities trader John Henry.

The Cubs' package includes not only Wrigley but Tribune's 25% stake in the Comcast sports channel in Chicago, fueling widespread speculation the total could reach $1 billion.

That wouldn't scare off Internet billionaire and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban or the family of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp.'s founder Joe Ricketts, both listed among the world's richest people. Neither responded to queries about their interest in the Cubs, although Cuban confirmed this summer that he had submitted an application to Major League Baseball to examine the team's finances.

They aren't even considered the favorites. That role falls, at least publicly, to a powerhouse group of Chicago-based investors headed by John Canning, chairman of private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners LLC and a longtime friend and business partner of baseball commissioner Bud Selig.

Canning, who would have to sell his 11% ownership in the Cubs' rival Milwaukee Brewers if the bid is successful, put together a group with McDonald's Corp. chairman Andrew McKenna, who also was Cubs' chairman from 1982-84, that includes about two dozen members of Chicago's business elite. Among them are David Donnini, Craig Duchossois, Michael Ferro, Edward Kaplan, Michael Krasny, Larry Levy, Richard Melman, Patrick Ryan and Michael Sacks.

"I think it's very clear at this point that he's the favorite," sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College, said of Canning. "He's got a strong group and he's got very good connections."

Selig, who has promised a fair and open process for selecting the Cubs' next owner, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about his reportedly favoring Canning.

Another interested bidder, Donald Levin, the owner of the Chicago Wolves minor league hockey team, said he's confident the "best buyer" will prevail despite any Selig-Canning ties.

"I would think it would not behoove the commissioner of baseball to pick somebody early," he said. "You have to satisfy the 29 other owners in order to get it."

Tribune doesn't have total control over who ends up with the Cubs; major league team owners must sign off on the winner. In the Red Sox sale, Henry didn't even submit the highest bid.

One die-hard fan and business owner is organizing a fan-based effort to buy the Cubs, based on the model of the Green Bay Packers. Eric Majeski formed 4 Fans Sake to get his message out and round up commitments.

But he has a long way to go to match the financial backing of Canning or Cuban. As of Tuesday, his Web site said 479 fans have pledged $2,377,350.

"We are playing to win," said Majeski, 35, a one-time trader in stocks and options who now owns a music label. But "I'm realistic of the odds. We're acting out of love, out of belief, love of the game."
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