It’s never simple with buying and selling the New York Mets, not when Fred and Jeff Wilpon are involved.
Accordingly, the news Wednesday afternoon, that Mets minority investor Steve Cohen of SAC Capital, is in talks to acquire 80 percent of the Mets, with a five-year off-ramp for both Fred and control person and Jeff as Chief Operating Officer, contains plenty of caveats and supplementary possibilities.
Even so, the potential for such a change could fundamentally transform the current era of New York Mets baseball in a way no acquisition on the field ever could.
Consider that since the massive investment the Wilpons had with Bernie Madoff disappears in a puff of smoke back in December 2008, ownership has been operating in a state of perpetual debt. They took out a massive loan against the team, along with their majority stake in SNY, and each year’s finances begin with siphoning off money from baseball operations to pay the interest on that now-single loan, along with twice-annual debt balloon payments on Citi Field, which opened in 2009.
The effect has been to spend first on survival, second on players — and rarely on the latter at a level anywhere close to the revenues provided by an MLB team in the largest market in the league, especially with the Wilpons owning a majority stake in their own TV network, SNY (the initial loan to finance SNY was provided by Bernie Madoff, of course).
So the joy with which this news was greeted by all Mets fans has less to do with a belief in the ethics or spending proclivities of Steve Cohen — who, after all, paid a $1.8 billion fine for insider trading, or just a bit less than the reported $2.6 billion valuation of the Mets — and more that an endless number of winters filled with excuses masquerading as reasons the cash-strapped Wilpons couldn’t or wouldn’t spend is at an end.
Different, at this point, is more than sufficient when the combination of owner overreach — one Mets source told me a backup catcher couldn’t get released from short-season A-ball without Jeff Wilpon weighing in — and a financial set of handcuffs that place the Mets well behind other teams with less of a financial backing from its overall circumstances and market.
Still: if this all sounds familiar, well, it is. Back in 2011, the Wilpons tried to wiggle their way out of financial trouble by selling a minority stake in the Mets for $200 million to the venture capitalist David Einhorn. The deal would allow Einhorn to eventually convert his minority stake to majority stake.
As I reported in my book on this subject, “Wilpon’s Folly”, what Fred Wilpon did next is to lobby his good friend and then-commissioner Bud Selig to deny Einhorn the approval MLB needs to provide any majority owner to buy a club. When Einhorn caught wind of this, he withdrew from the deal.
Ultimately, the Wilpons covered that cash shortfall by selling minority shares to a number of people, including Cohen, while retaining control.
What still looms beneath the surface at the moment may be most interesting of all, and tell us more about how the next five years will go. Have the Wilpons truly changed their minds about wanting to own the Mets for generations? Or is there a particularly large financial iceberg coming without another way for them to find cash for it?
If the former, then the five-year offramp wouldn’t make much sense. If the latter, based on history, just about anything is possible in what is an extremely long timeframe. Then again, Selig is no longer commissioner, so what Fred will be able to convince Rob Manfred to do, should he have similar second thoughts this time around, is another wild card.
What is indisputable is that if this deal comes to pass, a Mets team that isn’t in the hands of the Wilpons for the long-term is the kind of stark change seldom seen in Mets history. It calls to mind a similar moment back in 1979, when Lorinda de Roulet, who’d inherited the Mets from her mother, original owner Joan Payson, sold the team. Mets fans had come to loathe de Roulet, along with Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant, the Jeff Wilpon of his time.
Finally, in 1980, the team changed hands for $21.1 million. Nelson Doubleday was the principal new owner. His minority partner, Fred Wilpon, eventually bought him out.
That transaction, Doubleday selling to Wilpon, happened because the business relationship went sour. A previous sale by Wilpon and Doubleday, to Cablevision, was scuttled because Fred Wilpon wanted to be sure his son, Jeff, could take over the team someday, and even Fred understands how unlikely it is that any other ownership group on the planet would put Jeff Wilpon in charge of a baseball team. Even the ultimate Doubleday sale to Wilpon ended in recriminations, delays and permanent bad feelings.
All of which is to say: this would fundamentally change the outlook of the New York Mets. And don’t believe it’s done until the papers are signed, and perhaps not even then.