Hey-hey! Tribune closes $845 million deal for Cubs, Wrigley with billionaire Ricketts family

By Dave Carpenter, AP
Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ricketts family to buy Cubs for $845 million

CHICAGO — A billionaire brokerage family will attempt what a newspaper publisher and a chewing-gum dynasty failed to do: Break baseball’s longest World Series drought.

The Rickettses, longtime Cubs fans whose wealth comes from family-owned Ameritrade, signed an agreement Friday to buy a 95 percent stake of the team and its Wrigley Field home from Tribune Co. The $845 million deal also includes Tribune’s approximately 25 percent share of regional cable TV network Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

The deal, which requires approval by a bankruptcy court judge and Major League Baseball, may not help deliver a title to a profitable but hapless franchise that last won the big one in 1908. But the new owners can’t do any worse, championship-wise, than Tribune has during a 28-year stewardship or the Wrigley family during its 60 years at the helm.

Fans said they hope this will be the ownership that ends the century of failure.

“Hopefully the Rickettses will spend money on the team” for good players and rehabbing Wrigley Field, said Devon Vowman, 21, who works at a sports shop across from the ballpark.

“It’ll be nice for a family to own the Cubs that cares about more than the bottom line,” said his co-worker, Alex Sheehan, 20. “I think it definitely helps because if you look at the teams that win the World Series and the people that own them, it’s always a single guy who cares more about winning than anything else.”

Joe Ricketts, who founded Omaha, Neb.-based TD Ameritrade Holding Corp., issued a statement saying his family is “thrilled” to acquire a controlling interest in one of the most storied franchises in sports. “The Cubs have the greatest fans in the world, and we count our family among them,” he said.

But it is his son Tom Ricketts, 43, who led the purchase bid and is expected to assume the most active ownership role. The Chicago investment banker grew up watching the team, once lived across the street from Wrigley and first met his wife in the stands at a game there.

Ricketts likely needn’t worry about missing out on a chance to collect a World Series trophy as owner this fall. The Cubs, favored to win the National League Central division going into the season, are a distant second behind the St. Louis Cardinals and fifth in the wild-card chase.

Tribune had announced on Opening Day in 2007 that the marquee franchise and historic ballpark would be sold at the end of that season. But the process was slowed by CEO Sam Zell’s efforts to maximize sale profits, the collapse of the credit markets and Tribune’s 2008 bankruptcy filing.

The Ricketts family, tentatively selected as the winning bidder last January, had agreed to pay about $900 million for the package. But that total was renegotiated, with Tribune retaining a small stake for tax purposes.

The sale figure exceeds the record $660 million paid for the Boston Red Sox, its ballpark and its TV network in 2002.

Tribune said it will include the Cubs in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. The ballclub was left out of the initial filing last December while the sale negotiations proceeded. Taking it into bankruptcy court now is intended to expedite the sale.

After that, the ownership change needs to be approved by three-quarters of the league’s 30 team owners.

A Ricketts family spokesman, Dennis Culloton, said both sides hope the sale can close during the fourth quarter.

Chicago-based Tribune bought the Cubs in 1981 from candy maker Wm. Wrigley Jr. Co. for $20.5 million. Zell, a real estate mogul, engineered a takeover of Tribune in 2007 — but may not remain for long as head of the company, which also owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, other major U.S. newspapers, two dozen TV stations and Chicago radio station WGN.

Randy Michaels, the company’s chief operating officer, said in a note Thursday to employees that “the ownership structure of the company is likely to change.”

Zell said in a statement that the Ricketts family “will be a great steward of the franchise.”

“This thing here has been in a bit of flux for the three years I’ve been here,” Cubs manager Lou Piniella said in Los Angeles, where his team was taking on the Dodgers. He called the sale “very positive and very encouraging for this organization.”

As the negotiations with the Rickettses dragged on earlier this year, Tribune had conducted separate sale talks with a group led by New York investor and former Chicagoan Marc Utay. He told The Associated Press on Friday that he was disappointed but had no hard feelings.

“The Ricketts seem like a very nice family,” he said. “We wish them the best of luck and hope they will bring a World Series title to Chicago.”

Tom Ricketts was a market maker at the Chicago Board Options Exchange and a finance executive before starting investment bank Incapital LLC in 1999.

The Ricketts family sold 34 million Ameritrade shares earlier this year to raise $403 million for the Cubs deal, but still controls about 16 percent of the company’s stock and two board seats. Toronto Dominion Bank became Ameritrade’s biggest shareholder with 45 percent of the stock after Ameritrade acquired TD Waterhouse’s U.S. retail securities business in 2006.

Associated Press writers Josh Funk in Omaha, Neb., and Christina M. Wright in Chicago and AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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