Report: 2nd group back in talks

Updated: June 18, 2009, 11:15 PM ET
Reuters

CHICAGO -- Talks to sell the Chicago Cubs have reopened with a rival bidding group as negotiations continue with the Ricketts family, sources familiar with the situation said on Thursday.

The bankrupt Tribune Co. has been trying to sell the Cubs for more than two years to reduce its debt burden. It agreed in January to sell the prized team and other assets to the Ricketts family for $900 million.

An exclusivity period between Tribune and the Ricketts group has ended, and the media company is now talking to a group that includes private equity investors Marc Utay and Leo Hindery, three sources familiar with the situation said.

"We know that they went back to the Utay group," said one of the sources, who asked not to be identified because the sales process has not closed.

A Tribune spokesman said talks were ongoing, and Ricketts family spokesman Dennis Culloton described them as positive.

Tom Ricketts, chief executive of Chicago investment bank Incapital LLC and son of the founder of TD Ameritrade Holding Corp, is leading the family's bid.

The values of sports franchises nationwide have been hurt by the recession and tighter credit markets. Analysts previously had expected the Cubs to draw bids topping $1 billion.

The Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, filed for bankruptcy in December because of its heavy debt load and the weak U.S. publishing sector.

It put the Cubs, Wrigley Field and a 25 percent stake in WGN on the block in April 2007, when Tribune agreed to an $8.2 billion buyout led by real estate magnate Sam Zell.

Several sources said that Tribune is now able to negotiate with other buyers.

"It is crystal clear that he's talking to others and the outcome's not determined," one source said of Zell. "Until someone has a signed purchase agreement, anything is possible."

Tribune and its banker, JP Morgan, have entered into formal talks with the Utay/Hindery group and a deal could be reached late next week, a third source said.

However, others said the re-emergence of the Utay/Hindery group also could be a way for Tribune to pressure Ricketts into settling on more desirable terms.

"That's just a way to keep the fire on the Ricketts," the first source said. "The Ricketts have never been closer to getting a deal done."

Although the Ricketts group has lined up its financing, sources previously told Reuters that the sides have been unable to reach agreement on the value of the Cubs' broadcast contracts.

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