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Sports Turns Into Private Equity Playground

Stocks in this article: MSG KKR BX CVC CMCSA

In the 2009 sale of the Chicago Cubs by the then-bankrupt Tribune Company, the $845 million sale to investnements mogul Tom Ricketts was bolstered by the Cubs 20% stake Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

The value of an independent network in bargaining with a cable provider was also highlighted in the spat between Time Warner Cable and MSG, as a Jeremy Lin-inspired Knicks winning streak brought Linsanity to a stalled programming negotiation.

For more on the importance of sports networks, see why the 2012 Jeremy Lin Knicks blackout began with Cablevision's (CVC) spin of MSG in 2010. Instead of retaining MSG under its cable network umbrella, Cablevision decided on a MSG shareholder spinoff that kept a sizeable stake in the New York Knicks and Rangers in the hands of the company's owners the Dolan family.

Already private equity investors are whetting their appetite for sports teams and likely for more than just the thrill of the game. In July 2011, Apollo Global Management (APO) and Blackstone (BX) Joshua Harris and David S. Blitzer bought the NBA's Philadelphia 76'ers for $280 million from Comcast, in a deal that didn't include the team's arena.

Comcast still retains control of the Philadelphia Flyers.

The 76'ers also have long-term programming contract that lowers its still significant media value. "I think for Josh or any buyer these days, it's all about the media rights," said Scott Milleisen, a managing director of JPMorgan's Private Bank in a Forbes Sports Money interview.

A month earlier, Tom Gores, the head of Platinum Equity bought the Detroit Pistons for $325 million, in a deal that included the team's Palace of Auburn Hills arena. In a Tuesday ACG conference on sports M&A, Bradley Rangell of Citi Private Bank noted that for Platinum Equity, the Pistons deal represented a "strategic fit" with its many other corporate investments.

Meanwhile, the Toronto Raptors were owned by private pension fund The Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan, until a $1.3 billion sale of the fund's 80% stake in a sports holding company in 2011.

The bulk of the Boston Celtics ownership group consists of private equity executives from Bain Capital, Silver Lake Partners and Accel Partners.

So what would the problem to a increasing private equity involvement be? For one thing, a profit mindset may lead to increased monetization efforts, which could increase in-stadium and T.V. sports viewing costs. Secondly, for-profit owners may favor a team's profit and loss statement over wins and losses. Another question is whether investment funds would look at ownership as a quick flip investment.

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