Media conglomerate Tribune Co.. announced a definitive agreement Friday to sell all but a 5% stake in the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field to the billionaire Ricketts family, capping a tortuous process that began nearly 2 ½years ago.
Tribune valued the transaction at about $845 million.
"Our family is thrilled to have reached an agreement to acquire a controlling interest in the Chicago Cubs, one of the most storied franchises in sports," said Joe Ricketts, who founded the Omaha, Neb.-based online brokerage TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. "The Cubs have the greatest fans in the world, and we count our family among them."
Tribune had announced on Opening Day in 2007 that the marquee baseball 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 team, Wrigley and a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago, which broadcasts many Cubs games.
But that total was renegotiated, with Tribune retaining a small stake for legal reasons.
The sale figure exceeds the record $660 million paid for the Boston Red Sox in 2002, although that deal did not include a ballpark.
The successful bid was led by Tom Ricketts, 43, a Chicago investment banker and Joe Ricketts' son. He is a Cubs die-hard who grew up watching the team, once lived in an apartment across the street from Wrigley and first met his wife in the stands at a game there.
Major League Baseball still must approve the sale, but that is not expected to be an obstacle. The ownership change needs to be approved by three-quarters of the league's 30 owners.
First, Tribune intends to 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. But taking it into bankruptcy court now is expected to expedite the sale.
A spokesman for the Ricketts family, Dennis Culloton, said both sides hope the sale can close during the fourth quarter.
Fans hope this will be the ownership that delivers a World Series title to baseball's "lovable losers," who are more than a century removed from their last championship.
"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 stadium.
"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.
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. They have a strong respect for the team, for the fans and for what the Cubs mean to the city of Chicago."
As the negotiations with the Ricketts family 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 and we think they'll be wonderful stewards of the Chicago Cubs franchise," 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 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% of the company's stock and two board seats. Toronto Dominion Bank became Ameritrade's biggest shareholder with 45% of the stock after Ameritrade acquired TD Waterhouse's U.S. retail securities business in 2006.
Ricketts likely needn't worry about missing out on a chance to collect a World Series trophy as owner this fall. The Cubs, heavy favorites to win the National League Central division going into the year, trailed the rival St. Louis Cardinals by seven games entering play Friday.