Zell pitches an August sale

By Mike Colias and Ann Saphir
Chicago Business
Published: May 03, 2008

Sam Zell has set a fresh deadline of late August to sell the Chicago Cubs — a time frame that could strengthen his hand if the North Siders emerge as late-season playoff contenders.

The Tribune CEO told about 100 employees during an April 24 meeting that he believed the team would be sold within 120 days, according to a person who attended. That is a more-precise timeline than Mr. Zell has given publicly and implies he would unload the team at a time when many prognosticators think it will be in the thick of a pennant chase.

A viable chance to bring Cubs fans their first World Series championship in 100 years could raise the bar for would-be buyers.

“If he’s brought you 80% of the way toward getting to the World Series, you’d pay extra,” says Michael Rapkoch, president of Sports Value Consulting LLC in Dallas, who is not involved in the sale.

That could give Mr. Zell incentive to stick to his timeline. But he’s struck out on previous self-imposed deadlines, originally saying the team would be sold by the end of 2007, and then by opening day of the 2008 season.

Regardless of the standings, late summer could prove a difficult time for Mr. Zell to shed the team. His proposed sale of Wrigley Field to the state in a separate deal has put the franchise’s future on hold. (He’s expected to receive a revised proposal from state officials this week.) Even if the ballpark’s fate were sealed quickly, experts and prospective bidders believe the process would extend past the season.

A Tribune spokesman won’t confirm Mr. Zell’s 120-day target. “Could it be done in 120 days? Sure. Could it take longer? Sure,” he says. Mr. Zell is focused on resolving the state deal and will move to “sell the team as soon as possible.”

One prospective bidder, who declines to be named because of Major League Baseball’s sensitivity on the bidding process, says he would rather buy a team on the verge of a championship than a newly minted World Series victor, which he likens to buying at the peak. “If they’ve won the World Series,” he says, “whoever comes in has got nowhere to go but down.”

Jaded Cubs fans may dismiss postseason talk, but one Las Vegas sports book pegs the Cubs’ odds of winning the World Series at 13-to-2, fourth best among 30 teams.

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