Major League Baseball has been slow-trading approval of Drayton McLane’s proposed sale of the Astros to a group headed by Houston businessman, Jim Crane.
As a result of MLB’s lethargy, a cottage industry of skeptics – such as the Chronicle’s Richard Justice and Biz of Baseball’s Maury Brown – have speculated that Crane’s somewhat hard-knuckled past in business dealings may provoke MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to persuade MLB owners not to approve the deal.
That’s possible, but not probable.
I have no inside knowledge regarding the Astros deal. However, I’ve been involved in sorting out complex business deals for over 30 years, so I’ve got the perspective gained from that experience to pass along. And that experience tells me that this is a deal that will get done.
First, the suggestion that Crane’s past business dealings are giving other MLB owners pause is laughable.
I mean, really. MLB owners are a group that has endured such owners as George Steinbrenner copping a plea to criminal charges while he owned the flagship franchise in the business. And that’s not to pick on Steinbrenner — MLB owners are not exactly a pristine fraternity (remember the Yawkeys and Marge Schott?). Thus, a highly suspect EEOC complaint and problems with the DOJ over a fraction of the business that Crane’s companies supplied to the federal government’s war logistics over the past decade will not cause MLB owners to blink over Crane.
Similarly, Crane’s failure to close on the deal that he supposedly had to buy the Astros back in 2008 nor his attempt to buy the Cubs and Rangers over the past couple of years pose any real problem. MLB owners understand that the financial crisis in credit markets in 2008 doomed Crane’s earlier bid for the Astros. Likewise, even though Crane was not MLB’s favored bidder for either the Cubs or the Rangers, his participation in the bidding process ultimately increased the prices paid for those franchises. Believe me, MLB owners appreciate that.
Finally, even the somewhat highly-leveraged nature (at least for MLB) of the Crane group’s bid for the Astros (supposedly $220 million of the $680 million purchase price will be debt financed) is not a dealbreaker. Although that level of debt would put the Astros out of compliance with MLB’s self-imposed debt-to-equity rule (supposedly around 10%), at least nine out of the other 29 MLB clubs are currently operating out of compliance with that rule. The Crane group’s proposal is not close to being among the most highly-leveraged of those deals.
So, if none of the foregoing are real roadblocks, then what’s holding up approval of the Crane group’s bid?
It’s anyone’s guess, but my sense is that simple gamesmanship is far more likely the reason rather than any problem with Crane. Given his prior efforts to buy the Astros, Cubs and Rangers, MLB owners know that Crane really wants to own controlling interest in an MLB team. They also know that he understands that he will have no chance of doing so if he pulls out of a deal again.
In short, MLB owners know they can make Crane wait awhile without much risk of him backing out. Uncertainty at the top of an MLB team is rarely good (as reflected by the 44-90 Astros record so far this season). Crane’s soon-to-be-competitors don’t mind grinding the Astros down a bit more before approving the deal.
And why then do I think the deal will ultimately be approved? Well, that’s easy.
MLB’s business model is not exactly rosy right now. One club is currently in bankruptcy (the Dodgers), two other clubs just recently exited bankruptcy (Cubs and Rangers), and another club’s ownership is dealing with fallout from the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme (the Wilpons and the Mets). MLB attendance is flat this season and its media revenues are dwarfed by the NFL’s, which continues to distance itself from MLB as the premier sports entertainment business in the U.S.
On the other hand, Crane’s group will pay $680 million for the Astros, the lease on Minute Maid Park, and a stake in the newly created Comcast SportsNet Houston, a regional sports network partnership with the Houston Rockets that will launch in 2012. That sales price for an MLB team and related assets ranks behind only the $845 million that the Cubs sale generated in 2009 and compares quite favorably to the $593 million price that Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan’s group paid for the Rangers last year.
The bottom line is that MLB owners are not employing Commissioner Bud Selig to scuttle a near-record purchase price for a franchise in a down and uncertain market.
And that’s the reason that the Astros deal will get done.