Wrigley, Cubs in limbo as Tribune chief Zell seeks home-run deals

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CHICAGO - Despite a Midas touch for eking profit from distressed properties, Sam Zell surely didn't know that having control of baseball's lovable losers would be this hard.

As Opening Day approaches on March 31, the new Tribune Co. chief's plan to sell the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field is months behind schedule, and both hoped-for sales are in limbo.

Fans are venting about the prospect of him selling naming rights to historic Wrigley. Public officials oppose his plan to sell the ballpark to a state-city agency. And some prospective Cubs buyers are frustrated the ballclub would come without the ballpark.

Yet whether or not Zell is able to win approval for a sale of Wrigley to the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, clearing the way for a Cubs sale, few are willing to bet against the real estate billionaire and renowned dealmaker in the end.

"It's gotten a lot more complicated because of his effort to maximize the proceeds" from selling Wrigley and the Cubs, said analyst Dave Novosel of the Gimme Credit bond research firm. "But from his viewpoint, if he can get more dollars out of this, even if it takes an extra few months, it's a worthwhile delay."

The controversy over changes involving Wrigley, Novosel said, "obviously is creating a lot of buzz, but I don't know that it's hurting his pocketbook."

Zell's personal fortune, estimated by Forbes magazine last year at $5 billion, enabled him to risk orchestrating a buyout of Tribune last April at a time when others hesitated to bid for the ailing newspaper and TV company.

Selling off the Cubs seemed the easiest step, and Zell pledged to sell the team quickly - first saying it would happen as soon as last season ended, then by the start of this season. Now, as would-be bidders wait impatiently, it's anyone's guess when a deal will conclude.

A person involved in the bidding said the sale is now unlikely to occur until after the 2008 baseball season.

"He's not under financial strain to sell quickly," said the person, who was not authorized to talk publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity. "He can make his required loan payments with other sales."

The Tribune's new chairman and CEO, in fact, said in a statement Thursday that the company has begun a review of its assets amid reports that bidders have emerged for one of its biggest newspapers, Long Island, N.Y.-based Newsday. Other assets also could be sold.

A spokeswoman for Zell said he would not comment on the status of Wrigley and the Cubs. But the person familiar with the process said that despite opposition from public officials, the billionaire is still working hard to sell Wrigley to the ISFA.

ISFA Chairman and former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson is expected to make a formal offer to Zell soon, which he says would mark the beginning of negotiations over the ballpark.

The obstacles to a final deal, however, are formidable.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley doesn't like the idea of diverting local sales tax revenue to help pay for a Wrigley renovation or altering the landmark status of the 94-year-old ballpark. Thompson said recently that the agency's plan would require the city to relax the landmark status and forfeit 30 years of sales tax growth generated by the renovation.

Just as important, Illinois legislators have publicly questioned the idea of involving state funds amid a faltering economy.

Senate Majority Leader Debbie Halvorson, a Democrat, thinks the proposal won't fly in Springfield.

"I don't think it has a chance because it's going to take taxpayer dollars and this isn't the time to do anything that's going to take taxpayer dollars," she said in an interview. "Sam Zell has enough money. He shouldn't be coming to the state for more."

If the ISFA deal falls through, Zell could turn to private buyers or sell Wrigley and the Cubs in one package, as prospective bidders hope.

What fires up fans more than the public funding issues, though, is Zell's proposal to sell naming rights to the iconic ballpark.

The public outrage over that idea may have scared off any corporation that might have been willing to pay for full naming rights. But the Tribune-owned Chicago Tribune, citing unnamed sources, reported that the company has acknowledged holding talks with three possible sponsors and intends to sell naming rights to various parts of the park for an expected total of more than $12 million annually.

Zell, who invested only $315 million in the debt-laden, $8.2 billion Tribune buyout, doesn't seemed concerned about the stalled status of the Wrigley and Cubs sales.

"Excuse me for being sarcastic, but the idea of a debate occurring over what I should do with my asset leaves me somewhat questioning the integrity of the debate," he said on CNBC when asked about the Cubs last month. "There's a lot of people who would like to buy the Cubs and would like to buy the Cubs under their terms and conditions and, unfortunately, have to deal with me."

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