N.Y. Mets Face Serious Financial Problems
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Now some misery in Major League Baseball. The New York Mets opened their season today and questions about the team's future go well beyond the playing field. The team's owners are getting sued for a billion dollars by the trustee representing the victims of the financier Bernard Madoff.
And as NPR's Joel Rose explains, that's just the beginning of the Mets' troubles.
JOEL ROSE: The Mets' owners admit they were friendly with Bernie Madoff. Starting in the 1980s they invested millions of dollars of the team's money and their own with him. But they deny knowing about the multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme Madoff was running.
The Mets' principal owner Fred Wilpon mounted a vigorous defense to reporters at spring training a few weeks ago.
Mr. FRED WILPON (Owner, New York Mets Baseball Team): We did not know one iota, one thing of Madoff's fraud. We didn't do anything wrong. We will be vindicated.
ROSE: The lawyer representing Madoff's victims paints a very different picture. In the lawsuit filed late last year, he alleges that the Mets owners earned $300 million in quote, unquote, "false profits" while ignoring warning signs that Madoff's business was too good to be true. And the team's problems don't end there.
Unidentified Man #1: Mets' pitcher Oliver Perez looks shaky once again. A lefty gave up three homeruns, allowed seven runs.
ROSE: Despite one of the higher payrolls in baseball, the Mets have been mediocre and so has attendance at their games. The team lost a reported $50 million last year and they've confirmed taking an emergency $25 million loan from Major League Baseball.
Professor WAYNE MCDONALD (Sports Finance, New York University): The organization is reeling right now. They've never been in such a difficult position.
ROSE: Wayne McDonald teaches sports finance at New York University. He says the owners are hoping to raise at least $200 million by selling a minority stake in the team.
Prof. MCDONALD: You're not going to be able to borrow that money from banks. They're a risky proposition right now, the Mets.
ROSE: So far the owners have insisted that they can keep control of the Mets and feel the competitive team. Here's Jeff Wilpon, son of principal owner Fred Wilpon, and the team's chief operating officer during spring training.
Mr. JEFF WILPON (COO, New York Mets Baseball Team): We're going to be committed to make sure all the resources are here to continue to run this team the way it's been run.
Unidentified Man #2: Can you say unequivocally that your family won't have to sell controlling interest of the team?
Mr. J. WILPON: Yeah. We're not selling controlling interest of the team. It's not on the table.
ROSE: But given the team's shaky finances, NYU's Wayne McDonald says a minority share may not be enough to attract many buyers.
Prof. MCDONALD: What the Mets are offering in terms of minority ownership is not enough to get the type of people and the capital that they need at the present moment. In all fairness, we're probably going to look at the entire ball club relatively soon, I think.
Mr. BILL HEYN (Co-founder, BuyTheMets.com): If they do need a partner, we think we'd be a great partner with our plan to do this for the people of New York.
ROSE: Bill Heyn is an investment banker and one of the founders of BuyTheMets.com. While we watch a spring training game on TV at a bar in Manhattan, Heyn explains his long-shot plan to raise money for the Mets by selling shares in the team to its fans for 999 bucks each.
Mr. HEYN: The Mets should be great, period. But most importantly, the Mets should be great or they should be lousy depending on their baseball, not depending on what happened with the finances of the team in the background.
ROSE: Heyn says he wants to work with the current owners. But lots of Mets fans are ready to see Fred Wilpon and company go. That includes John Rivera, who's sitting a few barstools away.
Mr. JOHN RIVERA: They did what they did with it, they ran the team to the ground or whatever they did and they forgot about the fan while they were on tour. I think they have to go. I think the team needs to be told, let the New York fans, the Met fans once again try to thrive on the new ownership.
ROSE: In the meantime, the New York Mets and their major market fans may get a taste of what it's like to be one of baseball's have-nots.
Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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