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AOL Time Warner selling sports teams
Media conglomerate to sell the NBA's Hawks, NHL's Thrashers to Atlanta group; will keep Braves.
September 16, 2003: 6:42 PM EDT

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - AOL Time Warner has agreed to sell most of its sports teams to an Atlanta investment group that includes the son-in-law of former team owner and company executive Ted Turner, as well as one of the former executives of the basketball team.

The world's largest media company said it had agreed to sell the National Basketball Association's Atlanta Hawks, the National Hockey League's Atlanta Thrashers, and operating rights to Philips Arena, where the two teams play, to an investment group known as Atlanta Spirit LLC.

The buyers include J. Rutherford Seydel II, the son-in-law of Turner, who bought the Hawks and the Atlanta Braves baseball teams when he was still in control of Turner Broadcasting, the unit of AOL Time Warner that operates all three teams. Turner gave up his vice chairman title at the company earlier this year but still sits on the board. Despite selling much of his AOL Time Warner stake, Turner is still one of the largest individual shareholders in the company.

Other investors in the group include J. Michael Gearon,Jr., who was chairman of the Hawks when Turner bought the team in 1977. He is not to assume any executive position with the team, according to Atlanta Spirit spokesman Bob Hope. The largest investor is Steve Belkin, a Boston-based investor, who will concentrate on the basketball team, Hope said, while D.C.-based investor Bruce Levenson will concentrate on the hockey team. Todd Foreman and Ed Peskowitz are among the other named investors.

AOL Time Warner executives told a press conference Tuesday that the deal had an "economic value" of $250 million. The company said it would retain a 15 percent ownership in those properties, as well as the rights to future Hawks and Thrashers programming on its networks. The company took a $178 million charge in its second quarter to write down the value of the two franchises.

Forbes magazine had put the value of the two teams at $333 million combined, with $199 million for the Hawks and $134 million for the Thrashers. Assuming the $250 million transaction price reflects only the 85 percent stake in the team that was sold, the deal would value the teams at just under $300 million.

The value of the teams has been hurt by a number of franchises on the market right now, including several hockey teams. The NHL faces a potential work stoppage at the end of next season when its current collective bargaining deal ends and two franchises -- the Ottawa Senators and Buffalo Sabres -- both had to file for bankruptcy court protection during last season.

"Our deal with the Atlanta Spirit group is good for Turner Broadcasting, for the teams and the arena, for the community and for AOL Time Warner shareholders," Turner Broadcasting System Chairman Phil Kent said in a memo to employees. Kent is the AOL Time Warner executive who oversees the teams.

AOL Time Warner (AOL: Research, Estimates), which also owns CNN/Money, is expected to complete the sale in July in hopes of paring down its heavy debt load.

"This transaction marks another important step in our strategy to improve our financial ratios and increase our financial flexibility," said AOL Time Warner Chief Financial Officer Wayne Pace.

The news marks a breakdown in the company's sale discussions with David McDavid, a Dallas car dealer, with whom the company announced it had entered into exclusive negotiations in May. McDavid had been seen as the front-runner in the bidding to buy the teams. Hope said the Atlanta Spirit investment group entered talks to buy the teams three weeks ago.

In April, Turner Broadcasting entered into a letter of intent to sell the units to McDavid for about $350 million to $400 million. Sources familiar with the deal had told Reuters in July that a deal was imminent.

After the sale, AOL Time Warner will still own the Atlanta Braves baseball team, which Forbes estimates is the more valuable sports property, worth an estimated $424 million.

AOL Time Warner closed up 28 cents to $16.05 in trading Tuesday.  Top of page

CNN/Money contributed to this story

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