SBJ/September 14 - 20, 1998/No Topic Name

Small player making its play

A little over a year ago, Don Smiley sat in the Boston offices of Game Plan LLC poring over his proposal to buy the Florida Marlins. He should have listened more attentively.

Game Plan's principals, Randel "Randy" Vataha and Robert Caporale, counseled the Marlins' president that he needed non-Florida investors to make the bid work.

Smiley went in a different direction, and his futile, cash-poor offer for the ailing franchise is now well-documented. Last week, Smiley formally abandoned his quest.

Smiley may not have followed Game Plan, but others in sports are beginning to. Vataha and Caporale are rapidly making a name for themselves in the burgeoning sports-finance world. Facing larger competitors, the two are using their sports connections built up over many years to snatch deals out from underneath their Wall Street rivals.

Take the American Basketball League, which hired Salomon Smith Barney last November to raise $30 million.

"Salomon Smith Barney did what they did best, but it didn't happen to be what was best for a professional sports league," said Gary Cavalli, co-founder of the American Basketball League, which replaced Salomon with Game Plan in late July as its financial adviser.

Cavalli's experience is emblematic of the trouble that leagues and teams can have with large Wall Street firms, which commonly treat sports deals like any other transaction.

This is where Game Plan steps in. With the ABL, Game Plan is not targeting the venture capitalists and equity funds Salomon sought, but rather the investors with interests in sports.

"There is a tendency for the larger investment-banking firms to handle a potential transaction the same way they do [with] other industries," said Caporale, who has been involved with sports for several decades, including a stint as part-owner of a U.S. Football League team, the Boston Breakers. "A much more personal kind of approach is needed."

Caporale's main background is as a lawyer who has worked on several sports transactions, while Vataha was a wide receiver with the New England Patriots and later an agent with Bob Woolf Associates.

"We had lunch one day, and Randy told me he wanted to get out of being an agent; that was the first sensible thing I heard Randy say," Caporale said jokingly. From that mid-1990s lunch, Game Plan was born.

The two believe their sports experience sets them apart from the large investment banks.

"I had the opportunity to play on a team, run a team, negotiate for players," Vataha said. "You take that background, combined with Bob's, and there probably isn't any piece of this puzzle we haven't dealt with."

Their biggest drawback, however, may be that they aren't big enough. While BankBoston Corp. owns an equity stake in Game Plan, teams and leagues with sophisticated financial needs are likely to go elsewhere.

Game Plan hopes to change that by tapping into BankBoston's capital-market expertise, particularly since the company's recent agreement to buy the investment bank Robertson Stephens.

But mergers are often complicated, so it could be a while before Game Plan can offer financings like stock and bond underwritings. Even Game Plan's move into BankBoston's office is not without its hitches. Vataha and Caporale moved in nine months ago, but the bank's telephone operators still insist no one by those names works there.

Once you get through, it is hard to miss them. Easygoing and casual, the two are a stark contrast to their big-bank surrounding and their more buttoned-down competitors at better-known firms.

"I almost forgot they were bankers," said Jane Blalock, a former professional golfer and the head of the senior women's golfing tour, the Medalist Group LLC, which hired Game Plan to find a title sponsor.

BankBoston was impressed enough — or perhaps envious of its crosstown rival Fleet Financial Group's sports relationships — to invest in Game Plan last year.

Much of Game Plan's past workload has revolved around the Boston area, and both Vataha and Caporale — or "Cap," as he is known — are fixtures in the Boston sports scene.

"Randy's name would be known and open doors," said Brian O'Donovan, general manager of Major League Soccer's New England Revolution, which Game Plan helped with a season-ticket-holder effort three years ago.

Recent developments, however, suggest that the firm is growing into a national player.

The Oakland-Alameda Coliseum Authority hired Game Plan this summer to consult on finding a buyer for the Oakland A's, and last year Vataha and Caporale advised on the sale of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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