SBJ/20081020/This Week's News

AFL owners OK sale of $100 million stake

Arena Football League owners have approved a tentative deal with Platinum Equity that calls for the company to invest up to $100 million and assume management control of the league.

AFL owners voted on Oct. 10 to approve a nonbinding letter of intent calling for Los Angeles-based Platinum to invest in the league, the latest and most significant step that stands to dramatically alter the financial and management structure of the 22-year-old indoor entity.

Terms of the pending deal call for Platinum to take up to a 40 percent stake in the league and with the investment comes business control, which is expected to turn the AFL into a single-entity structure. Given that the 40 percent stake is worth $100 million, the current value of the entire league is estimated to be about $250 million.

Other pending provisions call for AFL owners to eventually receive an equity payout to be determined by a number of market factors. Owners also would have the option of owning a football license that will allow them to run only the football aspects of the business. The owners could hire their coaches and general managers, but would not control ticketing, sponsorships and other business aspects. Owners could also opt to sell their football operating licenses.

The final agreement is expected to be voted on by the end of November.

“The AFL continues to make progress on analyzing the best structure to grow the league and on creating long-term structural options for its owners,” said AFL spokesman Chris McCloskey. “Ultimately, owners will vote on the best of numerous options, which could include traditional incremental growth or a nine-figure infusion of capital from a blue-chip investment group.”

The AFL has not yet moved to replace former league Commissioner David Baker, who resigned in July. Should the deal be completed, Platinum is expected to install its own management board and will likely hire a chief executive to run the AFL’s day-to-day business operations.

“The bottom line is that Platinum will have complete operation of the business as a single entity,” said a source familiar with the deal.

The league for the last year has been looking for an equity partner, and it hired Game Plan to help attract an investment partner. Now the AFL is staking its future with Platinum, a privately held equity company that was founded in 1995. The company does not have any sports property holdings.

The vote to approve the letter of intent was nearly unanimous with the dissenting number of votes undisclosed.

“You are talking about up to $100 million in investment and eliminating almost all the exposure, so it is hard for me to see the downside,” said one ownership source, who expects the deal to close by Dec. 1.

The letter of intent was approved during the same Oct. 10 conference call that brought the sudden decision by New Orleans VooDoo owner Tom Benson to terminate operations.

VooDoo owner and executive vice president Rita Benson LeBlanc said in a statement that “circumstances prevented us from continuing in the AFL,” but she would not comment further on the decision.

Benson’s abrupt decision to shut down stunned league insiders.

In 2007, the team led the league in average attendance and was seen as one of the strongest AFL franchises.

“Everyone was surprised and we still don’t really know why they did this,” said an ownership source.

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