SBJ/20090427/This Week's News
NHL Panthers, land at center of merger talks
Published April 27, 2009
The Florida Panthers are in negotiations to merge the team, its arena management company and rights to the real estate surrounding BankAtlantic Center with Sports Properties Acquisition Corp., a public-stock company formed last year, sources said.
The potential deal values the assets at $230 million, including debt, with the plum in the talks a planned mixed-use development around the south Florida arena, the sources said. The negotiations have been taking place over the last several weeks, the sources said.
Sports Properties raised $215 million last year in an initial public stock offering for the purpose of buying companies in sports and leisure. Under federal securities rules, it has until Jan. 17 to complete a deal or the money is returned to the shareholders.
Andrew Murstein, the financier spearheading the company and who owns 18.1 percent of it, declined to comment, citing federal stock regulations that prohibit him from discussing unannounced transactions. The Panthers also declined to comment.
As part of the prospective deal, the sources said, the Panthers’ owners would receive stock in Sports Properties, making the hockey team a unit of the public company. Ironically, the team under former owner Wayne Huizenga was also publicly held before he sold it in 2001 to current general partner Alan Cohen for $101 million.
Other than the quasi-public Green Bay Packers, no team among the big four sports leagues is public, though some are part of larger public companies.
Sports Properties is still looking at other assets in sports, including the Montreal Canadiens, sources said. However, that team is being auctioned and there are at least 10 parties that have been reported as looking to buy the historic franchise. Sports Properties is believed to be the only entity negotiating with the Panthers and their parent company, Sunrise Sports & Entertainment.
Sunrise Sports operates BankAtlantic Center.
Sports Properties’ stock vehicle only has the funds for one deal of this size, and any deal must be approved by the group’s shareholders. When the funds were raised with the IPO in January 2008, the company expected to borrow against the cash to ramp up to deals approaching $1 billion. The credit market implosion ended that scenario. On the other hand, the all-cash balance sheet actually proved an attractive haven for investors in a bear market, with the stock down only about 5 percent from its IPO price.
The shares, listed on the American Stock Exchange, were trading at $9.47 last week.
Tony Tavares, who managed the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington, where the club became the Nationals, is the Sports Properties CEO. Board members include 1996 vice presidential candidate and current chairman of USA Football Jack Kemp, as well as baseball hall of famer Hank Aaron.
The Panthers have struggled in the tepid south Florida sports market, failing to reach the postseason since 2000 and last winning a playoff game in 1997. Their attendance ranked 24th out of 30 NHL teams in this past regular season at 15,622 per game, far below the league average of 17,460 despite a 1.2 percent increase from 2007-08.
However, Sunrise Sports books more than 200 events a year for the arena, including Panthers games, and Pollstar, a music industry publication, named the venue last year one of its top eight as part of its Arena of the Year award.
The ownership and management of the company are expected to remain after a merger.
Cohen is the founder of generic pharmaceutical concerns, most notably the Davie, Fla.-based Andrx Corp., which Watson Pharmaceuticals purchased in 2006. The Panthers have an array of limited partners, including former NFL quarterback Bernie Kosar.
The team plays in Sunrise, Fla., with the arena owned by Broward County, but Sunrise Sports controls the bulk of the facility’s related revenue. The venue sits on roughly 139 acres that is used only for parking, but Sunrise Sports has been planning to develop what it calls the City of Oz, a mixed-use development. Plans for that project are profiled at cityofoz.com, though construction has not commenced.