SBJ/Dec. 16-22, 2013/Finance

Inner Circle closes loop on team deals

Cliff Viner had no luck after hiring a brand-name Wall Street firm to find a buyer for his NHL team, the Florida Panthers. Then he got introduced to Inner Circle Sports, a boutique sports advisory firm that has a lot to celebrate this holiday season.

Rob Tilliss founded Inner Circle in 2002.
Photo by: COURTESY OF INNER CIRCLE SPORTS
Viner dropped Citibank and hired Inner Circle, which brokered the $250 million sale earlier this year, a figure that surprised many given the Panthers’ financial and market challenges.

“They had a better read on how to vet and who is a serious prospect,” Viner said.

For Inner Circle, it was the latest in a run of high-profile transactions. Rob Tilliss, after several years of running JPMorgan Chase’s sports lending and advisory practice, founded Inner Circle in 2002.

While the firm has been a player in the advisory field since then — having advised the Boston Red Sox’s owners in 2010, for example, on the purchase of Liverpool FC — it’s the quality and the size of the recent deals that stand out, Tilliss said.

Unlike many large finance firms that use sports mergers and acquisition advisory as a value-added service for existing clients or as an extension of a lending business, smaller outfits like Inner Circle, which has eight employees, must combine an intricate knowledge of sports leagues while forging new relationships.

“We were looking for sports expertise, and I don’t think a lot of the [big] firms have that,” said Josh Harris, who used Inner Circle as an adviser on his purchase of the 76ers in 2011 and, this year, his purchase of the New Jersey Devils. “Rob’s expertise lays in analyzing the franchise and his relationships with the league and other parties.”

Founder, CEO: Rob Tilliss
Headquarters: New York City
Founded: 2002
Transactions in 2013 (role):
  Sale of Florida Panthers (seller’s adviser)
  Sale of New Jersey Devils (buyer’s adviser)
  Sale of Phoenix Coyotes (adviser to lender for buyer)
  Sale of Columbus Crew (seller’s adviser)
  Sale of Inter Milan (buyer’s adviser)

Source: Inner Circle

Those relationships are key in sports, where knowing a commissioner, a crucial owner, and the history of transactions are critical in assessing whether a given deal is possible.

“They are well-connected,” said Anthony Precourt, who bought the Columbus Crew for $68 million from Hunt Sports Group, which Inner Circle advised. “They helped make some introductions for me that really helped in terms of getting my feet wet. We spent nine to 12 months talking to people in the industry, and they facilitated those [discussions].”

Inner Circle is expanding overseas, as well. In addition to advising Fenway Sports Group on its Liverpool FC purchase, the firm this year represented Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir for his $480 million purchase of Inter Milan.

Thohir, who also owns D.C. United, credited Tilliss and his Inner Circle colleague Steve Horowitz with being frank with him about what he could and could not do as part of the deal. While not elaborating, Thohir said, “They are fair to both parties.”

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