Potential bidders are lining up in the belief that the Baltimore Orioles could be placed on the market for the first time in a generation, according to multiple sources.
At least three people have shown interest in assembling bidding groups if the family of team owner Peter Angelos decided to sell, said the sources, who include possible investors and others who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no offers have been made.
With Angelos, 91, in continued poor health, there is speculation that tax laws could create a favorable sale opportunity for his heirs after his death.
But the family has shown no interest in selling, even after years of unfounded speculation that the team could change hands. And the team is “very close” to a new lease with the Maryland Stadium Authority for the club to remain at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
Major League Baseball is aware of potential bidders' interest in the Orioles, two sources said.
Fans and community members have an avid interest in the Baltimore institution’s fate. Butthe discussions and potential moves among the parties are opaque and complex, mired in legal wrangling and a history of mistrust between the family and the league.
Signing a new lease would all but bind the team to the city for years, calming the anxieties of Baltimoreans who have been wary of losing another team ever since the NFL’s Colts fled for Indianapolis in the dead of night in 1984. It also would allow the Angelos family to realize its vision for modernizing 28-year-old Camden Yards.
But it wouldn’t resolve the question of whether John or Louis Angelos would hold on to the team well after their father is gone.
Amid the signs of interest in the team, former Orioles president and CEO Larry Lucchino told The Baltimore Sun he has been approached about forming an ownership group, though he says that would not be appropriate to consider at this time. And the league has told Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., a Baltimore icon, that it would like him to be part of an ownership or management group if the club is sold, sources said.
MLB has approved groups in the past that included similar sorts of hometown heroes — such as Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Magic Johnson and former Texas Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan — who can excite a fan base because of their sports legacies.
Ripken said through spokesman John Maroon that any scenario involving him was just “speculation.”
“It wouldn’t be surprising if and when the club and network were ever on the market that there would be any number of individuals who might be interested.”
Alan Rifkin, a prominent local sports attorney who represented the Orioles for years
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Still, a conversation between MLB and Ripken is puzzling since the team is not for sale. An MLB source said it was not trying to undercut the Angelos family and that it’s common for the league to speak casually with people who could become part of future ownership groups.
The identities of several potential bidders named by sources could not be confirmed by The Sun. Among names that have been mentioned publicly in the past are Washington-based Carlyle Group CEO David Rubenstein and Allegis Group co-founder Jim Davis of Cockeysville; they did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Sun.
MLB would need to approve any new owner, even within the same family. Both the league, the family and the Orioles declined to comment on the possibility of a sale.
League sources say club owners are expected to vote within the next few months on the team’s request to designate John Angelos as control person. A three-quarters vote — at least 23 of the 30 owners — is needed to approve his appointment. The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity because the process is private until a control person is named.
While both sides say they have a workable relationship today, league officials and the Orioles owner have been at odds in the past. During the 1994 work stoppage, Peter Angelos refused to accede to MLB’s plans to use replacement players, based on his previous representation of union workers and concern about jeopardizing Ripken’s pursuit of the major league record for consecutive games played.
A decade later, Angelos opposed MLB’s planned relocation of the Montreal Expos (now the Nationals) to Washington, a city that had long supported the Orioles and been its exclusive television and marketing territory.
After negotiations and the threat of litigation by the Baltimore team, the Orioles reached an agreement with then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig giving the club the lion’s share of profits from the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN), which it shares with the Nationals. But the two teams could not agree how much the Washington team should be paid for its broadcast rights, leading to the ongoing legal dispute.
Some club owners believed Angelos was given too muchin the MASN deal, according to the minutes of an internal 2005 MLB conference call released as an exhibit in the court case.
While all teams have taken a financial hit during the coronavirus pandemic, there still are plenty of would-be buyers eager for the prestige of owning one of 30 MLB franchises.
Sources with direct knowledge said there are at least three people expressing interest in the club and discussing who might join them.
If the franchise were for sale, it couldn’t happen without the oversight of MLB, which carefully controls the process to ensure potential new owners are properly vetted and acceptable to the league.
But that doesn’t preclude prospective buyers from beginning to explore possibilities for the team, the network or both.
Lucchino, the former Orioles president, said in an interview that he has been approached by a few people about helping organize a group. But he said any such discussions would be ill-timed at best, and that his thoughts were with the Angelos family while the patriarch is ill.
“I think it’s utterly inappropriate to talk about disposition of the team. I will not deny I have been approached by some people to talk about it, but nothing has taken place, nor should it,” said Lucchino, who has also been president and CEO of the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, and is principal owner of the minor league Worcester (Massachusetts) Red Sox.
The possibility of such a sale is sensitive not only because the elder Angelos is in ill health, but also because the Angeloses have signaled for years that they are not interested in selling the team.
The family and its associates often point to the family’s allegiance to Baltimore. Believing the club should no longer be owned by out-of-towners, Peter Angelos bought the team from a New York bankruptcy court. Its two previous owners had been Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams and New York financier Eli Jacobs.
The franchise has been in Baltimore since 1954 and is important to the city economically and for its image as a “big league city.”
Selling the team while Peter Angelos is alive would subject the owner to steep capital gains taxes based on how much the club’s value has appreciated over the years.
But if his heirs sold the Orioles soon after his death, tax laws would give them the enormous benefit of eliminating the capital gains tax because the club would be assessed at the current fair market value.
That could save the family hundreds of millions of dollars, potentially providing an incentive to sell.
The family has said it would be premature to release a succession plan for the team. The elder Angelos has been married for decades to the former Georgia Kousouris. John, the eldest son, is in his early 50s, and Louis is a few years younger. Both are lawyers like their father.
Major league team values have vastly increased since Angelos bought the club for $173 million in 1993.
The New York Mets, valued at $2.4 billion by Forbes, attracted significant interest — including from former baseball star Alex Rodriguez and actress-singer Jennifer Lopez — before being recently sold to billionaire Steve Cohen.
Forbes valued the Orioles at $1.4 billion earlier this year.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if and when the club and network were ever on the market that there would be any number of individuals who might be interested,” said Alan Rifkin, a prominent local sports attorney who represented the Orioles for years. He declined to comment further “out of respect for the Angelos family.”
The Orioles' lease for Camden Yards expires at the end of 2021, although the team has the option to extend it for five years.
Knowledgeable sources say the team and the stadium authority — the landlord of the Orioles and Ravens on behalf of the state — have made significant progress in talks on a long-term lease but cautioned that nothing has been signed.
Such negotiations typically involve discussion of stadium improvements, and the club hasspoken publicly about its hopes of capitalizing on Camden Yards' popularity by using it increasingly for non-baseball activities such as music or other year-round activities.
Opened in 1992, Camden Yards is still consistently rated in fan and media surveys among the best stadiums in MLB. But many newer stadiums are smaller and include open concourses with field views, and stadium clubs for VIPs that offer prime low-level views.
Along with settling on a lease, the club would like to resolve the long-standing dispute over MASN, which broadcasts Orioles and Nationals games.
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The Orioles say the added fees would unfairly burden MASN and have accused MLB of predetermining the outcome of the dispute. When the club lost its latest appeal, it said it was taking the case to New York’s highest court.
Pennsylvania State University law professor Stephen Ross said MLB “still might be mad” that the broadcast rights fee dispute ended up in court instead of being settled internally.
Sources say the Orioles have grown weary of battling MLB over the network and have pitched settlement offers in recent years. The league can exert influence over the team in ways small and large, from regular-season scheduling and awarding All-Star games to approving new ownership.
The Orioles, who finished second-to-last in their division in the pandemic-shortened season, lost more than 100 games in the two preceding years.
“In some ways a crappy team is more valuable than a really good team because you can improve it and then you get the positive benefits,” Ross said.
“You think about the ballpark and where it is located and what a great place it is to come to,” he said, "and it adds up to “a fantastic opportunity” if the club were for sale.
Jeff Barker is The Sun's Washington correspondent and a business of sports reporter. A University of Pennsylvania graduate, he formerly worked for AP and as the Arizona Republic’s Washington reporter. He has covered politics and Terps basketball and football for The Sun. He is co-director of a documentary on the development of baseball in China.