AOL could sell Atlanta sports teams

By Harry R. Weber

ATLANTA? AOL Time Warner is in serious negotiations with at least two bidders about buying its Atlanta sports teams, but no deal has been reached, a person familiar with the situation said Tuesday.

Who the bidders are, how much they have offered and how close they are to an agreement remained open questions. Officials at parent AOL Time Warner and Turner Sports, which oversees the teams, refused to comment.

Analysts say the Atlanta Hawks, Thrashers and Braves are worth about $750 million. Media giant AOL Time Warner wants to shed the teams and other noncore assets to pay down its $25.8 billion in debt.

Discussions with at least two prospective buyers are ongoing.

"We consider all of them to be serious," said a source familiar with the discussions, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In a statement Monday evening, Turner Sports denied reports that the company had reached a deal with Dallas businessman David McDavid, or anyone else. A Turner spokesman would only say that there are several interested parties. Hawks spokesman Brad Holmes said top management has kept information about the negotiations under wraps.

In addition to McDavid, a former minority owner of the Dallas Mavericks, others who have been mentioned as possible suitors are former owner Ted Turner and former New York sports executive David Checketts.

McDavid did not return repeated phone calls Tuesday to his office at one of his Dallas car dealerships and Checketts declined comment when he was reached at his home in Connecticut. As for Turner, analysts have said he would need other investors to help finance a deal because his fortune has dwindled considerably with the fall of AOL's stock price.

The possible sale of the Atlanta's sports teams is part of a trend at large media and entertainment companies. Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. has expressed interest in selling the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, has said it wants to sell the Anaheim Angels and Mighty Ducks.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economist and sports marketing expert at Smith College, said the interest in the Atlanta sports franchises is not surprising.

"Atlanta is one of the top 10 media markets and it's a rapidly growing area. I would think that some of the people who don't get the Dodgers or the Angels might be interested," Zimbalist said.

But, he said, the state of the economy and questions about the profitability of some sports franchises might affect the ability to get top dollar for the teams.

"It's going to be a stretch to get somebody to buy a hockey team these days," he said. "The league is in financial distress right now."

Zimbalist added, "It's kind of a tough call. Atlanta has been a funny city. It has been unable to sell out some of the postseason Braves games in recent years. That might give some people pause."

In AOL Time Warner's case, it needs the cash.

The company reported a staggering $44.9 billion loss in the fourth quarter of last year. Following the news, the management shake-up at the company intensified, with Turner resigning as vice chairman and Jamie Kellner stepping down as chief of Turner Broadcasting.

In trading Tuesday afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange, shares of AOL Time Warner were up 27 cents at $12.43.