• The Star Staff

Steven Cohen agrees to buy the Mets, again

By David Waldstein

Frustrated New York Mets fans have for years pined for a new owner to swoop in and buy their team, someone to save it from what they felt was decades of mismanagement and mediocrity.

Those fans can finally rejoice. Steven Cohen is buying the team, and this time it appears to be for real.

Cohen, a billionaire hedge fund mogul from Long Island, has agreed to purchase the Mets from Saul Katz and Fred Wilpon, the team announced Monday. The deal gives Cohen a 95 percent stake in the team, with a total valuation of about $2.4 billion, according to two people with direct knowledge of the deal who requested anonymity because the figure had not been made public. Katz and Wilpon will retain 5 percent of the team.

Cohen will become only the fourth controlling owner of the cherished baseball club that was formed in 1962 to help ease the loss of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, both of which relocated after the 1957 season.

“I am excited to have reached an agreement with the Wilpon and Katz families to purchase the New York Mets,” Cohen said, according to the Mets’ statement.

This is Cohen’s second effort to buy the team in less than a year. He reached an agreement with the current owners late last year, but it fell apart in January over who would control the team during a five-year interim period after the sale.

Then came the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, which cast a cloud over the immediate future of Major League Baseball’s finances without fans in stadiums. As a result, the Mets’ asking price fell, and the idea of a temporary power-sharing agreement was dropped, too.

According to one of the people with knowledge of the deal, the sale does not include SNY, the profitable regional sports network. SNY was started, and is still primarily owned, by Sterling Equities, the real estate and finance company started by Wilpon and Katz, who is Wilpon’s brother-in-law.

Once Cohen takes full control, the transfer of power could be followed by significant changes in the baseball department. The team’s general manager, Brodie Van Wagenen, was hired before the 2019 season, and manager Luis Rojas has been in his role since January.

Cohen, whose wife and father-in-law are devoted supporters of the team, currently holds an 8 percent stake in the Mets.

But the current ownership group will most likely stay in control at least through the end of this season. The sale still requires the approval of 23 of the other 29 owners in Major League Baseball, some of whom may be alarmed by Cohen’s vast resources and his ability to single-handedly outspend them and raise player salaries in general. A vote could come at the next owners meeting in November, which would give Wilpon and Katz one more chance to win a World Series this year — though the Mets are not currently in position for a playoff spot.

Cohen’s history in the business world may also invite scrutiny. His previous fund, SAC Capital Partners, was subject to a series of insider trading investigations beginning after 2009. Cohen was never charged with wrongdoing, but his firm ultimately paid nearly $2 billion in fines, and he agreed not to manage outside money for two years. His new fund, Point72 Asset Management, has been accused of hostility to women.

But the increased valuation of the Mets through the sale would also most likely increase the value of other teams, too, making the bid attractive to other owners. Additionally, the fact that MLB had already approved Cohen as a minority owner and has been aware for months that the Wilpons and Katz were in negotiations with him to buy the team seems to improve the odds of the deal being completed.

When word of Cohen’s plan to buy the Mets broke last year, many fans could not hide their glee at a potential new direction for a team that has long underachieved — especially considering its large home market and fan base.

The Mets have reached the playoffs just three times since 2000, and the team itself reportedly loses tens of millions of dollars per year. People familiar with the inner workings of the Mets hierarchy say that members of the Katz and Wilpon family have been eager to sell the team before control passed to Jeff Wilpon, the chief operating officer and the son of Fred Wilpon, the 83-year-old patriarch who first bought his way into the team with a 5 percent stake in 1980.

Fred Wilpon gained ownership of half of the team in 1986, and then assumed full control when he bought Nelson Doubleday’s half in 2002 for $135 million — a figure that was reached by halving the team’s value of roughly $400 million and subtracting debt.

All told, the Wilpon family has been part of the primary ownership group of the Mets for more than half of the club’s 59-season history.

It was a bumpy tenure, to be sure. There were successes, like when the Mets reached the World Series in 2000 and 2015. They also designed and built Citi Field, one of the gleaming examples of a new breed of elegant baseball stadiums, with financial assistance from the public sector, as the value of the franchise increased roughly sixfold.

But they never won the World Series with the Wilpons in charge, with their most recent title coming in 1986, months before Fred Wilpon officially took control of half the team. In the 18 years since the family gained full ownership, the Mets only reached the postseason three times and seemed to be in a perpetual state of rebuilding, often with limited financial resources.

At times the Mets were among the biggest spenders in baseball, but at other points fans complained they were financially constrained, spending like a smaller market team operating in the nation’s most populous city. That infuriated many loyal fans, whose historical sense of inferiority to the crosstown Yankees was exacerbated by the limited resources of their own club — especially in the wake of the Bernard Madoff financial scandal.

Katz and the Wilpons had invested heavily with Madoff’s firm for years, even running some of the team’s finances and investments through it. But after Madoff was arrested in 2008 for orchestrating a Ponzi scheme with investors’ money, the family and the team lost millions. The losses threatened the Wilpon-Katz ownership of the team, forcing them to seek loans from Major League Baseball and take on new minority investors, including Cohen and Anthony Scaramucci, the financier who briefly served as communications director for the White House in 2017.

When family members insisted on selling the team in recent years, Cohen made for a natural buyer. Even after talks broke down several months ago, some people within baseball believed that the Mets would eventually turn back to Cohen, who has deeper pockets than virtually anyone else who was known to have expressed interest in the team.

The Mets had also entertained offers from other parties this summer, including a group that featured the celebrity couple Alex Rodriguez and Jennifer Lopez, and another group led by Josh Harris and David Blitzer, the co-owners of the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers of the NBA.

But the prospect of the Mets being owned by Cohen, a massively wealthy financier, is what piqued the interest of so many fans, who have long clamored for the Wilpons to sell the team to someone who can flex financial muscles befitting the largest media and sports market in the country. Finally, it appears, they have gotten their wish.

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