Ted Leonsis's bid for the Wizards and Verizon Center is thrown in question

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been in talks with the holding company established by the late Abe Pollin to take full ownership of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center.
Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has been in talks with the holding company established by the late Abe Pollin to take full ownership of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center. (The Washington Post)
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By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 28, 2010

The holding company that owns a majority of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center says it has the right to put the franchise and arena on the open market, throwing into question attempts by former AOL mogul Ted Leonsis to take full ownership of the sprawling regional sports empire.

The news will probably complicate what has been a civil negotiations process between representatives of Leonsis, who owns the Washington Capitals, and the estate of the late Abe Pollin, who cobbled together the holding company, Washington Sports & Entertainment, over five decades. Pollin died Nov. 24.

The events point to an unraveling of what many thought would be a smooth transition from Pollin to Leonsis, who had been a solicitous, loyal junior partner to Pollin over the past decade.

Representatives of Leonsis and Washington Sports had been in discussions from early this month until last week, when talks between the sides ended without an agreement. They are thought to be more than $100 million apart in their respective valuations of a package that includes the National Basketball Association's Wizards, Verizon Center and the local Ticketmaster franchise.

Some estimates have put the combined value of the entities at well more than $600 million; others say it's closer to $500 million.

The Pollin family and the Leonsis group have been reluctant to make any public statements, hoping to agree on price in a timely manner without acrimony or litigation. The deal is being watched by the NBA and other team owners because the outcome could reset league franchise values.

Washington Sports' intention to assert what it considers its right to put the team and arena on the market came in a memo Tuesday to employees from Peter Biché, the company's president of business operations. The memo acknowledges that Leonsis -- who owns 44 percent of the Wizards and Verizon Center in addition to 100 percent of the Capitals -- has the right to match any offer submitted to the Pollin estate.

But in the memo, Biché says that no one has an exclusive right to negotiate a purchase of the Wizards, Verizon Center and Ticketmaster. Leonsis says that his Lincoln Holdings investor group has an exclusive period to reach a deal, sources familiar with the discussions said. Leonsis thinks that period is still in effect, the sources said.

One source close to Leonsis said in an e-mail that his investors were "surprised and disappointed" when they saw the memo because "it did not mention the exclusive appraisal process in the contract that the parties had started and is designed specifically to result in Lincoln's full ownership and control."

A spokesman for the Pollin estate, Ed Tagliaferri, declined to comment. Capitals spokesman Kurt Kehl said Leonsis and his group had no comment. All sources for this report spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the deal.

Both sides have hired bankers to advise them. Leonsis retained Allen & Co., a New York boutique investment bank. The estate's trustees -- Pollin's widow, Irene; son Robert; and longtime attorney David Osnos -- have hired Goldman Sachs.

The purchase could be crucial for Leonsis, because Verizon Center generates revenue that could put an end to a decade of financial losses for his Capitals of the National Hockey League.

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