Bidders set to battle for Rangers baseball team

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By Ben Klayman

DETROIT (Reuters) - The Texas Rangers may be fighting for a playoff spot, but the real battle is taking place off the field on Wednesday, when the auction for the bankrupt Major League Baseball team is scheduled to begin.

Angry creditors including banks and hedge funds are hoping for a bidding war, while possible buyers including Texas billionaire Mark Cuban are angling for control of the pro sports franchise. The case has even drawn in New York Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez, who is owed $24.9 million in deferred pay from his former team.

MLB executives want the whole mess to be over already. Identifying a winning bidder, however, may not end the drama, as any sale agreement requires approval by league owners and could draw lawsuits.

"I don't think this is just a straight 'put it up for auction and we'll see who pays the most money,'" said Marc Ganis, president of consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd. "I expect more twists and turns."

Initial bids to the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Forth Worth, Texas, are due at 9 p.m. EDT on Tuesday.

The Rangers filed for bankruptcy protection in May, hoping to sell the team for $570 million to a group led by former all-star pitcher and current team president Nolan Ryan and Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg. The filing was meant to be procedural, clearing the way for a sale the league backed just as had happened last year with the Cubs.

The Rangers' problems began long before that, however, when creditors declared owner Hicks Sports Group in default on $525 million in loans in April 2009.

Those creditors, led by distressed debt investor Monarch Alternative Capital LP and including JP Morgan Chase, have said the Ryan-Greenberg offer was not the highest and the deal did not give them enough money. They have fought the Greenberg-Ryan deal from the start, pushing for the auction.

Even players are watching the proceedings. Rodriguez, the sport's highest-paid player, recently objected to a proposed deal with Ryan and Greenberg over concern about his deferred compensation.

A $520 million offer, including $306.7 million in cash, from the Ryan-Greenberg group is considered the "stalking horse," but a higher offer could emerge on Wednesday.

Other possible bidders include Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks National Basketball Association team, and Houston businessman Jim Crane. Both bid for the Cubs.

There also have been reports Rupert Murdoch's News Corp could enter the bidding to ensure long-term TV broadcast rights for Rangers games for its Fox Sports unit.

However, Fox has not approached MLB about getting preapproved to bid, according to a source, who asked not to be identified discussing the process. Fox declined to comment.

The case took another turn when Greenberg and Ryan made a sweetened offer that would have meant scrapping the auction; a proposal Judge D. Michael Lynn rejected.

Picking a winning bidder will not end the matter as 75 percent of MLB owners must approve a sale, a process that could take up to nine months according to a filing by Cuban's attorney.

Regardless of which group wins the bidding, more lawsuits could result, and MLB's relationship with some bank lenders may be chilled, analysts said.

Hicks Sports Group, controlled by sports tycoon Tom Hicks, also owns the National Hockey League's Dallas Stars, and he separately owns half of the Liverpool soccer club. Both of those assets are for sale.

(Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit, editing by Matthew Lewis)