By Svea Herbst-Bayliss
BOSTON (Reuters) - When hedge fund titan Steven A. Cohen next roots for his hometown New York Mets baseball team, he will have skin in the game as one of the team's newly minted minority owners.
But those are only the minor perks of a deal that is seen as playing a critical role for both partners. The ailing club gets an infusion of much-needed cash. And Cohen, who is in the running to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, gets a chance to try out for a bigger role in Major League Baseball.
The Mets, valued at $747 million by Forbes last year, have not only lost on the field but at the box office as well. Home game attendance in 2011 was down nearly 50 percent from 4,042,045 in 2008.
The team's financial future remains precarious after principal owners Saul Katz and Fred Wilpon invested in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme. A trustee overseeing the Madoff trust has sued the Mets owners for $386 million.
"With Cohen and others buying these small stakes, the Mets will now have greater liquidity to manage through difficult times," said Robert Boland, a professor of sports business at New York University's Tisch Center. The Mets were interested in selling minority stakes worth a total of $140 million, Boland said.
For Cohen, who is known to demand big returns for every bet he makes, the deal is equally attractive. "Sports franchises generally appreciate dramatically," Boland said, adding, "Steve Cohen is buying a good deal with a guaranteed put of 3 percent after six years."
More than the promise of a decent return, however, is the fact that Cohen, whose personal fortune is pegged at $8 billion, may use the Mets stake as a bridge to a bigger prize.
For Cohen, 55, who grew up in Great Neck, New York and spent many an agonizing afternoon watching his beloved team come up short, his taste for a bigger role in baseball has grown over the last year.
He is said to be on the short list of bidders for the bankrupt Dodgers and last year he flirted with taking a $200 million stake in the Mets before the team settled on another hedge fund manager, David Einhorn. That deal fell apart. If Cohen were to win the bid for the Dodgers he would have to liquidate the stake in the Mets.
"Being a minority owner is like playing in the minor leagues to see how you might do at becoming a full owner," Boland said, adding, "It allows the league to see how someone would work out."
The deal pairs the often losing Mets with one of the most successful and ferocious competitors in the $2 trillion hedge fund industry. Cohen pushes his managers hard and routinely fires underperformers. His fund reported top results for last year, rising 8 percent, while rival funds on average lost 5 percent.
Cohen has also been in the spotlight because of allegations of improper trading at his Stamford, Connecticut-based fund. A technology analyst working for Cohen was arrested and charged with insider trading last month.
Neither Cohen nor his firm has been accused of any wrongdoing.
For many hedge fund managers owning a piece of a major league sports team has long been an obsession. Jeffrey Vinik bought the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League, John Henry is the principal owner of Major League Baseball's Boston Red Sox and James Pallotta owns part of the Boston Celtics of the National Basketball Association.
(Reporting By Svea Herbst-Bayliss; Editing by John Wallace and Steve Orlofsky)