AOL Time Warner Secures Sports Team Deal

AOL Time Warner Inc. (AOL) agreed to sell its professional basketball and hockey teams in Atlanta to a group of eight investors that includes a family link to former owner Ted Turner (search).

At a news conference Tuesday, AOL Time Warner announced it was selling the NBA's Hawks (search), the NHL's Thrashers (search) and operating rights to the teams' home, Philips Arena (search), to an investment group that includes Turner's son-in-law, attorney J. Rutherford Seydel.

The other investors include Boston businessman Steve Belkin (search), who was unsuccessful in his previous pursuit of an NBA expansion team in Charlotte, and four Atlantans, including businessmen Michael Gearon Sr. and Michael Gearon Jr.

Turner owned the Hawks and Thrashers — as well as baseball's Atlanta Braves — before ceding control to AOL Time Warner.

Gearon Sr. has been associated with the Hawks for 26 years. He was president of the Hawks for nine years until 1986, when he was named the team's board chairman. Belkin founded the Trans National Group (search), a direct response marketing and investment company.

The ownership group includes two former minority owners of the NBA Washington Bullets and NHL Washington Capitals, Edwin Peskowitz and Bruce Levenson, both of Washington. Peskowitz and Levenson are business partners with another member of the investment group, Todd Foreman, also of Washington.

The new ownership group also includes a fourth Atlantan, M.B. "Bud" Secretean, a member of the Hawks board of directors.

AOL Time Warner is selling the teams to help reduce its $24 billion debt, and had negotiated with Dallas auto dealer David McDavid since April over the sale of the teams.

"We continue to have the highest professional regard for David McDavid and the McDavid Group, with whom we worked in good faith for the past several months," the company said.

The decision surprised McDavid, who expected a news conference as soon as Tuesday to announce his own purchase.

AOL Time Warner also has expressed an interest in selling the Atlanta Braves, who are not included in this deal. The Braves, which would be sold with their stadium, Turner Field, are seen as the most valuable of the teams.

No price had been announced for the Hawks and Thrashers.

AOL's Turner Broadcasting division, which runs the teams, entered exclusive talks in April with McDavid to buy the Hawks and Thrashers, along with operating rights to Philips Arena. The negotiations stretched longer than expected, ending McDavid's rights to exclusivity.

Recently, the negotiations were complicated by a provision in the Philips Arena bond sale, which uses the Hawks as a form of collateral.

When the arena was built with government-backed bonds, Turner Broadcasting put up the Hawks as collateral up to a limit of $60 million, in case the company defaulted on an obligation to make the annual bond payments of about $12 million over 30 years.

To complete the deal, AOL Time Warner likely will have to replace the collateral.

McDavid is a former minority owner of the Dallas Mavericks. He has attempted to buy other NBA teams, including the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Vancouver Grizzlies. Earlier this year, he had discussions about buying the NHL's Dallas Stars.

In December, Belkin led a group that included NBA Hall of Famer Larry Bird that was denied a chance to buy the Charlotte franchise.

Ted Turner owned the three Atlanta teams, and he maintained a role in running the franchises after Time Warner merged with Turner Broadcasting. After the AOL-Time Warner merger, Turner lost his management role.

Shares of AOL Time Warner were up 22 cents to $15.99 on the New York Stock Exchange.