Steve Cohen in Talks to Buy Majority of Mets from Wilpons

 nytimes.com  12/04/2019 22:30:54   Kevin Draper, Emily Flitter, Danielle Allentuck and Kate Kelly

The deal with Cohen, the billionaire hedge fund manager, would represent a major change in the New York sports landscape, with a team that has had the Wilpon family as major investors since 1980.

Steven A. Cohen, a billionaire who made his fortune in the hedge fund business, was negotiating to purchase a controlling stake in the Mets.
Steven A. Cohen, a billionaire who made his fortune in the hedge fund business, was negotiating to purchase a controlling stake in the Mets.Credit...Sasha Arutyunova for The New York Times

Steven A. Cohen, a minority investor in the Mets, is negotiating with the Wilpon family to purchase a controlling stake in the team, according to two people close to the negotiations.

A completed deal was not imminent and was still subject to approval by Major League Baseball owners, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly. It would represent a huge change in the landscape of New York sports and for a beloved, if often troubled, franchise that the Wilpon family has owned a large stake in since 1980.

It would also be the biggest step in the re-emergence of Cohen as a major player on the New York scene. Cohen, a billionaire who made his fortune in the hedge fund business, was a major figure in New York society and the art world when his fund became embroiled in a series of insider trading investigations that began after 2009. He 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.

Under the agreement being negotiated with the Wilpon family, Cohen, 63, would purchase 80 percent of the team, according to one of the people. In an announcement Wednesday about the negotiations, Cohen and the Mets said that Fred Wilpon, the current controlling owner of the Mets, and his son Jeff, the chief operating officer, who plays a role in nearly every decision the club makes, would remain in their positions for the next five years.

Judging from history, Cohen is unlikely to remain quiet during any interim period before he takes control of the team.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, Cohen reigned as one of Wall Streets richest and most powerful hedge fund managers. He ran a $14 billion fund, SAC Capital Advisors, that focused on stock trading and was organized to give individual portfolio managers maximum control. That left Cohen minimally responsible for their actions yet still able to share in their winnings. He kept his managers on notoriously short leashes, with poor or mediocre performances resulting in quick terminations. SACs overall returns were exceptionally strong, year after year.

Cohen amassed personal wealth of more than $8 billion and built an eye-popping art collection, including works by Gerhard Richter, Jeff Koons and Roy Lichtenstein. He tried to buy the Mets during those heady days, when the Wilpons became vulnerable because of their investments in Bernard Madoffs Ponzi scheme.

Cohen seldom spoke publicly and rare glimpses of his thinking, gleaned mostly from court papers, revealed a brazen character who once lamented that insider trading rules were too vague to follow.

A shy father of seven, Cohen long ruled his multibillion-dollar hedge fund from a trading workstation in the middle of a sprawling suburban Connecticut trading floor. Bespectacled and favoring half-zip fleeces, Cohen has long been known as a workaholic, holding investment meetings on Sunday evenings and personally weighing in on big trades. In recent years, he began to groom his next generation of portfolio managers and became more visibly involved in philanthropy, donating tens of millions of dollars to improve the mental health of veterans and giving $50 million to the Museum of Modern Art.

Cohens first troubles with insider trading allegations occurred in 1986, when officials from the Securities and Exchange Commission questioned him about his trades in shares of RCA ahead of an announcement that RCA would be bought by General Electric. During the interview, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self incrimination several times, according to a Reuters report, which cited a transcript of the deposition. His ex-wife Patricia Cohen later claimed in a lawsuit that he had used proceeds from those trades to start SAC Capital.

Federal prosecutors, foremost among them Preet Bharara, then the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York, combed through the records of Cohens fund records two decades later, hoping to catch him in an illegal act. They wiretapped his phones, but he quickly found out about the secret surveillance.

He became a version of the white whale to Mr. Bhararas Ahab. He was never caught, but in 2013, federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against SAC  not Cohen personally. He paid $1.8 billion to settle the charges and was not able to manage other peoples money from 2016-18. After selling off a chunk of his massive art collection for $88 million and changing his Greenwich, Conn., firms name from to Point72 Asset Management, Mr. Cohen retreated.

Until recently. His ban on managing outside funds expired last year. He had already reopened a shuttered London office. He battled a sexual harassment lawsuit, which was sent to a private arbitration, in which the firm was accused of underpaying female employees and condoning crude behavior toward women.

Now, seven years after he pursued a purchase of the Los Angeles Dodgers and paid $20 million for a small share of the Mets, Cohen is on the verge of gaining the kind of exposure that only comes with owning a major sports franchise in a world capital at a time when team owners, such as Mark Cuban, are among the countrys biggest celebrities.

Cohen currently owns 8 percent of the team, according to one of the people who spoke to The New York Times on condition of anonymity. He purchased his share after the collapse of an announced $200 million sale of a minority stake in the team to hedge fund manager David Einhorn.

Cohen grew up in Great Neck on Long Island, about a dozen miles and a quick train ride Flushing Meadows, the Mets home since Shea Stadium opened in 1964. Citifield, their current stadium, opened in 2009.

Wilpon, a Brooklyn native and devout Brooklyn Dodgers fan as a child, played baseball and basketball at Lafayette High School with Sandy Koufax. A real estate developer who co-founded Sterling Enterprises with his brother-in-law in 1972, he first bought a 1 percent stake of the Mets in 1980 when Doubleday & Company, a publishing company, bought the team. Wilpon became an equal partner of the team in 1986, and bought the remaining 50 percent in 2002 for $391 million.

The Mets have won just one championship during his tenure, in 1986. The team lost in the World Series in 2000 and 2015, and the Wilpons have been criticized for not being willing to spend enough to lure in top players. The Mets ranked 12th in the major leagues in total payroll for the 2019 season.

According to a person familiar with the Mets finances, the team has lost tens of millions of dollars in recent years as they struggled to attract fans to watch a team that often fell out of the playoff race in midseason. The Mets finished the 2019 season with an 86-76 record, failing to make the playoffs for the 11th time in 13 seasons. They fired their manager, Mickey Callaway, days after the season ended and hired Carlos Beltran, a who played with the Mets for seven seasons, last month.

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