How does one become rich enough to buy a marque baseball franchise like the Chicago Cubs? You could start a wildly popular social network or become a billionaire hedge fund manager. If you're Tom Ricketts, current owner of baseball's hottest team, the journey starts before you could afford your first hot dog at Wrigley Field.
Buying the Chicago Cubs
The Chicago Cubs were formerly owned by the Tribune Company, the now failed newspaper publisher. The club was a hot commodity when it came on the market in 2007, but with the financial crisis, the Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy in 2008, and a complex financial structure, the sale took nearly two and a half years. So long in fact that even Dallas Maverick's owner Mark Cuban threw up his arms in disgust. At the end of the long process, the Ricketts family won the bidding war for the Cubs, as well as Wrigley Field and a 25% stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago.
The winning bid of $845 million for a 95% stake in the Cubs instantly made the Ricketts family one of the most high profile families in sports. And by all indications this is a family business of the highest order.
The patriarch of the Ricketts family
Tom Ricketts is often mentioned as the main owner of the Chicago Cubs, but the entire family is involved in ownership of the team. His parents, Joe and Marlene Ricketts, as well as siblings Pete, Laura, and Todd, are all owners, with the children serving as the only other members of the board of directors, where Tom serves as the Chairman of the Board.
The reason the family was able to acquire the Cubs in the first place can be traced back to family patriarch Joe Ricketts, who founded a brokerage company that would become TD Ameritrade. In fact, Joe and Marlene Ricketts still own 51.3 million shares of the company, valued at $1.6 billion today.
Who is Tom Ricketts?
None of this is to say that Tom Ricketts didn't make millions on his own. In 1999, he fo-founded Incapital LLC, a Chicago-based investment bank that soon became one of the biggest underwriters of corporate bonds in the country, underwriting more than $300 billion in securities since it was founded.
To put it simply, Incapital helps sell corporate bonds to retail investors through a large network of brokers. For that work it takes a cut of each sale, with almost no risk to the investment bank itself. Bloomberg estimates that the average fee on an investment-grade U.S. corporate bond is 0.486%, so the total fees Incapital has generated are easily in the billions of dollars.
Since the company is private it's unknown how much Ricketts' stake is worth or how much he made before the Chicago Cubs acquisition, but it's safe to say that it's ALOT of money.
How to pay for a baseball team
Like most of us, the Ricketts family didn't actually have $845 million in cash lying around to pay for the Chicago Cubs, Wrigley Field, and the stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago in 2009. So the company sold 34 million shares of TD Ameritrade stock for roughly $403 million, more than enough to pay for the equity required to buy the team.
The remainder was paid for with a reported $580 million in debt as of 2013. The huge debt load was required by Sam Zell and the Tribune Co.'s complex sale structure, which is one reason other bidders dropped out of the sale process.
The Chicago Cubs and billions in family money
Whether you're looking to buy a baseball team or wondering where your favorite team's owners came from, it's probably a story decades in the making. Joe Ricketts spent decades building TD Ameritrade, and is still one of the company's largest shareholders today. As the children branched out on their own they decided to turn some of that fortune into a controlling stake in the Chicago Cubs.
It's not a path most of us can take to Major League Baseball franchise ownership, but it's how the current Chicago Cubs owners got control of the team. With just a few more victories in this year's playoffs, the Ricketts family could also bring a World Series trophy to the north side of Chicago. It would be the ultimate payoff for a family that has spent decades building enough wealth to own its favorite baseball team.