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When Bain Capital tried to buy the NHL

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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One of the strangest stories from the 2004-05 NHL lockout was when a private equity firm decided it wanted to get into the hockey business.

By buying and then transforming a struggling franchise into a profitable one?

No. By buying the National Hockey League.

The firm was Bain Capital. Perhaps you've heard of it, what with its co-founder Mitt Romney running for the highest office in the land. (The presidency, not CEO of Apple.)

In March 2005, with the season already canceled, word leaked that Bain Capital Partners LLC and Game Plan International offered to buy the NHL for $3.5 billion, and eventually upped the offer to $4 billion. The league's failing economic system had led to losses of $500 million for teams in the last two seasons before the lockout.

Bloomberg Businessweek took a look back at the Bain Capital's bid for the NHL in a piece this week:

Three men—Stephen Pagliuca of Bain, and Robert Caporale and Randy Vataha of Game Plan LLC, a sports consultancy—made the pitch to a meeting of the NHL's board of governors at a New York hotel that spring. By buying out all 30 teams and combining them into a modified single entity, they argued, they could streamline operations, boost TV revenue, and negotiate down player salaries from a position of absolute strength.

"They actually clapped at the end of the presentation," Caporale says. "Which was interesting, because part of the presentation, the part that my colleagues asked me to give, was the one where we said, 'You're running this business all wrong.'"

(Luckily this was Bain and not Bane, which meant you could clearly hear what they were saying without the necessity of Tom Hardy re-recording his lines.)

Bain's gamble: That owners didn't believe the system could be fixed, and that they'd gladly take the buyout in order to get out from under money bleeding businesses.

According to CNN, the average value of the franchise purchases would have been $117 million, with large market teams getting higher price tags. For context: The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim sold for $75 million in February 2005.

According to Forbes, the Ducks are now worth $184 million just seven years later. Which is why it was probably a good idea for the league's owners to tell Howie Mandel "no deal" and continue opening those briefcases. (Until they finally found the one with the salary cap inside of it.)

But ultimately, according to Bloomberg, what ended any serious consideration of a Bain bid for the NHL was the same thing the owners are hoping crushes the spirit of the players in 2012: a romantic commitment to The Game, and an inability to walk away from it.

In other words: The teams held "far more emotional value than real worth" for the owners.

The glut of the Businessweek piece is centered around the chance that a private equity firm could, once again, make a bid for the NHL in its next work stoppage. Thing is, the NHL isn't a normal business:

One aspect, though, might pose a challenge to the usual private equity way of doing business. "In an airline industry, I can see a private equity shop going in and taking out or reconfiguring the contracts for the bag handlers," Chaplinsky says. "You can replace them with technology, or with other workers. But if you go in and redo the contract for Sidney Crosby, is he going to play as well? The problem is, although there's a lot of seemingly physical assets around this, in the stadiums and all that, at the heart of this there's one huge intangible asset, which is the players."

A "huge intangible asset" that doesn't deserve the majority of the league's revenue, apparently.

s/t to Bryant Covelli

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