Last month Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden called a press
conference in the bowels of the Corel Centre. Talking animatedly
and angrily, he gave his reaction to the Canadian government's
decision not to subsidize the country's six NHL teams. "Unless
you can find some way to pay the bills without the money," he
said, "the team either has to fold or to go." For Randy Vataha, a
former NFL player who stood inconspicuously in the back of the
room, this was a call to action.
President of Game Plan LLC, Vataha, 51, is the yenta of the
sports world, a well-connected matchmaker who facilitates deals
between jaded or cash-strapped team owners and potential buyers.
Game Plan, the investment firm that he cofounded with sports
lawyer Robert Caporale in 1995, has assembled a client list that
includes the Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland A's and
Dallas Stars as well as prospective buyers such as Ross Perot Jr.
"Franchise values might be going through the roof, but for a
variety of reasons--estate taxes, unwillingness to carry a debt,
trouble in their other businesses--there are always owners looking
to sell," says Vataha. "Sports franchises are exciting and
emotional, so there are always rich people looking to buy."
Game Plan assumes no equity or warrants in the business as part
of its fee structure--even partial ownership in a team would give
rise to a conflict of interest. Rather, Game Plan charges
prospective buyers a retaining fee for its services, and an
additional preset fee if a deal is consummated. When retained by
a seller, Vataha and Caporale take a commission, usually 2%-5%,
on the sale. (Even a backwater team like the Senators was
recently valued at nearly $100 million. You do the math.)
For Vataha, his role as middleman is the latest hat he has worn
in the sports world over the past three decades. Though he was
scrawny enough in college--5'9", 165 pounds--to hold a summer job
as one of the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland, Vataha became Jim
Plunkett's favorite target as a wide receiver at Stanford. He had
a seven-year NFL career, mostly with the New England Patriots,
but may have been best known for leading the 1975 NFL work
stoppage as a player representative with the players'
association. Later, he was a co-owner, and team president, of the
Boston Breakers USFL team. After selling the team in '84, he
joined Bob Woolf Associates as a sports agent, representing Doug
Flutie and Joe Montana, among others. "In sports," says Vataha,
"I've seen both sides of the coin and then some."
Belying his deal-making savvy, Vataha is reflexively
self-deprecating. He is quick to point out that although Game
Plan is one-third owned by Fleet Bank, it's merely a niche
business. Perhaps so, but he and Caporale are clearly on to
something. "I don't think regular investment bankers know much,
if anything, about professional sports," says Howard Baldwin, who
retained Game Plan when he sold a share of the Penguins to Roger
Marino in 1996. "It takes an expertise to understand values and
opportunities, and Game Plan's got it."
"Sports franchises are exciting and emotional, so there are
always rich people to buy."