AOL finds buyer for Atlanta pro hockey, basketball teams

Tuesday, September 16th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ AOL Time Warner Inc. has found a group to buy basketball's Atlanta Hawks and hockey's Atlanta Thrashers, which it wants to sell to pay down about $24 billion debt.

AOL Time Warner would not identify the group or its members, saying only that it includes ``local partners.'' The deal is to be announced Tuesday at a news conference, the company said.

No price was disclosed.

A person familiar with the deal told The Associated Press Monday night that the investment group includes Boston businessman Steve Belkin and several Atlantans, including businessmen Michael Gearon Sr. and Michael Gearon Jr. and attorney Rutherford Seydel, the son-in-law of Ted Turner. The source spoke on condition of anonymity.

Turner owned the National Basketball Association's Hawks and National Hockey League's Thrashers before ceding control to AOL Time Warner. Belkin, founder of the Trans National Group, a direct response marketing and investment company, previously pursued a NBA expansion team in Charlotte. Gearon Sr. has been associated with the Hawks for 26 years, as a former team president and current board chairman.

``We have reached a binding agreement for the sale of the Atlanta Hawks and Atlanta Thrashers franchises and operating rights to Philips Arena to an investment group, including local partners,'' the company said in a statement released Monday afternoon.

The decision surprised Texas car dealer David McDavid, who had been negotiating with the company since April.

``We are shocked,'' McDavid's business partner, Stephen Dieb, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. ``Until this morning, we thought it was done.''

Dieb did not return calls from the AP on Monday.

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.

AOL Time Warner spokesman Ed Adler said the teams' sale would improve the company's finances and flexibility. He declined to comment further Monday.