On Wednesday afternoon, Bloomberg reported that Fred Wilpon, owner of the New York Mets since August of 2002, will be moving to a minority ownership stake, selling up to an 80 percent share in the organization to billionaire Steve Cohen (a current minority owner).
Although the process will be a slow one, and the deal is reported to keep Wilpon as current principal owner at the helm for the next five years, Cohen will have more and more influence over the course of the next few years until he ascends to the top position as majority owner in 2024.
Cohen is from Long Island, and has been interested in purchasing a Major League franchise for some time. His unsuccessful bid to purchase the Dodgers from the McCourts positioned him to invest in the Mets as a minority owner. Cohen is a self-made billionaire, who founded hedge fund SAC Capital Advisors in the early 90s. While the business boomed, ethics violations and guilty pleas of fraud and insider trading by the business led to record finds. Though the organization paid a then-record fine related to fraud and insider trading, Cohen has done exceedingly well financially.
My esteemed colleague and legal expert Sheryl Ring will have more on Cohen and SAC’s legal troubles in another article, but at a high level, it’s not a great look that MLB will overwhelmingly approve an owner implicated in fraudulent finances and insider trading. At a time when labor relations are strained, and whispers (and shouts) of collusion appear in the press weekly, the optics are simply not good.
Though it seems the Wilpons have led the Mets for decades, Fred Wilpon only became a majority owner in 2002, when he purchased a 50 percent share from Nelson Doubleday with whom he was a 50/50 partner. In that time, the Mets have had some success on the field, but continued to remain a foil to the Yankees near-perennial big-spending, on-field success, and pennants.
Personally distracted and financially affected by the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, the Wilpons appeared to put in an austerity plan while they licked their wounds after being bilked out of millions of dollars in Madoffs’ phony funds.
During their ownership tenure, the Mets made the playoffs just three times in that 17-year stretch. Though the new ownership structure started off strong with the acquisition of Carlos Beltran and former Cy Young winner Pedro Martinez, it took several years for New York to ascend to the top of the NL East.
2006 was a highlight year for the Mets, as they finished with a strong 97-65 record and made it to game seven of the NLCS (the infamous Beltran strikeout). It took a further nine years before the Mets made it back to the playoffs, and in that time they finished more than 17 games out of first place in six consecutive frustrating and futile seasons. On top of the on-field failures following the game seven loss, 2008 led to the dismantling of Madoff’s scheme, and an austerity program driven by the Mets front office.
During this period of cheapness and non-competitiveness, the Wilpons executed on the grand opening of a new stadium, Citi Field (aptly named for a bank that in the process of burning to the ground at the time amidst a broader financial crisis). A fine and much-needed stadium was a great distraction for a team mired in mediocrity that had been playing in an antiquated home park.
Opening day at Citi Field in 2009 included much fanfare for a team that had been playing in the dilapidated Shea Stadium for decades. While Citi Field has a lot of character and great views and good energy, there was a distinct and conspicuous absence of Mets history. Dodgers fan-boy Fred Wilpon and company opted to celebrate the Brooklyn Dodgers more than the New York Mets, without so much as a hallway, wing, or staircase named for any of the Mets greatest players. It was a slap in the face to Mets fans, who appropriately and unsurprisingly generated backlash at the affront.
On the field, the Mets managed to somehow make it to the World Series in 2015 despite being a .500 team in late-July. The 90-win Mets took the Dodgers to the brink in the NLDS, prevailing in five games (sorry Fred), and then had their way with the favored Cubs, whom they swept in the NLCS.
The Mets met their match in the red-hot run-and-gun Royals. Though New York led late in all five games, they lost four of them thanks to a bullpen that simply could not keep a lead.
Overall, the Wilpon tenure of ownership will likely go down as a negative period for Mets fans. Mired by dozens of games out of first place for many of their years at the helm, and encumbered by financial hardship, scandal, and pettiness, Mets fans’ inferiority complex in the city and in the division reared its ugly head regularly as the team struggled to retain relevance.
Adorned with a ‘small market’ moniker, the new ownership group can allay all fears by spending on good players on the free agent market and locking up strong, young talent. Whether that is the reality remains to be seen, as this may buck the trend for all MLB teams at the moment—a moment when it seems all 30 teams are on an austerity plan.