Liberty Media has no immediate plans to sell the Atlanta Braves, but the parent company of the MLB club wants to be prepared structurally if it does decide to make that play.
That’s one of the reasons why Liberty will spin off the Braves and its related real estate development, The Battery, into an independent public company called Atlanta Braves Holdings Inc. The move to make the Braves a separate entity, known as an asset-backed stock, isn’t expected to have a major change on club management or how the franchise’s adjacent multi-use development is operated, according to the company.
“[But] what it does mean is if somewhere down the road the team is to ever be sold, we can avoid corporate-level tax,” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei told Sportico during a break at the company investor meeting. “We have no plans to [sell], but the opportunity for an investor to purchase or come and look is probably cleaner now.”
The Braves, one of two MLB clubs owned by publicly traded companies, are seeing strong returns coming off a World Series title last year—posting $252 million in revenue in the third quarter alone (which doesn’t include 2022 postseason gains). The Colorado-based parent company of the reigning NL East division champion wants to be able to sell if necessary, and team valuations across baseball continue to soar to record levels.
“Is this a two-year plan to where they want to sell to a third party? Or is it just a new strategy to maximize shareholder value for both Liberty Media and the newly formed (Braves) public company?” Irwin Kishner, executive chairman of Herrick’s Sports Law Group, asked in a phone interview. “It could be both—doesn’t have to be one or the other.”
Talk of a Liberty spinoff of one of its sports properties, which include Formula One, picked up after a stock-swap deal with Berkshire Hathaway last year. Maffei added that there won’t be immediate tax benefits from the maneuver, as the team isn’t currently on the market. Instead, the move is being touted as a way to better highlight the Braves’ value outside of its current tracking stock structure.
“Some investors are less comfortable with tracking stocks and the nature of its complications now,” Maffei said. “If you want to just be an investor in the Braves, a standalone company, a pure investment, you have the opportunity.”
Liberty has a history with this strategy. The entertainment conglomerate, led by media tycoon and Liberty board chairman John Malone, previously completed spinoffs of Starz, DirecTV and CommerceHub, among other companies. Malone, a multibillionaire, has a history of planning to avoid tax hits for his media company, which itself was created via a spinoff in 1991.
Flexibility has been a common thread for Liberty, which recently announced plans to shelve its SPAC venture.
Liberty purchased the Braves from Time Warner Inc. (now AT&T) in a tax-incentivized deal worth nearly $1.5 billion back in 2007. The deal was highlighted by Liberty exchanging 68.5 million shares of Time Warner common stock for the club. The Braves move this week marks the first time the company has done a spinoff with a sports-related asset.
“From our perspective, it’s business as usual,” Braves CEO Derek Schiller said during the investor meeting. “Our goal every year is going to be to win a World Series and operate the best sports and entertainment business as possible.”
The Braves were worth $2.5 billion in Sportico’s latest MLB valuations, good for seventh in baseball. And though they fell 3-1 to the eventual World Series runner-up Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Division Series, the club won 101 games and the NL East– by overcoming a 10.5 game deficit to the New York Mets. The financial wave of last year’s championship season still has momentum.
As off-the-field revenue climbs, the Braves plan to keep investing in team payroll to remain competitive on the field. After finishing with the eighth-highest team payroll in MLB this year, Maffei expects to reach the top five in coming years.
“We can afford it,” he said during an investor presentation.
Shares of the Liberty Braves Group stock, which trades under the ticker BATRA, increased 6.5% on Thursday to finish the day at $33.48, its highest close of the year.