The owners of the Billings Mustangs are in preliminary talks with a party interested in buying the minor league baseball club, according to Woody Hahn, president of the Mustangs' board of directors.
Hahn said the board authorized him three years ago to look into the possibility of selling the team, and that he is now negotiating with an interested party, about whom he declined to give any details.
"There's a lot that goes into selling a ball club," Hahn said. "It's all very preliminary."
The rookie league Mustangs have been affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds for 40 years and are owned by local investors. A total of 1,000 shares were originally sold for $100 each. The Mustangs corporation owns 542 shares, which are controlled by the board of directors, Hahn said.
The 458 outstanding shares are owned by 91 individuals or groups, Hahn said, but four owners control a majority of those shares. Those majority shareholders are Hahn, Peggy Wilson, Don and Tim Brocopp and the Billings Beer Boosters, which runs the beer concession at Dehler Park, home of the Mustangs.
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The Billings Gazette also owns 10 shares, purchased in 1968.
If a sale were to take place, Hahn said, it would first have to be approved by the board of directors, and then by a two-thirds majority of investors holding the outstanding shares. Hahn said he and the other major investors control a majority of shares, but not two-thirds of them.
The board had hoped to keep the process private until a buyer had actually made an offer, but "more rumors have gotten out than I anticipated," Hahn said.
The Mustangs played at Cobb Field until the construction of Dehler Park, which opened in the summer of 2008. The stadium was funded by a bond issue approved by Billings voters in 2006.
The cost of the stadium ended up being $13.7 million, but the amount billed to taxpayers was $10.7 million, thanks to $3 million in donations. The biggest donation, which gave him naming rights to the stadium, was $1 million from local businessman Jon Dehler, who named it in honor of his father.
The city still owns the stadium, which the Mustangs lease for $30,000 a year. The Mustangs are responsible for operating and maintaining the ballpark, and the club runs its own concessions.
Mustangs General Manager Gary Roller said all board members and employees had been advised to direct any questions to Hahn.
City Administrator Tina Volek, Parks Department Director Mike Whitaker and Park Board Chairman Rick DeVore all said they had heard nothing of a possible sale of the Mustangs.
Volek did point out that a management, operation and use agreement between the city and the Mustangs stipulates that the team cannot relocate out of Billings for the life of the agreement, which expires in 2017, without the consent of the city.
Hahn said he couldn't imagine a new owner wanting to move the team out of Billings, since the new stadium and consistently high attendance are two of the biggest factors in making the club a desirable investment.
Besides, he said, "I would never let that happen. None of our board members would, either."
Attendance this year is averaging 3,043 fans a game, for the second-highest attendance in the eight-team Pioneer League. In recent years, Billings has maintained that second-place standing in attendance, just behind the Ogden, Utah, Raptors.
The Mustangs also are making money. Volek said the Mustangs' annual report to the Park Board said the team expects to have $237,250 more in revenue than expenses in 2013.
Asked why the investors are trying to sell a profitable club, Hahn said, "we felt that several people have spent a lot of time and a lot of effort" supporting the Mustangs over many years, and the board wanted "to reward — reward's not the right word — those people for a lifetime of work."
Hahn also said that the Mustangs sent dividend checks of $500 a share to all investors earlier this year, and "the dividends made every stockholder more than whole."
Hahn played for the Mustangs and later was the team's general manager. Beside being a major stockholder and president of the board, he also co-chaired the steering committee that pushed for passage of the bond issue to build Dehler Park.
The question of team relocation aside, Hahn was asked how fair it would be to baseball fans who supported the bond issue if a new owner were to come in and raise admission and concession prices.
"That's the things we've been working on, to make it good for everybody," Hahn said. There's no reason to believe the new owners wouldn't keep "the same employees, the same program," he said, and some assurances could be included in the contract.
He said they could tell the new owners, "We've always been family-oriented and hope that you keep it the same."
Hahn would not say whether the potential owner is in or out of state, but he did say that an unsuccessful attempt was made to interest local baseball supporters in buying out the shares of some of the longtime investors.
Dick Clark, a former City Council member who was also on the stadium steering committee, said he had heard rumors of a possible sale of the team.
He speculated that many of the investors, after years of being closely involved with the Mustangs, are getting old and are simply interested in selling their interests while the club is in a strong position.
Clark didn't think there was much to worry about.
"Even if they sold, I wouldn't think they'd leave here," he said.