CEO Maffei: Liberty Media ‘happy owners’ of Braves

Liberty Media likes owning the Braves and has no current plan to sell the team, the company’s chief executive said in a rare interview during Thursday’s game at Turner Field.

“The Braves have been a great asset, great for Liberty, and we are happy owners,” Liberty Media CEO Greg Maffei said.

“I think there are a lot of great things ahead for the Braves, starting with the new stadium, but (also) longer-term potential,” he said, citing baseball’s rising TV and digital revenues. “I think there are a lot of ways the Braves continue to be a very interesting business for us, as well as a great team.”

Asked if Liberty Media will still own the team when it moves into its new stadium, SunTrust Park, next year, Maffei said: “I would think that’s pretty much assured. We’ll own it on the day the stadium opens. Absolutely.” Then, laughing, he added: “Unless Terry (McGuirk, the Braves’ CEO) and his team are very late with the stadium.”

Liberty Media, a Colorado-based conglomerate, has owned the Braves since 2007, longer than most observers expected when it acquired the team as part of a tax-driven transaction with Time Warner. Liberty often draws the scorn of Braves fans, particularly regarding the team’s low payroll.

Maffei was asked what he would say to fans who think the Braves need a local, passionate, engaged owner, rather than an out-of-town corporation.

“I only read the AJC occasionally, so I don’t (see) as much of that as some people do,” Maffei said. “But I would say: Look, we are people who believe in the team, but we don’t manage it day to day.

“We have experienced, accomplished, dedicated management who runs it on almost every decision. There are a couple (decisions) that we usually assent to, but on pretty much everything day to day this team is run out of Atlanta. So for all intents and purposes, there is local ownership.”

Maffei said the team’s payroll, which currently ranks 26th among the 30 MLB teams, is set by Braves management, led by McGuirk.

“What happens is, we have a budgeting process where the Braves’ management brings us a budget, a payroll budget included. And I don’t think we have once changed the number,” Maffei said. “It’s not like we come and say, ‘Nah, you got to cut that.’ I don’t think that has happened in the nine years that we have been involved.

“Really the management sets the direction on what they think the right place to invest is, the amounts they want to put in what parts of the operation, including payroll, and we have assented every year.”

Liberty this week divided its disparate holdings among three tracking stocks, including one — called Liberty Braves Group — tied to its baseball team. The new stock structure doesn’t alter Liberty’s ownership of the Braves.

Maffei was in Atlanta on Thursday for a morning meeting with Wall Street analysts in an office overlooking the SunTrust Park construction site. He and other Liberty executives then attended the Braves-Dodgers game at Turner Field.

While saying Liberty has no current plan to sell the Braves, Maffei acknowledged — not for the first time — that the company is unlikely to own the team forever.

He said it would be “difficult” for Liberty to ever sell the Braves for cash because of the tax consequences, but he acknowledged the likelihood of an eventual “separation” of the team from the company.

“Liberty has been a company that has tended to move through assets,” Maffei said. “It wouldn’t be forever. Here we are nine years later (since buying the team). I don’t know when that’s going to be. It could be another nine years.

“But someday I suspect the Braves will be out on their own. And the tracking stock may not set up a sale, but it may set up easily a spin. But we don’t have that on the horizon today.”

By a spin, he was referring to the possibility of an eventual spinoff in which the Braves would become a separate publicly traded company.

Asked if the tracking stock is a precursor to a spinoff, Maffei said: “No. It’s a helpful step, not even a necessary step, but it doesn’t have a timeline on it either.”

For now, Liberty is focused on this week’s debut of the tracking stocks. The Braves’ Series A shares (symbol BATRA on Nasdaq) opened at $36 Monday, plummeted quickly and closed that day at $19.95. The shares closed Thursday at $18.48, up 43 cents — 2.4 percent — from Wednesday’s close.

At Thursday’s closing price, the Braves have a market capitalization of almost $800 million.

“There aren’t a whole bunch of other public comparables out there,” Maffei said. “I think it’ll take a while for investors and research analysts to get a handle on how to value a team and what to do going forward.”

Maffei thinks the team is worth more than $800 million, as does Forbes magazine, which recently valued the Braves at $1.18 billion.

“What you want to tell your shareholders is, ‘Hey, you’ve got the opportunity to come in and hold or buy more,’” Maffei said. “But I’m not planning on selling anytime soon.”

Maffei, based in Englewood, Colo., said he had been at Turner Field “many times” before Thursday, watches “as many games as I can” on TV and visited Braves spring training this year.

“The biggest challenge we have is … sometimes when the Colorado Rockies play the Braves, we have to make sure none of those people at Liberty are actually thinking about wearing a Rockies hat,” he said. “They’ve got to remember where their bread is buttered.”

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