The End Of Amazin’

Mets’ owners made money in real estate. Now their survival hinges on baseball

When Fred Wilpon bought a stake in the Mets, New Yorkers knew little about the man beyond where he got his money: real estate.

“Mets Owner a Big-League Builder,” a New York Times headline blared in 1981.

Thirty years later, as he and his family face the likely need to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars in connection with its investments with Bernard Madoff, property is no longer where the money is for the Wilpons. While they still have major property holdings, those are tied up in investment funds that would be hard to unload quickly. Instead, the Wilpons are seeking to sell off pieces of the most liquid asset they have: the Mets.

“For the Wilpons, there are no good choices right now,” said Wayne McDonnell, a professor at New York University’s Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.

The rush to sell off a stake in the sports franchise is symptomatic of a remarkable shift in the makeup of one of New York’s best-known but least-understood family fortunes—the Wilpons’—and their holding company, Sterling Equities, which was built on property development.

Financially, anyway, the tail now wags the dog—much as it did for George Steinbrenner. The owner of an even more storied New York sports franchise, he began as a wealthy shipbuilder and ended up as principal owner of the Yankees and the team’s lucrative YES Network. His sons have taken over the business.

Both families prospered in their new line of work. However, while Mr. Steinbrenner’s American Shipbuilding went bankrupt in 1993, the Wilpons’ real estate empire remains profitable, if illiquid. What threatens the Wilpons today is the result of what they did with some of their winnings: They invested with Mr. Madoff.

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