Panthers owner, Wall Street maven Viola weighing NY Mets bid with A-Rod

Since retiring from baseball in 2017, A-Rod has rubbed shoulders with major Wall Street investment bankers

Vincent Viola, the former head of the New York Mercantile Exchange, founder of high-speed trading outfit Virtu Financial, and owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team, is looking to add another high-profile item to his resume as a possible part-owner of the New York Mets.

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FOX Business was first to report on Monday that Viola, through his family office that manages a fortune estimated at nearly $2.5 billion, is interested in joining an investor group led by former Yankee Alex Rodriguez to buy the team.

People with direct knowledge of the matter say Viola would join his friend and business partner Mike Repole, the founder of the Vitamin Water franchise and current head of a private equity firm.

Repole and Viola co-own thoroughbred horses -- Viola owned the 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming -- but this would be their biggest joint venture by far.

Combined, they would invest as much as $250 million to $300 million in the Mets, these people add.

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But their involvement in any deal is far from assured. They are said to be wary of the Mets' current owner, the Wilpon family, and whether Chief Operating Officer Jeff Wilpon and his father Fred, its long-time chief executive, will give up control of the team.

Earlier this year, the Wilpons were close to selling most of the Mets franchise to hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen for $2.6 billion, but Cohen walked away from the deal over control issues.

Another issue: Whether Rodriguez can assemble enough investors to place a serious bid for a team that is among the more expensive in the league. Rodriguez has hired investment bankers at JPMorgan Chase and long-time sports banker Salvatore Galatioto, but some baseball sources say the former Yankees star with his own controversial past still needs to convince more investors to give him the necessary funds to mount the bid. A person close to Rodriguez disputes that he's having trouble finding investors.

Rodriguez was suspended for the entire 2014 season for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy. The pandemic lockdown, meanwhile, has complicated the sale even further.

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The 2020 season, initially delayed, remains in limbo. In recent weeks, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred put together a plan to play a limited season and hold games in stadiums without fans.

Unlike professional football with its lucrative television contracts, baseball derives much of its revenues on the so-called gate, or fan attendance, and owners are complaining that means the league will likely experience massive losses for the first time in years. The league, as Fox Business first reported Monday, will impose a very limited season of just 60 games amid an impasse with the players union over salary and other issues related to the coronavirus that some people believe could result in no season at all.

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The Mets had been losing money even before the virus hit, and it's difficult to accurately value the franchise against the backdrop of a pandemic that could last until next year, further complicating the business environment.

A representative for Viola didn't return an email for comment. A representative for Repole confirmed his interest in the Mets. A spokesman for the Wilpons had no immediate comment. A representative for Rodriguez didn't return a call for comment.

Baseball commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports)

Since retiring from baseball in 2017, Rodriguez has rubbed shoulders with major Wall Street investment bankers and started his own investment business. That same year, his former Yankee teammate and long-time rival, Derek Jeter, put together an investment group to purchase the Florida Marlins for $1.2 billion.

Rodriguez was said to be closely monitoring Jeter's move into baseball ownership and that’s when he began thinking about one-upping Jeter with a purchase of the Mets.

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He is estimated to have a net worth of $300 million, while his girlfriend, actress Jennifer Lopez, is estimated to have holdings worth approximately $400 million, which combined is still not enough to buy a baseball franchise, particularly one like the Mets that plays in the massive New York sports market.

Still, Viola could help Rodriguez attract other major players, given his long record as a successful businessman on Wall Street and in sports. Virtu went public in 2015 and remains one of the largest high-frequency trading firms.

Virtu Financial founder Vincent Viola. (AP Photo/J Pat Carter)

People with knowledge of Viola's interest in the Mets say the possible deal came through his family office, and his initial conversations were said to be positive. Viola, however, is said to be well aware of the Mets’ financial problems, such as losing money and lots of debt.