Storm still looking for new owner

Early edition: More than a year after reopening his search for a buyer for one of the Arena Football League's most successful franchises, the Storm remains unsold.

By DAVID MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
Published May 11, 2007

If there is a lesson to take from Woody Kern's last attempt at selling his Arena League franchise, it's that the process is nothing if not unpredictable.

Back in 2002, the Storm owner reached a deal to sell the team for $12.3-million to Michigan businessman Thom Hopper. The first $1-million was paid, and the transaction was announced at a news conference. Yet five years later, Kern is still the owner, and Hopper is an inmate at a medium-security federal penitentiary in South Carolina, serving a 33 1/2-month prison sentence for an an unrelated wire fraud conviction.

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that, more than a year after reopening his search for a buyer for one of the Arena League's most successful franchises, the Storm remains unsold.

Kern, the president and CEO of PCK Management in Denton, Tex., is still commuting to Tampa for home games and conducting most of the Storm's business over the telephone; his business manager is still soliciting prospective buyers; and the franchise's future is still unclear.

"I've never sold one before, so I didn't know how long it was going to take, " said Kern, who has left the bulk of the process up to business and asset manager Larry Carr of the Tampa firm Carr and Associates. "Larry thinks it is progressing normally."

Judging by some of the press clippings the Arena League has received over the past couple of years, one would think this would be a good time to sell a franchise.

Earlier this year, USA Today published a story that pondered whether arena football was "America's fifth major sport." Commissioner David Baker has pointed to ESPN's 10 percent investment in the league as evidence of the viability of the product. According to the league, a CitiGroup evaluation last year determined the average value of an AFL franchise was $20-million. The ownership group that brought the expansion Brigade to Kansas City last season paid $18-million, according to the league.

Kern is asking for a little over $20-million for the Storm, but heading into tonight's game at Los Angeles, has yet to receive a formal offer.

Not that anybody associated with the organization seems concerned.

Kern, Carr, and Storm coach/general manager Tim Marcum all say there are three groups of prospective buyers who are performing due diligence or, as Marcum put it, "kicking the tires", but decline to identify them, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Carr and Kern say all three are local and would keep the team in Tampa, which is a requirement of Kern's, but nobody has any idea when serious negotiations might begin.

Five majority NFL owners have stakes in Arena League teams, but Carr says the Buccaneers are not interested in joining the fray. Neither is the Lightning, says senior vice president/communications Bill Wickett, although the organization's owners - Palace Sports and Entertainment -did purchase a minor league baseball team from Kern in 2005.

Kern and Carr had hoped to complete the sale before last summer's league meetings, but Carr said a prospective buyer was unable to come up with enough financial backing, forcing them to start the process over.

In January, the team purchased a full-page ad in the Sports Business Journal, touting the Storm as "arguably the Arena Football League's premier franchise." The ad detailed the team's history, as well as the chief reason Kern, who recently turned 60, has given for exploring a sale: to spend more time with his wife and seven children.

"Woody isn't desperate to sell, " Carr said.

That's because the chief draw of owning a team is exactly that: owning a team. Kern has been involved in the Arena League since 1994, having previously owned a now-defunct team in Forth Worth. He enjoys a close relationship with Marcum, whom he hired in 1995, and frequently spends the night at the coach's house when he is in town.

Kern estimates his losses over 13 seasons have averaged between $400, 000 to $700, 000 a year, though he also says he'll make a little money if he sells the Storm for its asking price.

"Nobody buys this to make millions of dollars a year, " Carr said.

Although Kern estimates that missing the playoffs last season cost him $100, 000, he also says winning and losing don't have a dramatic effect on the bottom line, largely because of a partnership with Palace Sports, which handles the bulk of the team's marketing. The deal is up after this season, but is expected to be renewed.

"The Storm is a community asset, " Wickett said. "We have one of the best fan bases in the league, and we intend to continue being a part of that."

For now, though, Kern's main concern is getting the Storm back to the playoffs. Heading into tonight's game at Los Angeles, the Storm had won three of its last four after starting 0-5.

Said Kern: "Just because I am selling the team doesn't have a damn thing to do with what I want to do this year."

David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.