MLS still reaching out to Wilpons

Mets owner Fred Wilpon talks to reporters before

Mets owner Fred Wilpon talks to reporters before today's spring training workout at Digital Domain stadium in Port St. Lucie, Florida. (Feb. 17, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

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With an eye on adding another team to the New York City area, Major League Soccer is publicly standing by the Wilpons as they deal with the specter of a potential $1-billion lawsuit.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said Friday that the league still is interested in welcoming the Wilpons as owners of a team despite their current financial issues.

"They've shown great interest in continuing some level of discussions with us, and we'll continue to do that," Garber said. "They have some short-term challenges, and hopefully they'll get through them."

The Wilpons and their Sterling Equities partners are facing a lawsuit from the special trustee in the Bernard Madoff fraud case that seeks $300 million in "fictitious profits" and hundreds of millions more because they allegedly either "knew or should have known" what Madoff was doing.

In the wake of that suit, the Wilpons announced they are willing to sell a 25-percent share of the Mets. But the Mets' owners were dealing with financial problems even before the lawsuit was filed in December.

They recently acknowledged receiving a loan from Major League Baseball in November, and a person familiar with the situation has told Newsday the loan was worth $25 million.

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Attendance dropped significantly last season at Citi Field in its second year of existence, and this season could be equally challenging at the box office, given that the Mets are not expected to field a contending team. That doesn't bode well for a team that is looking to re-establish its financial footing.

In addition to a player payroll of about $140 million this season, the Mets are on the hook for annual payments to Citi Field bondholders for about $44 million, which essentially acts as their rent on their lease to use the ballpark, which is on city-owned land.

Their payments are broken down to twice a year, with their next payment of about $22 million due in June, according to a spokesman for the New York City Economic Development Corp., which worked with the Mets on the Citi Field project.

Even with the Wilpons' current financial state, Major League Soccer isn't exactly in a position to be publicly ruling out potential owners. Garber's goal is to create the league's 20th franchise and have it based in New York City, and the vacant Citi Field parking lot is an attractive option in terms of open space and accessibility.

"We've been in discussions on and off for the better part of a couple of years, including over the past couple of months," Garber said of the Wilpons. "The discussions haven't been in great detail, but I continue to reach out to them to wish them well and hope they can get through their challenges and at some point continue their discussions with us about Major League Soccer."

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