The New York Mets' owners, fighting to save their hold on the team, face a court date next month that will be pivotal in calculating how much they may owe Bernard Madoff's swindled investors.

The federal Court of Appeals in Manhattan on March 3 will hear arguments from the Wilpons and Madoff trustee Irving Picard on the arcane securities law issue of "net equity."

It comes down to an argument over how the money score is kept.

Picard is relying on the "cash-in, cash-out" method and contends the Wilpons and their other Sterling Equities partners were "net winners," taking out $300 million more than they invested with Madoff and that they have to pay it back.

But the Wilpons insist Madoff's last statement to them - fictitious or not - should be used to determine whether they owe anything. The Wilpons' attorney said they were tricked into thinking they had more than $500 million in their accounts when Madoff went bust and are really "net losers" eligible for compensation from the $10 billion Picard has collected in assets.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Burton Lifland has already sided with Picard.

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If the Wilpons win the appeal, it would strengthen their hand in any future negotiations to settle Picard's lawsuit, which seeks the $300 million and other payments, including damages, that could push the total amount to $1 billion.

"It's a key issue, critical issue," said Jerome Reisman, a Garden City attorney representing a number of Madoff victims.

But if the Manhattan federal court of appeals rules against them, the Wilpons will be further behind the eight ball. The bigger their exposure, the harder it will be for the owners to raise enough cash with their current plan to sell a minority stake in the Mets, according to sports business experts.

Long a subject for bankruptcy lawyers, net equity became important when Madoff lied when he told customers they had accounts totaling $64.5 billion. In fact, there was no money because Madoff - in classic Ponzi scheme fashion - paid back his earlier investors with money taken from later ones.

If the appeals court accepts Picard's argument, so-called net loser investors stand to get between 50 cents to 70 cents back on the dollar, while the Wilpons would have to wait and see if they are entitled to any more assets recovered.

But if the court agrees with the Wilpons, they and others the trustee calls net winners could become net losers, and be eligible to get back about 20 cents on the dollar.

"If Sterling can claim a larger [loss] number, they have one hell of a claim," said Reisman.