Last month Ottawa Senators owner Rod Bryden called a press conference in the bowels of the Corel Centre. Talking animatedly and angrily, he gave his reaction to the Canadian government's decision not to subsidize the country's six NHL teams. "Unless you can find some way to pay the bills without the money," he said, "the team either has to fold or to go." For Randy Vataha, a former NFL player who stood inconspicuously in the back of the room, this was a call to action.
President of Game Plan LLC, Vataha, 51, is the yenta of the sports world, a well-connected matchmaker who facilitates deals between jaded or cash-strapped team owners and potential buyers. Game Plan, the investment firm that he co-founded with sports lawyer Robert Caporale in 1995, has assembled a client list that includes the Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Oakland A's and Dallas Stars as well as prospective buyers such as Ross Perot Jr. "Franchise values might be going through the roof, but for a variety of reasons-estate taxes, unwillingness to carry a debt, trouble in their other businesses—there are always owners looking to sell," says Vataha. "Sports franchises are exciting and emotional, so there are always rich people looking to buy."
Game Plan assumes no equity or warrants in the business as part of its fee structure—even partial ownership in a team would give rise to a conflict of interest. Rather, Game Plan charges prospective buyers a retaining fee for its services, and an additional preset fee if a deal is consummated. When retained by a seller, Vataha and Caporale take a commission, usually 2%-5%, on the sale. (Even a backwater team like the Senators was recently valued at nearly $100 million. You do the math.)
For Vataha, his role as middleman is the latest hat he has worn in the sports world over the past three decades. Though he was scrawny enough in college—5' 9", 165 pounds—to hold a summer job as one of the Seven Dwarfs at Disneyland, Vataha became Jim Plunkett's favorite target as a wide receiver at Stanford. He had a seven-year NFL career, mostly with the New England Patriots, but may have been best known for leading the 1975 NFL work stoppage as a player representative with the players' association. Later, he was a co-owner, and team president, of the Boston Breakers USFL team. After selling the team in '84, he joined Bob Woolf Associates as a sports agent, representing Doug Flutie and Joe Montana, among others. "In sports," says Vataha, "I've seen both sides of the coin and then some."
Belying his deal-making savvy, Vataha is reflexively self-deprecating. He is quick to point out that although Game Plan is one-third owned by Fleet Bank, it's merely a niche business. Perhaps so, but he and Caporale are clearly on to something. "I don't think regular investment bankers know much, if anything, about professional sports," says Howard Baldwin, who retained Game Plan when he sold a share of the Penguins to Roger Marino in 1996. "It takes an expertise to understand values and opportunities, and Game Plan's got it."