Fox in the garden?

Sport net's interest sparked by Hilton's ITT bid

NEW YORK — News Corp.’s Fox has emerged as a potential buyer of ITT Corp.’s interest in Madison Square Garden, which may be in play if ITT is acquired by Hilton Hotels Corp.

People close to Fox said News would definitely be interested, given Fox’s strategy of building up a network of re-gional sports networks in a joint venture with Liberty Media. New York is a gaping hole in that strategy, but ac-quisition of ITT’s 50% stake in Madison Square Garden, with its ownership of the MSG sports cable network, would fill the hole.

Of course, Hilton hasn’t yet acquired ITT and ITT stock rose to $56.625 Tuesday, above Hilton’s offer price of $55 a share, reinforcing analysts’ views that Hilton will have to raise the price to have any chance of winning.

Hilton CEO Stephen Bollenbach indicated Tuesday he was willing to consider a higher price if ITT management would “sit with us and describe the business, and perhaps there is some additional value there.” ITT has so far re-fused to comment, saying its board and management are examining the offer and will respond in about 10 days, although the company is expected to fight the bid.

Bollenbach also made clear his belief that ITT should not be in the entertainment business, making a sale of ITT’s interests in Madison Square Garden and Gotham TV station WBIS+ all but certain if Hilton wins control.

In a conference call with reporters, Bollenbach said, “To me it’s pretty clear” that the entertainment businesses were “non-core.” “I think you have to stretch your mind to see how they’re related to the hotel and gaming busi-ness,” he said, adding that the entertainment assets hindered the core business.

“Ownership of the basketball team (the Knicks) means you can’t take basketball bets in Las Vegas,” he noted.

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