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South Korean retailer eyes LA Dodgers dream

By Miyoung Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) - Park Sung-su is a devoted follower of baseball and collects Major League souvenirs.

Now, the 58-year-old founder and top shareholder of privately-owned South Korean retailer E-Land Group may be closer to getting his hands on the real thing, confirming on Tuesday he is part of a consortium shortlisted to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers out of bankruptcy.

The Dodgers were put up for sale after owner and Los Angeles businessman Frank McCourt was forced to place the team in bankruptcy protection last June, and could fetch a price of more than $1.5 billion, a record for a Major League outfit. McCourt bought the team from Rupert Murdoch's News Corp in 2004 for $430 million, primarily financed with debt.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said earlier this month he wanted the Dodgers sale - which is being conducted by Blackstone Group - to be wrapped up by April 30.

E-Land said it was taking a stake in a bidding consortium For the Dodgers, with local media saying its around 15 percent share was worth 150-200 billion won ($133-$177 million).

But the company declined to comment on local media reports it joined forces with former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley to bid for one of baseball's most storied franchises.

Other shortlisted bidders are said to include billionaire hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, ex-Yankees and Dodgers manager Joe Torre and basketball great Magic Johnson.

BRIDGEHEAD TO U.S. MARKET

Baseball is one of the most popular sports in South Korea, and Los Angeles is home to a large Korean population, with the Wilshire neighborhood dubbed 'Koreatown'.

In 1994, with O'Malley in charge, the Dodgers signed pitcher Park Chan-ho, making him the first South Korean to reach the Major League. A year later, the Dodgers signed Hideo Nomo, only the second Japanese player to reach the Majors. Nomo's success is credited with having paved the way for more Japanese players to join the league.

As the Brooklyn Dodgers - the club was previously based in New York - it earlier made history by signing the first black player to the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson.

While E-Land's motivation for a stake in the Dodgers remains unclear, such a move would give it greater reach into the Los Angeles market.

Park, who studied architecture at the prestigious Seoul National University, opened his first E-Land clothing store in Seoul in 1980 and the company has grown quickly, mainly through debt-fuelled acquisitions.

A company spokesman said management principles are centered on Christian beliefs and E-Land donates a tenth of its profits to charitable causes. Operating profit in 2010 was 462 billion won ($411.3 million) on sales of 4.6 trillion won.

The company has added outlets, leisure holdings and upmarket brands such as Mandarina Duck. It has set out to capture part of the U.S. teen apparel market with its Who.A.U stores. It is also licensed to sell the New Balance brand of sports shoes in South Korea.

In 2008, it was forced to sell the Carrefour stores in South Korea that it bought for $1.85 billion two years earlier, and recent failed takeover attempts include a local savings bank and a construction company.

One private equity investor familiar with E-Land, but who did not want to be named as he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the bid for the Dodgers as part of a consortium makes sense as this would provide a bridgehead for its brand in the United States.

There is a precedent for Asian ownership in Major League Baseball, with former Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi becoming majority owner of the Seattle Mariners in 1992.

($1 = 1127.2500 Korean won)

(Additional reporting by Ju-min Park and Iktae Park in SEOUL and Stephen Aldred in HONG KONG; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Ian Geoghegan)

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