But lots of houses aren't moving at all: The number of properties sold this spring dropped 27% compared with last spring. Two priced at $25 million recently went for around $17 million. Homeowners are pretending not to notice, and real estate agents say asking prices keep ris-ing. "They're still puffing up the numbers," says Judy Desiderio, of Cook Pony Farm Real Estate.
Then there's the high end. In a market where no house has ever fetched more than $32 million--when Billy Joel sold to Jerry Seinfeld last year--there are now two houses listed at $50 million. One, the Andy Warhol estate in Montauk, is miles from the Hamptons epicenter. The other, owned by a copper trader, is on the same waterfront as Martha Stewart, Steven Spielberg, and Seinfeld. It's sat on the market for more than six months. And a 60-room "castle" in Southampton is listed at $45 million, despite chatter among Realtors calling it a "bad dream turned into a house."
Agents blame big egos and low inventory. But mostly they blame Seinfeld and his $32 million. "Everyone went, `Well, my house is much nicer, I can get $42 million,"' says Diane Saatchi of Dayton-Halstead Real Estate. Not that there's anything wrong with that. The martians are coming! The Martians are coming! Butt-Ugly ones, that is. And they're being eyed as the biggest kiddie merchandise and programming craze since Ninja Turtles. BusinessWeek has learned that in an all-but-finalized deal, Nickelodeon will begin airing the cartoon animation series early next year. British kids were so crazy about Martians following a 13-episode run in February that the show is now rerun almost daily. Universal is also discussing a movie and video games with the British owner, Just Group. And more than 20 licensing deals have been inked with such giants as Hasbro, Milton Bradley, and publisher Scholastic.
So what's the big deal? Butt-Ugly Martians, set in 2053, revolves around the wacky, irreverent adventures of three teenage aliens who invade Earth and do things like disguise their identities as the faux boy band, "Boyz to Martians." Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld recently noted the Martians' potential to reach Ninja Turtles status. "It's fun," he said. "And it's got the best name of any program that I have ever seen."
With those other kid-craze imports--Pok?mon and Teletubbies--now pass?, the time may just be right for the next invasion. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul with a fortune estimated at $14 billion, hit the campaign trail last year with six criminal proceedings pending against him for tax evasion, bribery, and false accounting. Now, following his election victory in May, Berlusconi may be about to put his legal problems behind him: On Aug. 3, his center-right coalition rushed to pass a draft law that reduces jail terms and fines for false accounting, and trims the statute of limitations for that crime. If the Senate approves it as expected, Berlusconi's false accounting cases will be zapped, legal experts say.
Berlusconi's timing couldn't be better. With Italians in mass August exodus to the seaside, complaints by opposition leaders and magistrates that the law would make Italy a European haven for white-collar crime have failed to provoke outrage. Says James Walston, a political scientist at the American University of Rome: "It leaves Italy looking very sleazy." And with Berlusconi already in the hot seat over police violence at the G-8 summit, Italy can ill afford more tarnish. Remember when Japanese companies were buying up U.S. golf courses back in the 1980s? Well, turnabout is fair play. Following a 10-year economic slowdown in Japan, U.S. companies are now buying up golf courses in Japan--as distressed assets.
In the Tokyo area, a golf outing--including greens fees, transportation, food, and drinks--can easily run $400. But tougher times are causing Japanese salarymen to feel the pinch. The number of golfers is down 20% since 1990, and hundreds of courses have been forced into bankruptcy, including 23 in the first half of this year.
Enter the Americans: Goldman Sachs (GS
) is buying a bankrupt owner of 30 courses. Asset manager Lone Star, with Deutsche Bank (DTBKY
), bought five. Babcock & Brown bought one. Analysts say they'll flip the courses after returning them to profitability. Foreigners have more flexibility to lay off workers and streamline costs--something Japanese companies, with their cultural ties and age-old business relationships, find hard to do.
Still, one American jewel--Pebble Beach--remains in Japanese hands. In 1999, Peter Ueberroth and a bunch of wealthy Americans tried to wrest it from its Japanese owners, but the sale never went through.
Corrections and Clarifications
''In the market for a golf course?'' (Up Front, Aug. 20-27) said that the purchase of Pebble Beach Golf Links by a group of American investors had fallen through. In fact, the deal closed in July, 1999.
What's the hottest thing in sports bars across America (apart from beer)? A golf video game called Golden Tee Fore! It's so popular it's been showing up on two of TV's hippest shows--Sex and the City and The Sopranos. Even heartthrob MTV host Carson Daly recently announced on Late Show With David Letterman that he's a fan.
The $3-a-person game simulates real courses, with wind factors and club choices. Players control shots by rolling a trackball to swing the club of a digital golfer. Then the games dial into
Incredible Technologies' headquarters to compare scores from across the country. The top 4,000 scorers every month get prizes of $25 to $4,000. Plays are up 40% over last year. "They're constantly updating it, which is key to its appeal," says Bonnie Theard of industry magazine Play Meter.
Players say it's easy to master. "It makes you feel like a pro," says consultant Matthew Kates, 29, playing at Spike's Rat Bar in Chicago. And, important in this economic climate, it's cheap: 18 real holes average $50. Many of the country's 18-hole golf courses may be seeing red (BW--July 16), but that's hardly the case for miniature golf. Simply put, mini-golf is booming--undergoing a building spree that may well lead it down the same fairway to overexpansion as the 18-holes.
The U.S. already has more than 6,000 minis. Yet new ones are springing up everywhere--in small towns and alongside Atlantic City casinos. Nearly 100 have been built just this year, up from 70 in all of 2000, according to Steven Hix of the Miniature Golf Assn. U.S. For now, though, revenues are up 15%, he says.
Credit a lack of age or gender bias and a desire for a cheap day out, says Bob Detwiler, president of the U.S. ProMiniGolf Assn. For a family of four, mini-golf costs about $25, vs. $38 to see a movie. "With the economy in a downturn," he says, "people are spending more money on modest activities instead of taking elaborate vacations." Mini-golf enthusiasts around the country have started Web sites with customer reviews. Here are some standout recommendations:GOLDEN TEE GOLFLAND
Castro Valley, Calif.
Cost per game: $7.50
Multiple waterfalls, video arcade, and party areaHILLBILLY GOLF
Cost per game: $6
Course is built into a mountainside with a steep inclineMAPLE BREEZE PARK
Cost per game: $5
New England barn, lighthouse, and wishing wellTUALATIN ISLAND GREENS
Tualatin Island, Ore.
Cost per game: $6
Holes styled after famous links (Pebble Beach)
Data: Castle & Windmill, Mini-Golf Review Web sites