After years of being ignored by potential suitors, third-placed U.S. carrier Sprint now finds itself being courted by not one but two potential buyers.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Dish Network has formally placed its cards on the table in a high-stakes bid for Sprint, a move that could fend off a planned acquisition by Japanese giant Softbank.

Sprint confirmed receipt of the "unsolicited proposal" from Dish valued at $25.5 billion, an amount said to offer the carrier's stockholders a 13 percent premium over Softbank's offer of $20.1 billion for 70 percent of the carrier.

"Sprint is in play," Dish Chairman Charles Ergen said Monday, three months after the satellite provider asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate the Sprint-Softbank merger. "We think we've made an offer that's much more compelling than the Softbank transaction."

Mobile fast track

The Sprint bid comes on the heels of an unconfirmed report from Bloomberg on Friday that Ergen "informally approached" T-Mobile parent company Deutsche Telekom, which is wrapped up with its own merger of MetroPCS.

Ergen's offer includes a cash payment of $4.76 per share of Sprint stock and another $2.24 per share from Dish for a complete buyout, which the carrier's Board of Directors will now be required to evaluate.

Dish has made no qualms about its ambition to get into the mobile business, recently grabbing wireless spectrum and federal regulatory approval necessary to do so after flirting with the idea of a Clearwire buyout in January - oddly enough, a company in which Sprint owns a 50.8 percent stake.

The U.S. satellite provider views Sprint as a shortcut to adding coast-to-coast high-speed internet and voice service to its existing video offerings, which could give its rural customers a wireless option for broadband.

Which will Sprint choose? We may not know for sometime, but like "The Bachelor," the story of this merger triangle should be an interesting one to witness.