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Bucs' Nutting reiterates ownership stance

Rob Biertempfel
| Sunday, Jan. 31, 2010

As principal owner Bob Nutting tightened his grip on the Pirates the past three years, he rejected at least two opportunities to sell the franchise.

Last September, Penguins owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux met with Nutting and tried to convince him to sell. Previously, Pittsburgh attorney Chuck Greenberg, who owns the Pirates' Single-A affiliate in State College, made a similar inquiry.

Both offers were rebuffed — proof, Nutting said Saturday, of his commitment to long-term ownership.

"I cannot reiterate strongly enough that the Pittsburgh Pirates are not for sale, nor have they ever been for sale since I assumed control of the ballclub," Nutting wrote in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review.

Once a minority partner in Kevin McClatchy's ownership group, Nutting became principal owner before the 2007 season. After buying out other members, Nutting controls about 75 percent of the club.

The Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992. After Nutting took control, the front office was revamped and popular veteran players were traded for younger talent.

"We've gone through too much to get the team into position where it can be a championship-caliber team again for Bob to bail before the job's done," team president Frank Coonelly said.

Nutting did not specifically rule out adding new investors to his group.

"The ownership group has certainly changed over time, and I am sure that it will continue to evolve," Nutting wrote. "But what is most important to understand is that I am committed to the long-term success of this organization and seeing our plan through."

Nutting also said the status of baseball's Collective Bargaining Agreement, which expires after the 2011 season, will not affect his ownership status.

"I have a great deal of faith that commissioner (Bud) Selig and his office will continue to be very effective protecting the long-term interests of the game, both in the upcoming CBA and in the future," Nutting wrote. "I can't foresee any change in the upcoming agreement that would change my commitment to the Pirates."

Penguins sources say Burkle went into his meeting with Nutting ready to discuss the parameters of a sale price. However, Nutting insisted no former offer was ever made by Burkle or Lemieux.

Last year, Forbes magazine estimated the value of the Pirates to be $288 million. By comparison, the Texas Rangers, whose sale to Greenberg's group should be completed this spring, are expected to fetch around $500 million.

Yesterday, Lemieux attended a Penguins workout at Southpointe but declined to speak with reporters. Penguins players who had heard about the possibility of an ownership merger with the Pirates seemed enthusiastic.

"I think it would be great," center Sidney Crosby said. "I could take batting practice."

According to sources close to Burkle, he and Lemieux remain interested in buying the Pirates, despite Nutting's initial veto.

Neither Burkle nor Lemieux has explained the specific reasons for their interest in the Pirates. But the potential business benefits for the teams, which already share FSN Pittsburgh as their television rights-holder, could be immense.

"It would give them a presence for the whole year," said John Clark, director of the sport management program at Robert Morris University. "From a purely business point of view, it is intriguing and it does make sense."

A Pirates-Penguins venture wouldn't unseat the Steelers' from the top market position locally, Clark said. But it would allow ownership to cross-promote, more easily acquire and share corporate sponsors, give it increased leverage with concert promoters and create new merchandising options.

According to Clark, such a deal also would broaden the market demographics for a Pirates-Penguins entity. The Penguins' brand is very strong with young adults, especially college-age sports consumers. The Pirates' demographic tends to be more popular with older, more traditional fans.

"This would allow (ownership) to have a better toehold on the whole market," Clark said.

Dual-sport ownership already exists in several other markets. In Detroit, pizza czar Mike Illitch owns the MLB Tigers and NHL Red Wings. In Toronto, Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment runs the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors. In Chicago, Jerry Reinsdorf, a former real estate mogul, owns the MLB White Sox and NBA Bulls. In New York, James Dolan, who runs Cablevision, owns the NHL Rangers and NBA Knicks.

Clark noted that a Pirates-Penguins ownership would be in a stronger position than owners in some of those larger markets because Pittsburgh fans have fewer entertainment options.

"What's really interesting about this market is, everyone is a fan of every sports team here," Clark said. "In New York, you may root for either the Rangers or the Islanders or the Devils. You may root for the Mets or the Yankees."

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