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Ace Reliever Or Just A Buccaneer?


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ACE RELIEVER OR JUST A BUCCANEER?

Take a look at the calendar of Howard Baldwin, Hollywood movie-maker and National Hockey League owner. Tuesday: Hop a jet from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh to watch his Penguins face off against the Washington Capitals. Wednesday: Meet with Pittsburgh's new mayor, Tom Murphy, and grab a red-eye to Moscow to nail down promotions for his local hockey heroes, the Russian Penguins. By Monday, it's back to Tinseltown to try to kick together an action-movie deal with martial-arts star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Had enough? Maybe you have, but the 51-year-old Baldwin hasn't. Apparently, he still has time enough on his hands to try to buy the down-at-the-cleats Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Steel City Nine have lost some $40 million over the past five years, say the team's owners, a homegrown consortium that includes Westinghouse, USX, Carnegie Mellon University, and Mellon and PNC banks. They're actively seeking a buyer, but they've spurned Howard Baldwin for now. For one thing, his February offer of $83 million was ridiculously low: The owners won't sell for less than $100 million. Worse, Baldwin's track record in the NHL, where he bought and sold three teams before acquiring the Penguins, suggests he'd sell the Bucs out of town if it came to that. That's anathema to the boys from Pittsburgh Inc. "The whole mission of this ownership is to keep the team in Pittsburgh," says Pirates President Mark Sauer.

Baldwin says he can turn the Bucs around financially. The trick, he says, is synergy: He'd market the Pirates and the Penguins together, with joint merchandising and licensing deals, year-round radio and television packages for advertisers, and combo season-ticket offers. And he may mix the Russian Penguins into this menage sport. "If you can make sports a year-round business, not just season-to-season, then I think you have a better chance of doing well," he says.

So Baldwin's trying to get out in front with the latest sports-marketing trend for small-market franchises with money troubles: knitting together two pro teams. It's being tried in Detroit, where pizza czar Michael Ilitch is melding baseball's Tigers and the NHL'S Red Wings. In Florida, Wayne Huizenga is rolling with the Marlins on the diamond and the Panthers on the ice. But can Baldwin make it work in Pittsburgh? He has already proved himself on the rink: Since he bought the Penguins in 1991, revenues have increased 39%, to $32 million in 1993--and the team has brought the Stanley Cup home twice in a row.

The Bucs pay big bucks for playing in a small city. Local TV revenue comes to just $7 million, compared with as much as $50 million in New York or Los Angeles. The Pirates and their small-market brethren in baseball pushed successfully last year for a revenue-sharing program. But that's contingent upon the players' approval of a salary cap, which they'll probably fight with a leaguewide strike. The Bucs' front office says no one can make money with baseball in Pittsburgh without first making big changes. The owners complain that 20% of Pirates revenue goes to the city for taxes and rent on Three Rivers Stadium. Meanwhile, marquee players such as Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Doug Drabek sail off to greener fields of dreams.

DOODADS AND TWOFERS. Enter Baldwin with his synergistic playbook. Ilitch and Huizenga have come up with schemes to cut costs and hike revenues in their two-team satrapies. Holders of Florida Panthers season seats get a 10% discount on Marlin season tickets. Baldwin says there's room for similar double plays in Pittsburgh. He'd offer a 12-month payment plan for season tickets to both sports. Retailers would get package deals on licensed doodads and garb, and advertisers could sign up for 12-month, twofer deals on radio and TV.

Baldwin has had better success in sports than he has in Hollywood. He began his movie-producer career in 1986 as a "hobby" and helped grind out such commercial duds as Spellbinder and Popcorn. In 1991, Baldwin teamed up with Morris Belzberg, former chief executive of Budget Rent-A-Car Corp., and bought the Penguins for $65 million. In his pursuit of the Pirates, Baldwin has taken a partner, William R. Craig, president of KBL Sports Network, a Pittsburgh cable-TV web owned by Liberty Media Corp. in Englewood, Colo.

Right now, the Pirates maintain--officially--that Baldwin is out of the game for good. But while he has formally withdrawn his bid, Baldwin says he's still in the hunt. Meanwhile, the Pirates are entertaining offers from other wannabe buyers. This being baseball, it ain't over till it's over.Keith L. Alexander in Pittsburgh


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