Lemieux, Penguins co-owner offer to buy Pirates

Pirates downplay recent meeting; Nutting repeats: 'Team not for sale'

Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, co-owners of the Penguins, recently made an unsolicited offer to buy the Pirates in a face-to-face meeting with that team's owner, Bob Nutting, but the offer did not receive a response.

Sources on the Penguins' side last night described the offer made by Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Burkle as "very serious," without divulging a dollar figure, and said they remain interested in following up.

The Pirates characterized the matter far differently.

Mr. Nutting, the only person in the meeting to comment on it, was adamant that no serious discussion about a sale had taken place. And he firmly reiterated that the Pirates are not for sale.

"Honestly, I'm not sure there's a situation to describe," Mr. Nutting said last night when asked about the meeting. "I like Ron. He's an extremely competent businessman and deal-maker, and we've talked about a wide range of topics. But I think the simplest way to say this is that there never has been a substantive or formal offer for the team. The team is not for sale."

Mr. Nutting was asked if the Pirates ever have been for sale, since he took control of ownership in January 2007.

"The team has not been for sale and is not for sale," he replied. "I'm excited about where we are. We've made some tough decisions, made a lot of progress and, frankly, we're just getting started with where we're headed. A sale is simply not an option that's on our table."

Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Burkle could not be reached.

The Penguins, through a spokesman, declined comment.

"We don't discuss private business matters," vice president of communications Tom McMillan said.

Because the teams' stances on the meeting vary -- greatly in some aspects -- this is a story with two distinct sides.

According to sources on the Penguins side, the meeting happened four months ago at the Penguins' front-office headquarters in Chatham Center, Uptown. Mr. Lemieux, Mr. Burkle and Mr. Nutting were present, and the intent of the meeting was for the Penguins owners to offer to buy the Pirates. Mr. Burkle made a financial offer.

According to the Pirates, the purpose of the meeting was about another matter, and no serious discussion about an offer or sale took place.

The reasons Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Burkle would want to buy the Pirates will not be clear until they speak to that, though that is not expected soon, if at all.

One possibility, according to a source, is that a joint ownership of the Penguins and Pirates could create a business "synergy" that would allow one to pick up the other in tough times, and vice versa. It would help, the source added, that the NHL and MLB seasons have little overlap and that the teams currently have the same local television rights-holder in FSN Pittsburgh.

Major professional sports leagues once frowned on having their franchise owners venture into other leagues, but it has become more common in the past two decades. In this case, between the National Hockey League and Major League Baseball, there would be no issue other than that all potential new owners must be approved in a vote by fellow owners.

The city's hockey and baseball teams have been at polar opposites in recent years.

The Penguins are fresh off a Stanley Cup championship, have two of their sport's brightest stars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, have sold out Mellon Arena for 144 consecutive games and are about to move into the new Consol Energy Center.

The Pirates are fresh off a 17th consecutive losing season, had an average attendance last year of a little more than half the capacity of PNC Park, and will enter 2010 with a promising core of young players but a $35.6 million payroll that could be the lowest in the majors.

Forbes magazine estimated the Pirates' value last year at $288 million, with only the Florida Marlins below them. The Pirates have acknowledged being profitable the past six years, and have one of the most lauded stadiums in sports in 9-year-old PNC Park.

Mr. Lemieux, among the most accomplished and beloved athletes in the city's history, has had one previous venture into baseball: That came as minority owner of the Pirates' Class AA affiliate in Altoona when Pittsburgh attorney and friend Chuck Greenberg was the owner there earlier in the decade.

Mr. Burkle, the California grocery magnate whose net worth was estimated by Forbes magazine at $3.5 billion in 2008, broke into sports by joining Mr. Lemieux as co-owner of the Penguins with a $20 million investment in 1999. He also had expressed interest in baseball's Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs when those franchises were for sale in recent years.

Mr. Greenberg and a group of investors last week reached agreement to buy baseball's Texas Rangers at a price of more than $500 million.

Mr. Greenberg previously had expressed a strong desire to buy the Pirates, his favorite team beginning with childhood, but his interest -- which was not believed to have reached the offer phase -- was rejected because, as he was told, the Pirates were not for sale. Mr. Greenberg was not involved in the offer made by Mr. Lemieux and Mr. Burkle.

Mr. Nutting has bought out several minority owners in recent years and now has a dominant stake, in the range of three-quarters.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com First Published January 30, 2010 6:00 AM


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