Smizik: Burkle takes role in power play

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In a listing of the most reviled sports figures in town, G. Ogden Nutting, the extremely low-profile majority owner of the Pirates, would figure to be at or near the top. Nutting, and his son, Bob, allow CEO Kevin McClatchy to be the public face of the Pirates and thus the man most responsible for 14 consecutive losing seasons.

But the Nuttings are the ones who make the major financial decisions. What's more, they are believed to be adding to their millions by siphoning off profits instead of plunging money back into the franchise with higher payroll and a more productive minor-league system.

In terms of sports ownership, it's a pretty awful resume. But it terms of failing to spend money to help a beleaguered franchise, the Nuttings don't come close to Ron Burkle, a major investor in the Penguins and the real mystery man of Pittsburgh sports ownership.

In terms of public profile and using his wealth to improve the team, compared to Burkle, G. Ogden Nutting is Mark Cuban.

Pittsburgh sports fans have been pleading for a deep-pocketed owner, someone like Cuban, to buy the Pirates or Penguins and spend the necessary money to make the teams successful. While all this pleading has been going on, very quietly the Penguins have had an owner whose pockets are so deep $20 million is small change.

Burkle proves that in terms of ownership, it's not how much money you have it's how much you're willing to spend. And Burkle is willing to spend nothing.

Not that he doesn't have plenty to spend. In a list of the 400 richest Americans compiled by Forbes Magazine, Burkle ranks 117th. If that doesn't impress you, consider this: Cuban, the Mt. Lebanon native who owns the Dallas Mavericks and who is often mentioned as a possible owner of the Penguins or Pirates, is no better than 133rd.

The Nuttings are not on the list.

Burkle is not just rich, he's powerful. His net worth is estimated at $2.5 billion, and he's a major fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. In that role, he has become a friend of former President Bill Clinton and a man of considerable influence. He's a wheeler-dealer in the financial world, who thinks nothing of spending more than $100 million on a purchase.

Surprisingly, Burkle was front and center last week when the Penguins were attempting to broker a deal for a new home. It was surprising because it was one of the rare times Burkle has allowed himself to become one of the faces of ownership.

Maybe it's not fair to expect much from Burkle, who put about $20 million into the purchase of the team in 1999. He did it more as a favor to Lemieux than to get involved in hockey. Still, he is believed to have put up the most cash of any member of the ownership group and is believed to be second in equity in the team to Lemieux. Which means he figures to make a nice profit, although peanuts to him, when the team is sold.

But that basically was the original role of the Nuttings with the Pirates. They joined the ownership group to provide additional capital for McClatchy, who does not have great personal wealth. When G. Ogden Nutting saw how poorly the Pirates were being run from a business standpoint, he installed Bob Nutting in the Pirates' offices as the major decision-maker in the ownership group.

So where was Burkle when the Penguins were finishing last for the four consecutive seasons before this one? Not even the Pirates have such a depressing short-term record.

Where was Burkle when the Penguins' payroll was among the lowest in the National Hockey League and, supposedly, there was no money to sign high-priced stars?

Where was Burkle when Lemieux gave free rein to former general manager Craig Patrick, which resulted in a multitude of awful deals that had as much to do with crippling the franchise as a lack of capital?

If is fair to rain down a torrent of abuse on the Nuttings, who are paupers compared to Burkle, it's also fair for Burkle to get the same treatment.

There are two theories as to why Burkle surfaced as a prominent member of ownership last week.

If the team is moved, he will serve as the bad guy in the scenario, taking some of the heat off Lemieux. Burkle would be portrayed as the financial heavyweight who demanded the most bang for his buck, no matter what Lemieux said in favor of Pittsburgh.

He was asked to surface by Gov. Ed Rendell, who is brokering the arena plan that will keep the Penguins in town. Rendell is also a prominent Democrat and also a friend of Clinton. He might have asked for Burkle's help in keeping the team in Pittsburgh.

We can only hope the latter is true, which means for once, Burkle's billions were an asset to the Penguins.


Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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