Mario Is Still Super In Pittsburgh

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 21, 2007
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I didn’t want to do it. To wallow yet once again into the mire that is Pete Rose. September 2006 is just too close. The wounds have yet to heal. Thanks be to Mario Lemieux and the city of Pittsburgh.

That sound you heard last week as if a thousand buses had just released their brake pressure was the collective breath of millions of hockey fans in the land of Les Binkley after hearing that their team will not be leaving for greener ice. Yes, a sad pun, I realize.

While the Penguins leaving Pittsburgh may not have been as heartbreaking as when the North Stars traded the nightly sellouts in Minneapolis for the hockey hot bed of Dallas, it would have been a major stick in the eye to the longtime faithful to see the franchise’s savior and greatest player to facilitate the team’s move to Kansas City, or even worse, to Las Vegas.

The threat was real. Officials in K.C. offered the Pens free rent and half of all revenue to play in the new $262 million Sprint Center. It wasn’t the only offer to cross Mario’s desk.

In 2005 Lemieux nearly sold the team to a venture capitalist buddy, William “Boots” Del Biaggio III, before the deal fell through. Another stab at recouping his investment came in January as Lemieux had a deal in place to sell the team for $175 million to a Canadian businessman. He pulled the deal after an apparent ruling by the NHL that would prevent the team from moving.

Even though the league nixed the idea of the team leaving town, the offer provided the needed push for the the city and state to finally come to agreement. No surprise they settled for basically what Lemieux and his partner Ron Burkle had wanted. The Penguins will get $10.5 million in compensation for delays while the team ponies up $4.2 million a season for the 30-year lease. They will split any cost overruns between the projected $290 million and a top price of $310 million. The team will pay for anything above that top figure and will also kick in $500,000 a year for the building of a parking garage. Whether or not the arena will last 30 years or if the team will want yet newer digs before then remains to be seen.

Getting out of the 46-year-old Mellon Arena, which by all reports is the biggest dump in hockey, was the issue. Whether it actually had a negative impact on players and fans is, in the modern era of sports, irrelevant. All teams, no matter the league, believe that sparkling new arenas with wrap around score boards, fireworks bunkers and theatrics-style sound systems able to crank Korn and Akon at the highest DB, are all that’s needed to ensure financial success. What’s obvious is that the city would have lost a valuable asset at a time when the team is at its most valuable. It would be quite embarrassing for Pittsburgh to lose a team that as of this writing are second in the Atlantic Division and whose 88 points are good for third in the Eastern Conference. That success along with young stars like Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and maybe the game’s best player, Sidney Crosby, means the deal had to get done.

Expansion led to an explosion in the value of contracts that could not be recouped from ticket sales and TV ratings that failed to keep pace with increased expenses. And it wasn’t just Buffalo,Ottawa and Pittsburgh that were struggling. The entire league was in trouble.

The NHL gained much-needed stability from its new bargaining agreement with the players union that capped salaries and put the league on a strict financial diet. Unfortunately, that didn’t solve all the problems as the lost season of 2004 cost the league its ESPN contract and forced it to high-numbered cable channels.

What makes this deal fairly unique is that both sides got what they wanted and for a rare occurrence, the city’s tax payers didn’t have to get fore checked into the glass to keep their team in town. Yes, I know, yet another cheap pun.

To make up for the rest of the financing, the state will kick in $15 million annually from proceeds from casino parlors being built in Pittsburgh by Detroit casino owner Dan Barden and from other casino proceeds. No taxes from the city or county will be used.

A win-win for both sides? Only time will tell, but one thing is for certain: The deal enabled Lemieux to remain super in Pittsburgh instead of becoming hockey’s biggest villain since Norm Green.

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