MARK CUBAN: PITTSBURGH’S DREAM OWNER

Mark Cuban has been dubbed “the fans’ dream (come true).” And, it’s easy to see why.

Cuban, the self-made billionaire and current owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA franchise, is the only professional sports owner who truly is a fan – or should we say fanatical? – of his respective team and sport. His style is wide-open, his personality over-the-top, his passion, second to none. His personality has polarized sports fans, business leaders, the media, professional peers, you name it.

With Cuban, it’s his black-or-white, love me, hate me, take-it-or-leave-it attitude that has Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson saying, ” he has his head up his ass,” as reporters scribble praises, calling Cuban a visionary, a rags-to-riches story.

But there is one common denominator that neither fan or foe can deny about Cuban’s character: passion. Perception varies along that line depending on your team colors. As they say, “Hate the game, don’t hate the player!” If you study Cuban, you can disagree with his style but you can’t hate the player for his passion because, like you and I, he is a fan.

Cuban eats, sleeps and breathes Mavericks basketball. He is passionate about his team – and the game. How can you argue a 48-year old man’s passion when he signs his emails “MFFL.”

Translation: “Mavs Fan For Life.”

Cuban was born and raised in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh. He didn’t inherit millions from family, he’s not a rich brat whose Dad bought him an NBA franchise as a toy. It was Cuban’s will and desire that made his dream of owning an NBA franchise come true in February 2000, when he purchased the Mavericks for $285 million from a Texas-based group led by former U.S. presidential candidate H. Ross Perot.

“Cubes,” as he refers to himself, went from selling garbage bags as a teenager to offering disco dancing lessons to raise money for college tuition. Cuban even earned $1,100 from starting and selling a chain letter. After graduating from college in 1982, Cuban moved to Dallas, eventually starting his own business, MicroSolutions, which he sold for $6 million in 1990. In 1998, Cuban and his college buddy Todd Wagner launched Broadcast.com, using the internet to broadcast sporting and other corporate events. Less than two years later, with over 300 employees and revenues in excess of $100 million, Cuban sold the company to Yahoo! for $5.7 billion in stock, paving the way for Cuban to pursue his passion: basketball.

He turned the Mavericks around, almost overnight. The NBA franchise was in the midst of their 10th straight losing season when Cuban took over. Through the 1990’s decade, the Mavericks franchise win-loss record was 234-554 (.297 winning percentage). In the six full seasons of the Cuban era, the Mavs have compiled a record of 340-152 (.691 winning percentage), making the playoffs all six times.

Cuban will board his $41 million private plane in Dallas this weekend and head for Memphis, where his Mavericks will attempt to sweep the Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Some 769 miles away the Pittsburgh Pirates, baseball’s worst team, will host the Philadelphia Phillies just miles from Cuban’s boyhood stomping grounds.

Over the last two week’s Cuban has tantalized Bucs fans with overtures about his interest in buying the team, if owners G. Ogden Nutting and Kevin McClatchy would be interested in selling. Charlie Wilmoth, author of BucsDugout.com, loves the idea.

“I would LOVE it if Cuban bought the Pirates,” Wilmoth wrote in an email. “Since franchise sales need to be approved by the owners, though, I doubt that will happen. He’s too much of a loose cannon.”

The idea also intrigues Bill Pollak, Pirates fan and blogger of the Romo Phone Home team blog. “It would certainly be nice to have an owner who is rich enough to be willing to lose money for a few years in order to build a fan base for the long term,” wrote Pollak. “But what intrigues me most about Cuban is his potential for transforming the Pirates from charter members of the Flat Earth Society into a team that uses information technology to gain a competitive edge.

“True, several years after Moneyball introduced the average baseball fan to an information revolution that was already well underway in baseball as in many other industries, this is not exactly a secret anymore. But from what can be discerned from their public statements, the Pirates still operate on principles from a different era compared to more enlightened franchises such as Cleveland, Milwaukee, Oakland (of course), and Boston. It would be fun to root for a team whose owner really believes he can compete instead of pleading for corporate welfare and then exploiting it for personal gain when it is provided.”

Wilmoth agrees. Cuban’s forward thinking would benefit the franchise. “While I’m no expert on the NBA, it’s my understanding that Cuban’s Mavericks are usually successful because they innovate by, for example, providing amenities for players that other teams don’t and generally making Dallas as pleasant a place to play as possible,” he explained. “He has also attempted to apply statistical analysis to basketball. Cuban’s desire to stay ahead of the curve might make him an ideal owner for the Pirates, who need to be smart to beat teams who spend more money. Also, Cuban is a fan of the team and has expressed a willingness to sacrifice profit in order to spend more money on payroll.”

Pirate fans are not pleased with current ownership’s direction. Wilmoth believes the Pirates current ownership strategy has nothing to do with winning and losing and everything to do with dollars and cents. “The current ownership is not interested in building a genuinely competitive team,” Wilmoth told TBR. “Every year, they bring in bad but semi-famous veterans to convince casual fans they’re trying and to avoid a disastrous season. Meanwhile, they give away young players like Chris Shelton, Chris Young and Bronson Arroyo for nothing. They don’t want to build a playoff-caliber team. They’re content to win 70 games per year and rake in the money.”

“The McClatchy-Nutting regime uses the Pirates small-market status as an excuse for organizational incompetence,” Pollak wrote. “There are two alternative views about current Pirates ownership: evil or stupid.” He explained his position in detail, writing:

The first view, favored by conspiracy theorists, holds that the owners exploit the naivete and gullibility of both the Pittsburgh populace and Major League Baseball for personal gain. They have devised a successful strategy for enriching themselves as baseball team owners without need for the one commodity that all baseball team owners have heretofore required: victories in baseball games. Instead of concentrating on victories, the owners of the Pirates have succeeded in leveraging the jewel of a baseball park that the taxpayers of Pittsburgh bought for them to create a profitable enterprise, with the help of savvy marketing and public relations.

This more benign view of Pirates ownership hinges on the unlikely possibility that McClatchy actually believes the silly things he says publicly about how the Pirates have “turned the corner,” are making the right moves, and are improving, and that he actually believes that Dave Littlefield is a capable general manager.

I can’t offer a resolution to the evil-or-stupidity question other than to suggest that the Pirates front office is amply supplied with both.

“The biggest problem isn’t the quantity of checks written or the amounts for which they are written; it is the payees to whom they are written,” explained Pollak. “When McClatchy announced that he was challenging Dave Littlefield to increase the payroll in the off season, I shuddered … They spent it by signing Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa, and Sean Casey – three players on the downside of their careers – to contracts that blocked playing time for younger and better players (Craig Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Nate McLouth). They have been making essentially this same move every year for the past five years. Meanwhile, the lower minor leagues, with the exception of a couple of good prospects, are in disarray, and the few prospects remaining in AA and AAA are not the kinds of impact players capable of improving the team to any significant degree. For this ineptitude, the owners rewarded Littlefield with a contract extension right before the start of the season.”

Cuban went on the record again this past week, telling the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and ESPN’s Dan Patrick he could improve the Pirates if he were running the show. “I think I could do a better job [running the Pirates],” Cuban wrote in a email to the Post-Gazette. He later voiced his feelings on ESPN radio, telling Patrick, “I’m a frustrated fan like everyone else and I think I could do a better job.”

Cuban said he has investigated buying the Pirates but has been told the team isn’t for sale. “I think one of the reasons McClatchy won’t sell is, that if you can deal with the abuse that goes with losing, you can make $15 million or $20 million a year,” he said on Patrick’s show, mentioning figures that McClatchy has disputed as the Pirates’ profit. “Would you put up with the abuse for $15 million or $20 million a year? … Running a team to break even vs. running it to make $15 million or $20 million means a lot more money for player development and players.”

That’s music to Pirate fans ears. But for now, that’s all it is. Pittsburgh management insists the team is not for sale and until that day arrives, and Cuban makes a serious bid, the “fans’ dream (come true)” will be nothing more than that – a dream. For now, Wilmoth, Pollak and the Buc faithful will have to live with the nightmare that is playing out at PNC Park.

 

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