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Could Steelers group yield more NFL majority owners?

Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on

Published in Football

PITTSBURGH -- The recent sale of shares in the Steelers does little to change the ownership structure of the franchise. If nothing else, it strengthens what is already a diverse and financially secure ownership group with the addition of two billionaire investors.

But if recent history is any indication, could it lead to another member of the Steelers ownership group eventually owning their own NFL franchise?

Private equity investors Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who already own two other professional sports franchises, are the latest additions -- partners, they call them -- of the Steelers investment group. They purchased 1.5% of the shares from a current investor who was looking to sell a portion of his stock, according to multiple sources. Harris and Blitzer, who own the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and NHL's New Jersey Devils, are considered passive investors, which means they have no say in the operation of the team.

Bloomberg, which first reported the transaction, hinted the shares acquired by Harris and Blitzer were the ones vacated by David Tepper, a former investor, when he purchased the Carolina Panthers. But that is not true, according to sources. What's more, the portion of the shares purchased by Harris and Blitzer was considerably smaller than the shares once owned by Tepper, who divested his 5% interest in December.

So why would two financiers who already are majority owners of two major professional sports teams want to have such a small share of an NFL franchise?

Who knows? Through a spokesman, Harris and Blitzer declined an interview request for the story. But maybe the reason could be rooted in recent history: Both Tepper and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam each used the path of being a Steelers investor to purchase an NFL franchise.

It was the second time in seven months the Steelers have taken on new partners, though this time for a different reason.

In December, Steelers president Art Rooney II strengthened his position as majority owner by purchasing a portion of Tepper's shares. Rooney purchased the shares as part of Pittsburgh Steelers Sports Inc., the company that operates the Steelers franchise for which he serves as president. By purchasing more shares for the franchise, each member of the ownership group increased the financial return on their investment.

The remaining portion of Tepper's stock was purchased by Doug Lebda, a Pittsburgh native who founded Lending Tree and serves as CEO of the Charlotte, N.C.-based financial services firm; and the NC Revocable Trust, a family-based trust in Pittsburgh.

 

Rooney has majority control of the team as the single largest shareholder but also because he is president of Pittsburgh Steelers Sports Inc. and executor of the family trust set up by his late father, Dan.

After that, the largest investors in the team are the Robert Paul family, longtime Pittsburgh steel owners; and hedge-fund manager Rob Citrone of Discovery Capital Management, each of whom own approximately 10%. Former Hollywood producer Thomas Tull, who lives in Pittsburgh, is also a significant shareholder.

The ability of the Steelers to add two more billionaire investors, even at a small share, further strengthens the financial portfolio of a franchise that is valued at $2.8 billion by Forbes and 12 years ago was actively selling shares to help resolve estate planning and NFL ownership issues. It was such that billionaire investor Stan Druckenmiller of Pittsburgh-based Duquesne Capital Management, an avid Steelers fan and season-ticket holder, was approached by the Rooneys and offered to buy majority stake in the team.

The situation is completely different now.

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