As owner, Pollin won respect if not titles

In business arena, he was a trailblazer

May 13, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

He is an elder statesman of sports, a key donor to politicians and a highly successful developer whose projects will form a lasting legacy.

Abe Pollin, 75, who announced yesterday the beginning of the end of his sports empire, has been a fixture on the Washington scene for most of his adult life.

He is the longest-tenured owner in the NBA and one who has been outspoken in his opposition to stratospheric player salaries. He acquired the NHL expansion Capitals in 1973, becoming one of the first modern entrepreneurs to take advantage of owning two teams that could share a building and key administrators.

"I think unquestionably he is considered one of the better owners in sports. He's been pro gressive in the way he's treated the teams," said Dean Bonham, a sports marketing consultant and head of the Bonham Group of Denver.

But Pollin can also be demanding. During the NBA lockout last October, Pollin, viewed as a hard-liner on labor matters, went toe-to-toe with Michael Jordan. The two exchanged harsh words across the bargaining table when the former Chicago Bulls superstar suggested the rapid appreciation in franchise values should be considered when assessing a team's financial health.

"He's a very strong person, and he has his own thoughts and ideas on how things should be," said Ed Snider, who, like Pollin, is a bi-sport owner, controlling the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers.

"When he speaks at a league meeting, people listen to what he has to say because of his years of experience."

Pollin's teams, especially the NBA Wizards, have shown flashes of success interspersed with seasons of disappointment. The Wizards, formerly known as the Bullets, won the championship only once under his ownership, in 1978. They finished 18-32 this year, well out of contention.

The NHL Capitals have fared somewhat better, advancing to postseason play for 14 consecutive years at one point, ending in 1996. Last season was their best -- they made it to the Stanley Cup Finals -- but they finished 31-45-6 this season and failed to muster a postseason berth.

Beyond the court and ice, his operations have also been streaky. The marketing has been notoriously under-funded and drawn little notice in the industry. He has a reputation for excessive loyalty to key employees, to the detriment of the operation, according to several sources.

His facilities, however, have been visionary. USAirways Arena opened as the Capital Centre in 1973, the first arena with modern skyboxes. The MCI Center opened in 1997 and drew immediate praise for its combination of technology, sports and related entertainment.

Most significantly, Pollin stitched together an operation that controlled everything from ticket sales to scoreboard ads and player trades. His Washington Sports & Entertainment Limited Partnership owns not only the two sports franchises, but also the MCI Center and the local Ticketmaster franchise.

The whole package, sold as a group, could be worth up to $700 million, Bonham said. "He's combined a family of assets that is very synergistic," he said.

Bonham said any sale of part of the operation -- Pollin said yesterday he was selling the Capitals and minority interest in Washington Sports & Entertainment -- almost certainly would include an agreement for the eventual transfer of the rest, because its value is greater together than broken up.

Born in Philadelphia, Pollin moved with his family to Washington at the age of 8. He graduated from George Washington University in 1945 and worked for his father's construction company. He launched his own construction business in 1957, building apartment buildings and offices.

His involvement in sports began in 1964, when he and Arnold Heft and Earl Foreman purchased the Baltimore Bullets for $1.1 million. Pollin became sole owner four years later.

In 1973, Pollin moved the Bullets to Landover and added the hockey team to his resume. In 1997, they both moved to the MCI Center and the Bullets were renamed, both to boost its poor merchandise sales and in deference to the capital's violent crime.

Business has been good for Pollin. He and his wife, Irene, a psychotherapist, have significant real estate holdings in the area, including 100 acres in Virginia and a home in Montgomery County with an estimated market value of more than $1 million, according to property records.

He has been an active donor in national politics. Mother Jones magazine last fall ranked Pollin as the 225th-biggest giver to party organizations, federal candidates and political action committees in last year's election season. His gifts, mostly to Democrats, totaled $56,000. One politically connected Marylander said: "I wouldn't call him a super-heavyweight, but he is always there."

Selling his teams now makes sense from an estate-planning perspective -- which Pollin cited yesterday as his chief reason for making the move. But there have been indications over the past year that the $200 million MCI Arena has not performed up to expectations.

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