Roger Marino, a man blessed with the ability to annoy almost everyone, gleefully grabbed the two editorial cartoons he had stashed behind his desk. "Take a look at these," said Marino, the Pittsburgh Penguins co-owner who was amused by the unflattering drawings that appeared last month in local newspapers. Marino, a Boston native and resident who bought half ownership in the Penguins from Howard Baldwin in May 1997 and has since enraged Pittsburghers with his abrasive personality and management style, views himself as strong medicine for an ailing franchise.
The Penguins have been successful on the ice in the 1990s, winning a pair of Stanley Cups, but they have limped along financially under Marino's soon-to-be-former partner Baldwin, who essentially horse-traded future revenue from things such as board advertising and concessions for cash now to keep the Penguins solvent. Asked if Baldwin had been imprudent in using this approach and by lavishing a contract on now retired Pittsburgh legend Mario Lemieux that still owes Lemieux $12.7 million in salary the next two years, Marino, who is under orders from the NHL to stop publicly squabbling with Baldwin, replied, "I really can't answer that." While he spoke he printed YES on a sheet of a paper.
Unfortunately for the league, Marino's difficulties with the Penguins are the latest embarrassment in the NHL's long list of recent ownership problems. Last week Fox Sports Pittsburgh filed a suit against Marino for trying to get out of his cable-TV contract with Fox so that he could start his own network. That completed the hat trick. Marino was socked with a $1 million suit in July by SMG, the corporation that runs the Civic Arena, for nonpayment of rent, three weeks after Lemieux filed a $33 million breach of contract suit against Marino and the Penguins but not Baldwin. (Marino and Baldwin agreed on a price for Baldwin's share of the franchise months ago—$8 million cash—but Marino, who says he has spent $37.5 million of his own money to meet operating expenses the past two seasons, has been unwilling to make certain guarantees, notably that he will meet the remainder of Pittsburgh's obligations to Lemieux. Lemieux, meanwhile, says he'll forgo some money owed to him in return for a piece of the team if Baldwin, who's trying to put a group of investors together to buy controlling interest of the club, buys out Marino.) Marino, who threatened to have the Penguins declare bankruptcy in July but has since backed off, set off alarms in Pittsburgh last month by hiring as interim CEO J. Garvin Warden, a turnaround specialist who oversaw the bankruptcy of a restaurant chain in western Pennsylvania in 1996. Lemieux's agent, Tom Reich, has called Marino "a poor man's Wayne Huizenga" who "thinks he can come in here and intimidate and force 'haircuts' on people he owes money to." Said Pittsburgh mayor Tom Murphy, "The first time I met with him he was flailing away at everybody. I was bewildered by his approach."
Marino concedes that his disagreement with Lemieux got out of hand, and he understands Reich's pique—"I smacked his boy in the face although that was not my intention," he says—but he is not taking back a word about SMG. "Even Dracula leaves his victims half alive after sucking the blood out of them, so he can come back and suck the next day," he says. "These people don't have that concept down."
Marino says the other thing that is sucking him dry is the 37-year-old Civic Arena, despite the fact that the arena's management company made major concessions to Marino when he bought into the team. Known as the Igloo, the Civic Arena stands as a monument to the Penguins' myopia. They agreed to take $10.4 million in improvements from the city last year and extend their lease until 2007 instead of pushing to be part of the convention center-stadium complex that will house the Steelers and the Pirates. "Let's see, $461 million [the city's contribution to the proposed complex] and $10.4 million," Marino says, his hands imitating the scales of justice. "Four sixty-one versus ten point four." But his spirits don't droop for long. "When I was the president of a $400 million company, no one knew me," Marino says. "Now I've got a $40 million company, things are flying all around."
Marino, 60, was a founder of EMC, a Massachusetts-based high-tech firm that made him wealthy enough to retire at 53. He counted his money for a while and then bought an American Hockey League team. Last year he became Baldwin's partner in what seemed a perfect match—Baldwin's NHL experience and Marino's wallet—but they have had separate agendas.
In the long run Marino's tactics may change the Penguins for the better, but these days when fans in Pittsburgh look at Marino all they see is red.