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Tuesday, June 27, 2006
Cuban, Marino join financier's bid to buy Penguins

Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- Mark Cuban is known for baiting NBA officials, and Dan Marino is the most prolific passer in NFL history. But the Pittsburgh natives now want to expand into a different sport in their hometown -- hockey.

The two have joined with a New York City financier in trying to buy the NHL's Penguins from Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux's group, which is selling the two-time Stanley Cup champions even as the team seeks a new arena deal.

The group of prospective Penguins owners is headed by Andrew Murstein, the president of Medallion Financial Corp., a company that finances New York City taxicab medallions and originates consumer loans for recreational vehicles. Also included are principals in Pittsburgh-based Walnut Capital, a real estate management and development company.

Walnut Capital CEO Gregg Perelman recently teamed with Cuban to buy a nine-story downtown Pittsburgh office building. Cuban, who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, is the billionaire Dallas Mavericks owner whose holdings include a movie production firm and high-definition TV channel.

Adding Cuban and Marino is expected to strengthen the group's estimated $150 million bid not only financially but also perception-wise. Neither Cuban nor Marino has any interest in moving the Penguins from Pittsburgh -- Cuban has made it a condition of his participation -- even though the team has yet to land a deal to build an arena to replace 45-year-old Mellon Arena.

Murstein was in Dallas on Tuesday, presumably to meet with Cuban about his involvement in the group. In the past, Murstein expressed interest in buying two NHL franchises, the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks, and the Kansas City Wizards of Major League Soccer.

Todd Reidbord, Walnut Capital's president, said recently his group was the only one interested in buying the Penguins that has fully committed to staying in Pittsburgh. At least four other groups have expressed interest in the team, which is expected to be sold before the start of the NHL season in October.

Lemieux's ownership group, which also includes California businessman Ron Burkle, bought the team in federal bankruptcy court in 1999 -- partly to protect the nearly $30 million in deferred money owed Lemieux on his contract. Lemieux's group has since paid back all money owed by the club before its bankruptcy filing, a rarity during such procedures.

The uncertainty over the Penguins' arena status has clouded their future in Pittsburgh. Lemieux's group has partnered with Isle of Capri Casinos, which has agreed to build a $290 million arena if it wins the solitary license that will be awarded for a slot machine casino in the city.

However, Isle of Capri is not seen as the favorite, and two other groups seeking the slots license -- Harrah's and Majestic Star Casino -- have not pledged full arena funding.

Gov. Ed Rendell has asked those two bidders to give $7.5 million a year toward an arena, with the Penguins contributing $8.5 million from the start and an additional $4 million per year, including $1.1 million in naming rights. The Penguins have declined to sign off on the deal, as the Isle of Capri bid would not require the team to make a financial contribution toward replacing the NHL's oldest arena.

Murstein revealed the addition of Cuban and Marino in his group in an interview Tuesday with Pittsburgh radio station WEAE, an ESPN affiliate. Cuban did not immediately respond to messages from The Associated Press but confirmed his involvement in an e-mail to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Cuban was interested in buying into Lemieux's group in 1999 but declined to accept a role that would not include input in the team's day-to-day operation. Marino, the former University of Pittsburgh and Miami Dolphins star quarterback, expressed interest in buying into the Pittsburgh Pirates in the mid 1990s but never did so. Cuban is also interested in buying the Pirates at some point, but the current ownership has given no sign of wanting to sell.