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Out of the Picture, But Still in Focus

Ravens Owner Works Best in Background

By Camille Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page E01

Every so often, the new owner of the Baltimore Ravens will turn up at the team's nondescript, 25-year-old practice facility in Owings Mills. If the weather is warm, he most likely will be wearing sandals. If he is outside, watching his team practice, he most likely will be smoking a cigar. He will not be wearing a tie. He will not be in his office, because he doesn't have one. And he will insist that he be called Steve -- just Steve -- and not Mr. Bisciotti.

Steve Bisciotti is the newest owner in the NFL, completing the purchase of the Ravens from longtime owner Art Modell five months ago. He is the latest in a group of younger owners who are slowly replacing the NFL's old guard, the men who over a half-century built the league into an economic powerhouse. Bisciotti is a mixture, in many ways, of the new and the old: He is a highly successful businessman with his own ideas, yet he is respectful of the traditions of the league.

Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti typically remains in the background and keeps a low profile. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

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"I don't think you need to make a killing. But I think that your competitiveness as a businessman would stop you from taking enjoyment from the competitiveness of the football if you were losing in the business world," said Bisciotti, the founder of Aerotek, a high-tech staffing firm. "I want major success on the football side, and I expect minor success on the financial side, and that's good enough for me."

Bisciotti is the league's fourth principal owner under the age of 50. At 44, he is the third-youngest owner in the league, behind the Washington Redskins' Daniel Snyder, 39, whose team will host the Ravens on Sunday night, and the Cleveland Browns' Randy Lerner, 42.

The comparisons between Bisciotti and Snyder are inevitable, not only because of the proximity of their franchises and their shared youth, but also because both are self-made multimillionaires who grew up loving -- and now owning -- their hometown teams. The differences between the two and their franchises, however, are more striking than the similarities.

When Snyder bought the Redskins and their stadium in 1999 for $750 million, he got a team with a rich tradition, a huge fan base and a lengthy waiting list for season tickets. Forbes magazine recently rated the Redskins as the most valuable franchise in the NFL, worth $1.1 billion.

Bisciotti (pronounced buh-SHOT-ee), who paid $600 million for the Ravens, took over a team still trying to establish its identity in Baltimore. The franchise moved from Cleveland in 1996 and has had to try to win back fans who felt jilted when the Colts moved to Indianapolis 12 years earlier, even as it competes for fans with the Redskins in Anne Arundel and Howard counties. The Ravens have had success: They won the Super Bowl following the 2000 season, regularly sell out every game at publicly owned M&T Bank Stadium and soon will announce that they have created a waiting list for season tickets for the first time. Forbes ranked the Ravens as the NFL's 10th most valuable franchise at $776 million.

Snyder has been active in virtually every personnel decision with the Redskins and has garnered considerable publicity for his marketing skills that have built the franchise into a money-making juggernaut. In doing so, he has attracted criticism from some owners who fear he is undermining the principle of revenue-sharing among the 32 franchises, which they say is the reason for the NFL's success.

Bisciotti is much more comfortable out of the limelight and largely leaves football operations to General Manager Ozzie Newsome and Coach Brian Billick. Associates say he understands the motivation behind owners such as Snyder and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones because they, like him, paid a fortune for their teams. At the same time, they add, Bisciotti respects the decades-old tacit understanding within the NFL that the league is only as strong as its weakest franchise.

"He's . . . paid a lot of money for his team, so in that sense, he's a guy that someone like a Jerry Jones and a Dan Snyder can understand, in that he paid full value for the team," said Dick Cass, whom Bisciotti hired to be the Ravens' president. "At the same time, he wants to win, and he's not worried about every last dollar. That will make him feel a little closer to some other owners around the league who usually aren't in Jerry or Dan's camp. I think he will be a bridge in the league and over time will be a significant factor."

Bisciotti made a very quiet entry into the ownership ranks, thanks to an unusual arrangement with Modell, who owned the franchise for 43 years. Bisciotti bought 49 percent of the team for $275 million in 2000, with the option to become the primary owner in 2004. He stayed in the background for four years, learning the business of running a pro football team from Modell. In April, he exercised his option for $325 million and assumed control of 99 percent of the team; Modell retains 1 percent.

"The way he came into the league is very indicative of his approach to life in general," said Roger Goodell, the chief operating officer of the NFL. "He didn't come in thinking, 'I know how to run the Baltimore Ravens better than Art Modell.' He looked at this as an opportunity to learn and make himself a better owner, and that's an incredible statement about him."

For now, Bisciotti would like nothing more than to be the least-known owner in the NFL. Bisciotti gave a series of interviews with local media -- including one in late August for this story -- after he acquired full control of the Ravens in April, but has since receded to the background once again.

It's not that Bisciotti is shy or reclusive; those who have seen the handsome, perpetually tan Bisciotti cheering madly from his courtside seats at University of Maryland home basketball games know that's not the case. In person, Bisciotti is charming, engaging and chatty.

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