Pollin: With Opening of MCI Center, 'I've Got Everything I've Ever Done in My Life on the Line'
By Thomas Heath and David Montgomery
Three mornings a week for 25 months, a tan Mercedes-Benz pulled into a parking lot at the edge of Chinatown, a few steps from the construction site of MCI Center. Inside, the driver rolled up each pants leg of his Hickey Freeman suit, pulled on hiking boots and dialed his car phone to let the project manager know he had arrived. Then he grabbed his hard hat with his name imprinted in black letters and strode forward to check on the biggest investment of his life.
Abe Pollin, local sports entrepreneur, has lavished his attention and more than $200 million on Washington's new downtown sports arena, which will open Tuesday. Riding on its success is his 50-year business career, his personal wealth, his National Basketball Association Wizards and National Hockey League Capitals.
At a time when most wealthy 73-year-old men are thinking of retirement, Pollin has taken on a huge challenge. His privately financed arena became a four-year struggle, slowed for half a year by contaminated soil, a paralyzing snowstorm and asbestos. A White House telephone line under the proposed site had to be relocated for $4 million.
The arena site at Seventh and F streets NW was too small, so streets were closed and buildings torn down. There were highly publicized setbacks such as the so-called "smart seats," which didn't work. A practice facility was added for $750,000. There was a successful lawsuit by the Paralyzed Veterans of America to increase the number of seats for wheelchair-bound spectators.
Through it all, Pollin has been financially stretched, keeping US Airways Arena going, signing basketball and hockey players to million-dollar contracts and footing the bill for the construction of MCI Center.
On Tuesday night, the day before his 74th birthday, Pollin will proudly unveil the second arena he has built for his hometown in the past 25 years. More than 20,000 people will watch the Wizards play the Seattle SuperSonics, the same opponent that Washington-then known as the Bullets-played to inaugurate Capital Centre in Landover in 1973, and Pollin will beam from his giant luxury suite just 20 rows off the floor.
"I walk through that building [and] I get tears in my eyes. . . . It's unbelievable," Pollin said. "I've got everything I've ever done in my life on the line. I've pledged everything. My advisers think I'm nuts. But I wanted to do something special for my town."
In recent speeches and talks around the city, Pollin has couched the project as a gift to Washington his town for helping make him a successful businessman.
"I don't want to sound corny," he said during a recent interview, but "this is the nation's capital. It's been good to me all my life. And I decided to do it. Not everything is dollars and cents."
He also did this for other reasons: He is by trade a builder. He loves challenges. He knows how bank financing works. He knows politics, and his close relationship with D.C. Mayor Marion Barry helped make this happen.
Most significantly, he still craves the action.
Even Pollin's critics those who say his teams fall way short of matching the achievements of those owned by large corporations acknowledge that he is generous. He sits on 25 boards and foundations, many of them with his wife, Irene. They donate large sums of money to charities and causes and both have received numerous honors.
But building MCI Center and moving his two teams downtown also was a cold business decision. US Airways Arena, served by the Beltway, had become difficult to get to, and as a venue had become out of date.
Pollin's advisers said there was not much question that the chosen site was the best location in the metropolitan area. MCI Center would be sitting above the Gallery Place Metro station, in the middle of downtown Washington and its 20 million annual tourists.
"We did all kinds of studies, but it was pretty obvious that downtown was the best of all locations," said Raymond A. "Chip" Mason, president and chief executive officer of Legg Mason, which was Pollin's financial adviser on the project.
The $200 million project hatched in 1995 initially was to be financed primarily by the sale of municipal bonds. But after a year in which the city's financial situation continued to decline, Pollin decided to finance the project himself. Barry did not argue.
A little more than two years later, Abe Pollin has another arena. He is the dean of NBA owners, a link to the days when a group of basketball entrepreneurs bought teams for less than $1 million and traded players over a handshake instead of a fax line.
"Abe Pollin reflects an ownership style that was forged in a different era . . . the single owner of a building and two teams," said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who has known Pollin since 1966. "I would put him on the endangered-species list. Washington is lucky to have a member of the species before it becomes extinct."
Pollin developed his love of sports as a youngster in Washington, spending afternoons at Washington Senators baseball games with his father, Morris, who owned a successful construction business. Abe also proved adept in the building industry, and by the age of 40 he was one of the city's most successful businessmen.
He bought the Baltimore Bullets in 1963 with Arnold Heft, his former partner and a real estate developer, for $1.1 million from a Chicago businessman. The team now is worth more than $100 million. In 1972, Pollin got an NHL expansion team (which started play in 1974).
At that time, he built Capital Centre, now US Airways Arena, for around $16 million, and moved the Bullets to Washington. Capital Centre opened the day before his 50th birthday.
He had initially wanted to build his first arena in downtown Washington, but could not work out a deal in time to satisfy his commitment to the NHL to put the Capitals on the ice by 1974.
The Landover arena was a gem for its time, featuring the world's first Telscreen to watch instant replays and the first skyboxes, which have undergone a name change to "luxury suites." Pollin's Bullets won the city's only NBA title in 1978 and had one of the best records in the NBA during that decade. The team fell on hard times in the 1980s, but Pollin is hopeful young stars such as Juwan Howard, Chris Webber and Rod Strickland can win him another championship.
The Capitals, meanwhile, struggled through the 1970s Pollin threatened to move the team in 1980 because attendance was as poor as the team before things improved. The Capitals, under then-general manager David Poile, were successful on the ice, making the playoffs 14 straight years before missing out last season. The hockey team, Pollin has said, loses millions each year. The basketball team does better.
Poile was fired after the season and replaced by George McPhee and Ron Wilson was hired as coach, replacing Jim Schoenfeld. The Capitals have started the season stronger than the Wizards and play a more exciting style of hockey than they did previously.
Still, the Capitals have never won a Stanley Cup and the Wizards, with a new name, are struggling as the Bullets did much of the past 16 years.
For years, Pollin was criticized because he refused to get into salary battles for free agents against many of his corporate competitors. Now both his teams are among the top 10 in payrolls. He had to change. "I had no choice," he said. And he says he is not happy that the higher payrolls have brought higher ticket prices (among the highest in sports) for Washington fans.
Over the last decade, cities or rich team owners have built state-of-the-art sports palaces that contain thousands of premium club seats and hundreds of luxury suites, which brought in millions of dollars that owners could use to buy better players. New arenas have been built in downtown Phoenix, Cleveland, Boston, Chicago and Portland, to name a few of the cities.
To finance his project, Pollin borrowed from a group of lenders led by NationsBank. He pledged his two teams, US Airways Arena, nearly all of his real estate properties and his arena-management business to get the loans. He was aided considerably in the drive by Peter O'Malley, a Prince George's County attorney, and NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld, now the Wizards' general manager.
With the financing in place, Pollin, Barry and O'Malley grabbed silver shovels in October 1995 and turned the first scoop of dirt at the downtown site.
Problems began piling up almost immediately. Diggers hit 30 contaminated tanks buried just under the ground. It cost millions to truck the stuff to Detroit and set back the project by six months.
The biggest snowstorm of the past 50 years struck in the first week of 1996. Two buildings slated for demolition were filled with asbestos. Nervous banks demanded that John Stranix, a respected construction manager at Clark Construction, take over Pollin's side of the project management.
As millions of dollars poured into the arena construction, Pollin was spending tens of millions more to beef up his team rosters. Mason, Pollin's financial adviser, said there were critical periods "where he was pretty far out on the ledge" financially.
There was more. The 3,000 club seats had been sold, in part, by telling buyers their seats would be equipped with electronic gadgetry that would allow fans to buy tickets to other events or play video games or call up statistics during a game. But the technology wasn't there and Pollin quietly dropped the idea, although MCI is providing something similar in the hallways.
Susan O'Malley is president of Washington Sports Inc., Pollin's holding company for his teams, and the daughter of Peter O'Malley. During one grim period, she recalls, "I said, 'Let's walk away.'‚"
But Pollin stayed focused. He needed revenue, so his marketers went after it.
A 13-year naming-rights deal with Washington-based MCI worth $44 million still one of the most lucrative of its kind provided a lot of breathing room.
Pollin said he expects the arena name to remain despite MCI's recent merger with WorldCom Inc.
He signed big-name corporate sponsors such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Chevy Chase Bank and others to multiyear deals worth millions. His marketers sold all 110 luxury suites, which are priced between $100,000 and $175,000 a year.
With Pollin stretched thin and the project behind schedule, opening by the beginning of this season was hopeless. But Pollin couldn't afford to lose the entire season, so the deadline was set for Dec. 2.
If the new arena couldn't get it done by then, the sponsors, luxury suite holders and club seat fans who were paying MCI prices would be stuck in the old building.
So Stranix ran his crews 20 hours a day, throwing steel up as fast as time and safety would allow and sending his workers off in a dozen different directions at once. Nature cooperated, too: Last winter was one of the mildest in years.
On his thrice-weekly visits, Pollin would exhort the workers to "finish by 12/2."
"His overwhelming contribution was driving everyone to the Dec. 2 date," Stranix said.
"His imprint is on every aspect," said Brad Clark, vice president of and senior project designer for Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket, which designed MCI Center.
As he walked toward the arena for a reception last week, Clark ran into Pollin on the street outside. As Pollin greeted him, his eyes welled up.
"This place is fantastic," Pollin said. "It's just what you said it would be."