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.
"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.
His low-profile style was on display in early September on the day the Ravens announced that they had signed cornerback Deion Sanders. During Sanders's introductory news conference, the owner did not sit alongside the flashy new acquisition in front of the 50 or so reporters and cameramen. Instead, he stood and watched the proceedings from the back of the trailer, behind the row of television cameras.
"You can be media shy and not personally shy. There's a difference," Bisciotti said. "I'm comfortable with it, I just don't enjoy it. There's no benefit of the notoriety. . . . The only negative about owning the team is that the requests for my time and my money are just off the charts. It's 10 times more than I can give. Saying no on a regular basis is not fun for anybody."
But he has to say no, if he wants to keep his life as normal as possible. Bisciotti was certain that owning the Ravens was the ideal business opportunity, but he wasn't sure what it would mean for his family -- his wife of 20 years, Renee, and their high school-aged sons, Jason and Jack. Owning a Super Bowl-winning team brings a different kind of fame than being the owner of a high-tech staffing firm, and he worried about the effect on his boys. He also worried about the demands on his time; he had semi-retired from Aerotek in 1997 in order to spend more time with his sons.
Bisciotti managed to avoid the spotlight even as he helped build Aerotek into one of the region's largest privately owned firms. He and his cousin, Jim Davis, started Aerotek, which offered skilled temporary workers to aerospace and technology companies, in a basement office in Annapolis in 1983. Aerotek is now part of the Allegis Group, the nation's third-largest staffing firm. Bisciotti was one of 12 NFL owners on Forbes's annual list of the 400 richest Americans; he ranked 352nd with a net worth of $850 million.
Bisciotti is, in many ways, a regular guy who happens to be very rich. He has the same group of friends he had while growing up in Severna Park and attending Salisbury State University, now Salisbury University. He flew 150 friends and family members to the Super Bowl in 2001 to watch in person as the Ravens beat the New York Giants; included in the group was his high school football coach and the coach's grandson. He doesn't sit in the traditional owner's box at M&T Bank Stadium, opting instead to stay in his extra-large luxury suite, which is located at the 50-yard line opposite the Ravens' bench. (Modell continues to use the owner's box.) On game days, Bisciotti's box is filled with family and friends, not important business contacts or prominent local figures.
"One of the perks of owning a team is giving your friends the opportunity to do things they wouldn't get to do otherwise," Bisciotti said.
He is a huge sports fan. He attended Baltimore Orioles and Baltimore Colts games as a child. He played one year of football at Severna Park High, and his sons now play for their high school teams.
"I've spent 20 years as a businessman and 40 years as a sports fan," Bisciotti said. "So when the opportunity arose, I could afford it, and I didn't see enough downside. It sounds oversimplified, but [it's like] the difference between sitting in the bowl at Maryland basketball games or sitting on the floor.
"Why would you pay such an astronomical donation to the school to get on the floor? Are you really having a better time than everybody else? I think that anybody that got the opportunity to sit on the floor and watch a Duke-Maryland game and feel the pounding and feel the floor vibrating and listen to what the officials are telling that guard -- it just enhances the experience.
"There are people whose Monday is ruined as much as mine [after a Ravens loss] and they sit in the upper deck. But for me, the whole experience is enhanced by this huge commitment that I've made."
Bisciotti spent much of his four-year apprenticeship getting to know the people who work for the Ravens, popping in and out of their offices. He never got his own office in the training facility, and didn't push for one, because space was tight and it was easier for him to visit the people he wanted to see, rather than make them come to him.
"He's just a man of purity. His heart is pure," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "It's easy to work for an owner like that. There's no hidden agendas, nothing like that. It's just him. That's the beauty of it."
Bisciotti learned about the business side from David Modell, Art Modell's youngest son, and the football side from Newsome. By the time he assumed full ownership, Bisciotti knew, and felt comfortable with, the people who worked for the team.
His only significant personnel change was to hire Cass, a Washington-based lawyer who had worked with Jerry Jones and the estate of Jack Kent Cooke, as team president. "A lot of owners coming into the league are self-made millionaires, so they're used to being hands-on, being involved in all aspects of the business, just making sure they watch over their fortune," Newsome said. "But Steve -- in that he had the four years -- he's taken basically the opposite approach. He's taken the approach of a Lamar Hunt [founder of the Kansas City Chiefs], Wayne Huizenga [owner of the Miami Dolphins], guys like that, that allow people to do their job. He just wants to be informed of what's going on."
"That's the way Steve has been from the outset," Billick said. "He has said, 'Look, I don't know football, but I do know people. And I know business. And the two probably aren't that different. So those things that I don't know, explain them to me. I'm not going to offer an idea or a suggestion unless I think there's some validity to it.' I think he has stayed true to his word."
Bisciotti started attending the NFL owners' meetings as soon as he became the minority partner. Art Modell offered Bisciotti the same advice that Pete Rozelle gave him when he bought the Cleveland Browns in 1961 at age 35: Don't say anything at that first meeting. There will be plenty of opportunities to speak down the road.
"He handled himself well," said Dan Rooney, longtime chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "He spoke once in a while when he had a question. He's not the type of guy who's talking all the time just to be talking. He's intelligent, he's involved, he's interested in what's going on. I'm impressed."
Bisciotti is a member of the league's business ventures committee and the investment committee, and his goal is a seat on the broadcast committee. He says that he wants to learn "everybody's position on every topic and come up with what I consider to be striking that perfect balance.
"I love the capitalism. I love the business side of this, but I want to push the capitalistic side right to the edge before it spills over into the competitive aspect of the league," Bisciotti said. "I think it is so important to keep the balance that the league has created. To me, that is so much more important than making money. Some owners get it, and some owners instinctively, naturally want capitalism to spill over and make them more competitive and give them an advantage. From a competitive side, I understand it. I just think that some owners take it too far."
On Tuesday, the Ravens will move into a state-of-the art training complex a few miles down the road from the current one in Owings Mills. The facility -- at 1 Winning Drive -- was Bisciotti's project, the first visible product of his ownership. He paid for it -- $20 million of the purchase price of the Ravens was earmarked toward its construction -- and he told the Modells that overseeing the project would keep him "out of your hair."
Bisciotti had a very specific idea of how the facility should look. He wanted "a building that looked like it had been there forever." He got what he wanted, though the cost ballooned to $31 million. The 200,000-square foot facility has a stone and brick exterior, and even has a turret.
And Bisciotti will have an office as will Art Modell, next to Bisciotti and Cass.
Still, Bisciotti won't be at practice every day, as Modell was. When Bisciotti does show up, he won't be wearing a tie. Ravens place kicker Matt Stover, who has been with the franchise since it moved to Baltimore from Cleveland, was asked if he has ever seen Bisciotti in a tie.
"No. And you know what? It's great!" Stover said with a laugh. "Absolutely awesome. That's the way I'd like to live life right there, in my flip-flops and shorts, yes sir."
At 44, he is third-youngest owner in the NFL. "You can be media shy and not personally shy. There's a difference," he said.