Pelosi’s husband ventures out into football
Through a fading desert evening late last week, the owner of the California Redwoods football team stepped into the lights of Sam Boyd Stadium for a celebratory coin toss that would be the first official act of the United Football League. He tried to blend in with the other league executives gathered around the field’s center, just as he has for the past two decades, always careful never to draw too much notice.
Until the stadium announcer called his name. And Paul Pelosi was anonymous no more.
He has worked hard to avoid such moments, to stand in the shadows, since his more famous wife Nancy first went to Congress in 1987 and then rose to become the first female speaker of the House in 2007. He knew the fortune he amassed as an investor and developer in San Francisco -- estimated through her 2008 financial disclosure filings to range from $24 million to $108 million -- would be a distraction.
And then with a single investment in his friend Bill Hambrecht’s longtime dream of a second professional football league to challenge the NFL, the curtain had been pulled away. Although he is not a big sports fan, Pelosi paid $12 million for the franchise for the same reason he has made countless other investments over the years: He felt it could bring him a nice return.
“This is a business, I look at it as a business,” he said. “I’m in this because I think it is a very solid financial investment that is going to be very successful.”
Even so, for a spouse whose forays into public life have largely been limited to the occasional fundraising dinner or political event for his wife, the glare of the spotlight that comes with ownership of a sports franchise was an uncharacteristic move.
“He could do hundreds of deals for a lot more money and do them anonymously,” said Michael Huyghue, the UFL’s commissioner. “But this is the one with the klieg lights.”
It has always been such a careful dance for Pelosi, this balance of his business life with that of his wife’s political career. People, he said, are always trying to link the two. He joked that it is only at his alma mater, Georgetown, where he now chairs the Foreign Service Board, that he is not known as “Mr. Nancy.”
“I understand, of course, that since a woman has had such a phenomenal success [people wonder], ‘Who is this guy she’s married to for 47 years and has five kids?’ ” he said. “I understand the curiosity about that. But it’s her celebrity. It’s her career. It’s her responsibility. I’m enormously supportive and proud about it but I see absolutely no percentage in trying to share the limelight.”
He complained in a voice that sounds, ironically, a lot like that of NBC Sports announcer Al Michaels that people have scoured his investments in everything from real estate to a California vineyard, looking for potential conflicts of interest. And over the years, there have been minor controversies that he has always resolved by selling the troublesome entity.
He said he understood the scrutiny, and that he has worked constantly to make sure his business life never intruded on his wife’s political ambitions.
“There’s a uniqueness of the fact there’s a female, so they want to know who the male is,” he said. It was best, he added, to disappear from view as much as he could.
It is odd that he has finally chosen to thrust himself in the spotlight for football. He has tickets to San Francisco 49ers games and owns the jersey that Frankie Albert, the team’s star quarterback in the late 1940s wore for his last game, but other than a small investment with Hambrecht in the Oakland Invaders of the defunct United States Football League in the early 1980s, he never had much interest in professional sports.
When asked if maybe this was a chance to live out an old sports passion or yearning to become a Daniel Snyder, who owns the Washington Redskins, or George Steinbrenner, who owns the New York Yankees, Pelosi looked stricken.
“Hell, no,” he said. “This is not, ‘I’m 69 years old and I’ve got some money and now I’m going to go spread it around.’ No. If I’m going to spread it around, I’m going to give it to charities that need the money and feed the homeless and other kinds of things.”
His sports passions fall to more personal activities such as tennis, golf and cycling.
He is a tall man, with graying hair and a long face, who looks remarkably fit for someone his age. It’s easy to see that he loved playing squash and going for long, intense bicycle rides until hip replacements last year slowed his ability to run.
“I never wanted to own a sports team,” he said.
Then he wound up with one. “I know,” he said with a dry chuckle. “It’s that old saying: Never say never.”
For years Pelosi listened politely as Hambrecht, a California investment banker best known for managing Google’s initial public offering, talked longingly of creating a football league to rival the NFL. He even offered advice, as one of his best friends from college at Georgetown was Paul Tagliabue, the longtime NFL commissioner who retired in 2006.
Then three years ago, Hambrecht grew serious. He talked about how 20 of the country’s top 50 media markets didn’t have an NFL team, how professional football was growing in popularity. There was a void that could be filled, he decided.
When he first approached Pelosi about joining the venture, Pelosi was only to be a small investor who would help Hambrecht raise money. But slowly he allowed himself to be talked into a greater stake, especially after the recession, when dreams of an eight-team league were scaled down to four and the cost of a franchise dropped to $12 million. With such modest costs, the potential to perhaps make two and three times that much seemed realistic. The businessman in Pelosi was intrigued.
“If we can prove to the public that this is something good after two years then we should be able to get a) a lucrative television contract and, b) each team will have an option of selling part of the team to the public in an IPO,” Pelosi said. “That process will increase community involvement, which I like.”
And what does his wife think?
“She thinks it’s great,” he replied.
When asked by a spokesman for comment about her husband’s involvement in the UFL, the House speaker replied: “I’m excited about it.”
So did he ask her permission to do it?
Paul Pelosi shook his head dismissively. “No,” he said.
“Let me put it this way,” he added. “I think I have a good radar in terms of what kind of business investments would be inappropriate for me given her position. And I can’t think of an investment I discussed with her and said, ‘Is this a good idea or is it a problem?’ Back in the day when she first went into government and I was in real estate, I never did anything with resolution trust -- there were tremendous opportunities there to go buy things and make a lot of dough. I never did because I thought if I did and I made dough that there would be something they would obviously criticize her for.
“So I’ve religiously steered away from anything that would look controversial to her position. My radar tells me there is no problem with this. If there is, I will deal with it.”
In addition to considerable stock holdings, Pelosi’s investments include office buildings in San Francisco and other California commercial properties, a Napa Valley vineyard worth between $5 and $25 million, and minority interests in a resort hotel, an Italian restaurant chain and a golf club.
For all of his optimism about the UFL, however, history is littered with leagues that have dared to challenge the NFL’s monopoly and failed. The difference with this one is that it intends -- at least at the start -- to be small, more a complement to the NFL than a direct competitor. Which is probably good given the sparse attendance the first game received, an announced 18,187 in the 36,800-seat Sam Boyd Stadium that, given the large number of empty red benches, seemed smaller than 10,000.
When Pelosi was asked late in the game if he was disappointed by the crowd, he was silent for a long time before he said: “I think it would have been absurd to think the stadium was going to be full tonight. There was nothing in our budget that would allow it to happen.”
After the game, a 30-17 victory by the Las Vegas Locomotives, Pelosi went down to the locker room, which was housed in a small building behind one end zone. He listened at a distance to Coach Denny Green’s press conference, then headed outside to the field, still bathed in lights, where Hembrecht clutched the game ball given to him by his team.
“It can’t be easy being married to the most powerful woman in politics in the United States,” Hambrecht told a reporter just before Pelosi walked up. “He’s got his own identity. I’m glad he does.”
Then Pelosi appeared. “You know, if your team had won you might have gotten one of these game balls,” Hembrecht teased.
Pelosi laughed. “Are we out of here?” he asked, seeing no need to linger any more.
Hembrecht said, “Let’s go.”
And together they walked out from the glare of the lights and into the welcoming darkness of the Nevada night.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.