Knowing that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti has a deep affinity for our city’s sports heritage, I asked him to participate in our 20 For 20 series and provide for Baltimore fans the story of how he became the franchise’s principal owner. Bisciotti accepted and shared the story in detail — details that you’ll be reading for the very first time.
TL: I’d like to take you back to 1995 when it was announced that Art Modell planned to move the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Where were you when you heard the announcement and what was your first reaction to that?
SB: Oh gosh, I don’t know where I was. I was knee deep in building a business and raising kids. I had put up money. I was on a short list because I had put up money for the expansion team. And after we didn’t get the expansion team in ’93 [the Maryland Stadium Authority] wrote a passionate letter to all of these people who had put up maybe $5,000 or something, [asking] to please keep the money there so we can still show the NFL that we’re interested. So it was really a down payment so I left the money there. So I was the first group of people to get the glossy brochure to get tickets.
I remember not getting the tickets that I wanted. For anyone who bought a suite that had first priority at the club level. So by the time I was called and told that “you’re getting the first shot at tickets”, then I was all the way down at like the 30-yard line at the club level and I was furious. They lied and the best seats went to the suite holders.
[Eventually] I bought 4 tickets in club, 4 in the upper level and 4 in the lower level and took my boys to the very first game against Oakland at Memorial Stadium and it was such a cluster that I just said, “I’m not going back until the new stadium is built.” And I didn’t. It was terrible.
TL: Let’s back it up a bit… In 1983 you start your business, Aerotek, with your cousin Jim Davis in the basement of your home. Seventeen years later you own 49% of the Baltimore Ravens. That had to be a whirlwind tour. Talk about the evolution of that business and then at what point in time do you begin to think, “I’d like to be involved in owning a sports team”?
SB: That just came to me. I had been working 70 hours a week and it was my priority and raising the kids was my wife’s priority. I was traveling and opening up offices all over and it got to the point in 1997 or 98 that I went to Jimmy and said, “I need to promote John Carey to President, because I can’t be the first one in and the last one to leave. I can’t keep traveling like I am. I had older kids – they were a little older than me and my brother when my dad died in ’69. And I said that I need John to step into this role. He’s ready and he’s been with us from the beginning and I need to go part-time. It wasn’t really part-time.
I needed to reward John. He was qualified to do the job and I was getting to the point where I just didn’t want to miss more of my kids’ lives by traveling as much as I was.
But then you find out quickly when you come home that the last thing the kids want to do is hang out with their dad. You know what I mean? They wanted to go play video games or build a fort in the woods or something. So it was good for me because I felt I was getting off the merry go round a little bit.
It was about that time that Bank of America who was well aware of my success, more so than anyone in Baltimore, [and they] came to me to see if I’d be willing to look at [buying] the Florida Marlins. And I thought that was intriguing so I said, “Sure I would”, almost out of curiosity. So they made me sign a confidentiality agreement and gave me a prospectus.
So I went home and my wife was like, “What are you doing? You’ve been an Orioles fan since you were a baby!” And I said, “It’s a National League team and it’s in Florida and you know we’re going to end up spending half our life in Florida so it wouldn’t be competing with the Orioles. So it’s the only team other than the Orioles that I’d be interested in.”
Anyway, that fell through. John Henry (owner of Boston Globe, Boston Red Sox and Liverpool Football Club) had first right of refusal and Jimmy Davis looked at the deal and said it was a terrible deal. So we walked away.
Then sometime in early ’99 [Bank of America] came to me and said, “How about the Minnesota Vikings?” They said they are going to [be available at a fair price]. So I went home and my wife says, “Well this is crazy. We’re going to go to Minnesota on Sundays?”
So I didn’t even look at the prospectus. I just called them back and told them I wasn’t interested.
Well John Moag (Maryland Stadium Authority) had a little brother Brendan who worked for me. So John Moag again was one of the few people who kind of knew how big we were and how successful we were, and he called me out of the blue. I didn’t know him. He called and said, “I’m John Moag and work with Legg Mason’s Sports Industry Group.”
I said I remembered his name and that he was in charge of the Maryland Stadium Authority that brought the team. He said he wanted to talk.
So he came, we talked for like 45 minutes, I called Jimmy [Davis] in and he went through a little bit of the spiel and I forgot what it was like, we’ll call back in a week. I called Bank of America and said I’d be interested in doing this. At the time [the Modells] were selling only 25%. Jimmy and I said we wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do it. Not for a minority interest in perpetuity.
John Moag then suggested we go at them with an option. Let’s say you’ll consider it but you want an option to buy the whole team. It was John Moag who gets a lot of credit for working the deal. And then the Modells came back when they realized that nobody was going to buy 25% and just stay a minority. I was serious, I had the money and then they came back to me and said that you’d have to meet our price and you’ll have to buy 49% right away and not 25. If they were going to give an option they wanted to cash out as much as they could.
And so that’s kind of the way we did it.
Art wanted 5 years [for the option] and I wanted 3 so we settled on four. And that’s how it happened. I literally made the presentation…Bank of America, Dick Cass and a guy from Price Waterhouse who also had team experience made my team up and we went and presented to the Modells. I think it was December 17th or 19th, 1999 and that was probably two weeks after John [Moag] walked into my office. So I can honestly say that that’s how much time I had, two weeks.
TL: In 15 years of ownership you’ve been part of 2 Super Bowl winning seasons. Is one any nearer and dearer to your heart than the other?
SB: Well sure, the second one is obviously nearer and dearer. I think I made a comment when I was being interviewed [during Super Bowl week], if I win this I’ve won two, if I lose this I’ve won none. Do you know what I mean? Anybody that was a friend or advisor of mine said that [the Ravens] don’t win without your money. The week after we [officially completed] the deal they signed Shannon Sharpe and then they signed Sam Adams. So I watched them put together a team that they didn’t have the money to put together.
So clearly my money had something to do with the 2000 win. But having zero say, barely knowing these people, I was really along for the ride and so I really never felt like it was mine although I sure enjoyed having a ring. I really didn’t feel like I had earned it so that was my feeling a few years ago – I could legitimize having won before if I had won a second. But if I didn’t I would certainly have a very empty feeling.
Personally I was proud that Baltimore had a championship where the Eagles and a lot of teams didn’t. So I wasn’t obscuring it for Baltimore, I was for me personally because I didn’t feel like I could take any credit for that one.
TL: Looking back as the owner, are there any moments that resonate with you that may have nothing to do with winning or losing on the field?
SB: Maybe opening up this facility because that was a rag tag place that they were working in for four years. And you know 13 years later it was a bigger operation in ’96-’97 than it was in 1984. We were stuffed to the gills in ’96. By the time I got there in 2000 it was even worse. And then it got even worse during those four years until we moved in here.
I was able to focus on building this thing up and the thrill of … I think David [Modell] was on Redwood Street, people were at the stadium stuffed in those offices. There were 3 distinct places that we were running the team out of and so it gave me great pleasure to bring that all under one roof and seeing accountants sitting next to players. It gave the whole organization a sense of why they were doing what they’re doing.
I can tell you down in Baltimore you had no interaction with the players so you may as well have been a marketing firm or something like that. I know it meant a lot to the people who grinded through those less than ideal physical plant/living arrangements.
TL: In 19 seasons, 2015 being the 20th, the Ravens have won two world championships. Since you’ve come along and since John Harbaugh has come along you’ve been consistent winners. Years ago you told me that organizationally you didn’t want to experience the ups and downs of windows of opportunity opening and closing. You sought stability. And you’ve accomplished that.
Looking ahead to the next 20 years, what can fans expect from you in terms of how you manage the team? When we sit down to discuss a 40 For 40 what might we be talking about?
SB: That’s a good question Tony. I’ve always left that open for me. I don’t know that I’ll be the owner 20 years from now. It does take a lot out of you and I don’t know that I’m here when I’m 75. I really like to focus on, and right now it’s like I’d hire John Harbaugh again tomorrow. So I don’t know. I’d like to talk about the next 10 years.
I want Ozzie to stay as long as he wants. I think it’s well documented that Eric is happy and patient – God bless him, to wait to take over for Ozzie. So I’m kind of looking at Ozzie, Joe and John being secure here for the next 8 or 10 years.
So I’m really happy to be sitting here and saying that I don’t have major upheaval in my future. I think it’s pretty cool if we can win a couple more and we’re 8 years out and there’s still the same guys sitting on that stage when it comes to the quarterback, head coach and the GM.