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Rooted in Boston

City has more owners than it has teams to go around

If all had gone as planned, Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie would be rooting for the Patriots during this weekend's Super Bowl. Lurie, a Newton native, grew up an ''obsessed" Patriots fan and tried to buy the team in the mid-1990s.

Lurie failed in that bid, as well as in an attempt to buy the Rams, then based in Los Angeles. But his efforts were not in vain, serving instead as in initiation rite into one of the country's most exclusive and rarefied clubs: owners of professional sports teams.

Lurie didn't realize it at the time, but he was blazing a path that would be heavily traveled in the following years. Both the Celtics and the Red Sox were put up for sale in recent years, sparking frenzied bidding wars that lured many wealthy executives in this sports-crazed region into dreams of franchise ownership. Boston real estate executive Frank McCourt, defeated in his bid for the Red Sox, took ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers last year. Steve Belkin, owner of a Boston travel agency and a partner with former Celtic Larry Bird in bids for professional basketball franchises, landed two Atlanta teams last year, basketball's Hawks and hockey's Thrashers.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Northampton, said the concentration of ownership among Boston natives is unusual, but not totally unexpected.

''Cities that are large and have a lot of economic clout will produce disproportionately more owners than cities that are small," Zimbalist said. ''That in Boston is combining with an intensely active and involved fan base in all the sports. It's to be expected you'd see more people coming out of Boston."

But the owners' Boston roots can cause some awkward moments. Lurie, the Eagles owner, said some of his family members are still Patriots fans. ''We stay off the subject," he said.

Lurie lost the Patriots' sale to current owner Robert Kraft, who already owned the Patriots' stadium.

When McCourt's Dodgers played the Red Sox in Fenway Park in June, McCourt, a former bidder on the Red Sox, made a rare speech to his Dodgers players in the locker room. He reassured them that, despite his Red Sox memories growing up, his allegiance now is ''100 percent Dodgers."

During that speech, McCourt said, he also promised to bring some of the Fenway tradition to Los Angeles, where he now spends about two-thirds of his time.

''I said we'd restore the winning tradition to the Dodgers, and they should go out and win," he said. ''I felt it was appropriate because of the uniqueness of my being from Boston."

But for the most part, the Boston owners all said switching their sports loyalties has not been a problem. Lurie, who once was so devoted to the Patriots that he attended every home game, even in the snow, said he became an Eagles fan once he began negotiating to buy the team. ''As obsessed I was about sports in Boston, all my attention has come to build this franchise," he said.

Boston's loyal fan base and the storied history of its sports teams come at a cost, however: higher prices for those who want to own them. All four of Boston's sports teams rank near the top of their leagues in value, and when they get sold, the new owners are not always from Boston. In the Red Sox sale in 2001, John Henry, a Florida financier, edged out local bidders to pay $700 million for the team.

The outside ownership and high prices in Boston force local executives to look elsewhere to own teams, said Dennis Howard, a professor of marketing with the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

''There are a finite number of opportunities to own a team in their market," he said. ''These premier teams just don't come in the market that often."

Belkin, the Atlanta owner, tried to buy the Celtics twice. But about five years ago, he said, he became convinced that owning teams outside of Boston would be a better investment. In the end, he paid less for the two Atlanta teams and the arena than it would have cost to buy the Celtics alone, he said.

Belkin, who still lives in Weston, said he also wanted to maintain his family's privacy: He has become a public figure in Atlanta, but he is less recognized in Boston.

''It seemed it gave us the best of both worlds," he said. ''I still have the pleasure and excitement of owning a sports team, but I live a private and normal life."

Despite the high prices of Boston teams, not every would-be owner wants to buy teams in other cities. Joe O'Donnell, owner of the Boston Culinary Group, grew up a Red Sox fan in Everett and tried to buy the team several years ago. He said he has thought about buying a majority stake in another team, but concluded it would not be right for him.

''I'm too parochial," he said. ''I don't leave Boston very often. I like the idea of the Red Sox. It was a boyhood dream."

Though the Boston team owners have changed allegiances, they have not gone far from their roots. Lurie -- who holds a doctorate from Brandeis, a master's from Boston University, and a bachelor's degree from Clark University -- uses Boston metaphors when he talks about his team's chances to unseat the Patriots and become the Super Bowl champions. He likens the Eagles, who took four years to win the NFC championship, to the Red Sox in their quest to win the World Series.

During the World Series last year, Lurie and Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb flew to Boston for the second game directly after the Eagles beat the Cleveland Browns in overtime. That week, Lurie wore a Red Sox hat to football practice.

''These are long-suffering fans that have had very good teams in the last several years, but they couldn't quite get over the hump beating the Yankees," Lurie said. ''It took us four games to get over the hump to the Super Bowl."

Sasha Talcott can be reached at

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