No one can talk about Chuck Greenberg’s ownership of the minor-league Frisco RoughRiders without talking about the lazy river. The signature feature of the Class AA ballpark in suburban Dallas isn’t one of the biggest scoreboards in minor-league baseball or the array of food options. It’s the meandering water feature above the right-field wall, an amenity Greenberg installed after a series of if-you-could-have-anything conversations with fans.
“Some of the ideas, when they first surfaced, we were like, ‘Are you sure about this?’” said Barry McPherson, a cybersecurity executive who is one of the RoughRiders’ owners. “People love it.”
That’s very much in character for the man who would buy the Carolina Hurricanes, according to those who know him: He’s still a fan first.
Greenberg, who has a term sheet in place to buy the Hurricanes from Peter Karmanos, helped Mario Lemieux save the Pittsburgh Penguins, was the point man on a deal to purchase the Atlanta Hawks, Thrashers and Philips Arena and was briefly the managing partner of the Texas Rangers before focusing on minor-league baseball teams in Frisco and Myrtle Beach.
Interviews with people close to Greenberg and others who have knowledge of the proposed purchase but requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks paint a picture of a front man who would be deeply concerned with the fan experience and revitalizing Raleigh as a hockey market, but lacking the money to fund the purchase himself and reliant on a group of investors to get the deal done.
If the deal goes through, at a reported price of $500 million that likely includes a large amount of assumed debt while valuing the actual franchise closer to $300 million, Greenberg would move to Raleigh with the intention of making the team work here. That’s what Hurricanes fans long afraid of a move to Quebec City or Seattle during these years of ownership uncertainty as Karmanos has had the team on the market have been hoping to hear.
“Pete Karmanos loves hockey and the science and strategy of hockey and we’ll forever be indebted to him for bringing NHL hockey to North Carolina,” said former Hurricanes president Jim Cain, a Raleigh lawyer who worked with Greenberg on the Atlanta deal. “Chuck, though, loves sports. He loves what sports can do for a community, for a city, for a region. That’s a different personality in an owner. I’m not saying Chuck doesn’t love hockey. He does. He’s not the hockey purist Karmanos is. Chuck doesn’t aspire to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. That’s Pete.”
Greenberg, 56, a Pittsburgh native, was working as a lawyer there when the Penguins were in danger of moving in the late ’90s. He helped push through the sale of the bankrupt team to Lemieux that not only kept the team in town but set the stage for a new arena and the team’s current dynasty. Among the people Greenberg met then, through Lemieux: current Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis, who arrived in Pittsburgh in 1991 in a controversial trade from the Hartford Whalers.
That set Greenberg down a new path: Getting on the other side of the table.
In 2003, Texas auto-dealership magnate David McDavid asked Greenberg to put together a deal to buy the Atlanta teams and arena from Turner Broadcasting. Greenberg asked Cain, who had recently left the Hurricanes, to come aboard. The two worked closely with Greenberg’s team of financial experts for months; Cain said the focus was less on the finances and more on how they could make the teams successful while rejuvenating an area of downtown Atlanta that had languished since the arena was built.
After many late nights and false dawns, Greenberg thought he had a deal in place to purchase the teams, only for Turner Broadcasting to sell the teams to Ted Turner’s son-in-law. That led to a three-ring lawsuit by McDavid that lasted five years before a jury awarded him $281 million.
By that time, Greenberg had been involved with three minor-league baseball teams and was ready to jump up a level. In 2010, he joined Nolan Ryan and other investors to buy the Rangers. Greenberg was the front man and managing partner in a similar arrangement to the one he would have with the Hurricanes. The Rangers went to the World Series that year, shortly after the sale was finalized, and Greenberg was a very visible figure that fall.
“When he was with the Rangers we would do numerous interviews with Chuck and his goal was always to make them as big as the Cowboys,” said Dallas television and radio personality Newy Scruggs, a Fayetteville native. “That was what he wanted to do. The Rangers were never going to be on the Cowboys’ level. It was just impossible. But hey – what’s wrong with trying to achieve it?”
But Greenberg’s tenure as managing partner only lasted seven months before his relationship with the other owners faltered, in part over his ambition for the team and the investment it would have required. (The Rangers’ failure to re-sign postseason star Cliff Lee was apparently a sticking point.) In March 2011, the other owners bought him out.
“Somehow things got sideways with that group, him and Nolan,” Scruggs said. “I’m not exactly sure why. I’ve never been able to get down to it. They ended up saying, ‘Hey, here’s your take, go ahead and move on.’ He hasn’t said anything negative about it and people around here won’t give you anything.”
Greenberg stayed in Dallas, always with an eye on getting back into the major leagues. He kicked the tires on the Dallas Stars when they were for sale in 2011 and eventually bought the RoughRiders, the Rangers’ Texas League affiliate, in 2014.
“Chuck wasn’t going to spend his career billing by the hour at a big law firm,” Cain said. “He wanted to build things around his No. 1 passion, which was sports.”
The biggest hurdle he faces in purchasing the Hurricanes – other than finalizing negotiations with Karmanos – will be defending his finances to the NHL’s Board of Governors, which must approve the purchase. While Greenberg would not have gotten this far without the tacit approval of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, some NHL owners will want to be reassured that Greenberg has the backing to sustain losses without help from the league, not to mention the cohesion his group ended up lacking with the Rangers.
That isn’t a question when a potential owner’s net worth stretches to 10 figures, but it will be for Greenberg, whose group includes multiple partners both in the Triangle and elsewhere. With the support of Bettman and Karmanos and a history of successful ownership elsewhere, Greenberg should be able to win over the other NHL owners the same way he has won over his previous investors.
McPherson isn’t one of Greenberg’s investors in the Hurricanes deal at this point, but he plans on relocating to Charleston soon and grew up a Whalers fan outside Boston. Given his experience with Greenberg in Texas, it’s certainly something he would consider.
“From what I’ve seen, everything he’s touched has gotten better both from a business perspective as well as a fan perspective,” McPherson said. “I’m a baseball and hockey fan first, and even the RoughRiders, who were successful before, I’ve seen what he’s done to make it better.
“It’s been great. I actually said recently, ‘I wish I invested more.’”
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock