In Character: a profile of Drew Mahalic, CEO, Oregon Sports Authority

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Taking one for the team

Drew Mahalic says fund education first, then get baseball.

By Oakley Brooks

Say this about Drew Mahalic: He's a team player.

He badly wants a major league baseball franchise in Portland. The feeling is personal as well as professional. After five seasons as an NFL linebacker in the late '70s, he knows what the top level of professional sports feels like in his bones. He's a sports aficionado, right down to the way he paused with a visitor recently in his small office, not far from PGE Park, to glowingly display one of Sammy Sosa's bats from his collection. For Mahalic, who moved to Portland 18 years ago, a baseball team isn't only another attraction or a $100 million business, it's a crucial building block for the growth of his adopted burg in the 21st century.

"It's a rite of passage," says Mahalic, the CEO of the Oregon Sports Authority, a nonprofit founded by regional government Metro and charged with bringing big-time events and teams to the state.

For the moment, however, Mahalic is willing to temper his major league aspirations. Another opening day passes with only the Triple-A Beavers to watch at PGE, and the Trail Blazers franchise is on the rocks. But Mahalic says he will wait to rally the reluctant baseball troops in Mayor Tom Potter's office until something else is settled: education funding.

"Our city needs to find the solution for our schools first," Mahalic says. "You don't focus on bringing in an MLB franchise until you've got your education program fulfilled. We continue to have dialogue with the Florida Marlins, for example, but we know that can't be put on the front burner until the education issue is solved."

This is coming from the man who jumped on the horn and called the Marlin's front office late last year during a press conference in which the team announced it would explore leaving Miami. What gives? It may be a well-calculated genuflect to Potter, whose energy these days is focused on school funding. Mahalic needs Potter's clout to lure a franchise to Portland.

But education also seems to have currency for Mahalic beyond its political value. Mahalic, 52, is the only NFL player to have earned a Harvard Law School degree, thank you very much. He and his wife, Joan, spent four years working on human rights policy at the United Nations in Geneva. And two of their kids go to Portland public schools. He's smart, in more ways than one, all of which have led him to this point.

"We all grow in terms of what is and isn't critical," says Mahalic.

What he's learned is to avoid is another 2003, when education and baseball played off against each other as the then-Montreal Expos considered moving to Portland while school districts mulled cutting school days and teachers began a "Bring Major League Education to Oregon" bumper sticker campaign.   

The baseball vs. education situation did injustice to his group, Mahalic says now, tilting his wave of gray hair downward to gaze at the ground. When high school athletics were on the chopping block in Portland in spring of 2003, Mahalic stepped forward with $100,000 of the authority's money to help save it. More telling, when Portland area high schoolers took to the streets in late 2002 to protest pending budget cuts, Mahalic says he marched right beside his kids up Broadway.

"We've never had an agenda that we thought would be a detriment to our kids in the state," he says.

"We" because Mahalic is the full-time representative of a major league effort that consists of at least three other coalitions including the Portland Baseball Group, led by Lewis and Clark College law professor Steve Kanter. (Without speaking to Mahalic about Mahalic's new approach to education and baseball recruitment, Kanter says only, "I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time.")

Meanwhile, Nike, Adidas, Freightliner, Columbia Sportswear, among other corporate heavyweights, all pitch in to the sports authority's $500,000 annual budget. With a staff of two and a board of big names such as Clyde Drexler and Peter Jacobsen, Mahalic has elevated the agency from an events planning outfit when he started in 1996 to a group that essentially sells Oregon to the sports world. He headed to Turin in February to explore ways to draw pre-Olympic training delegations and post-Olympic tourism from the Vancouver, B.C., games in 2010.

Sports promotion is no less of an intellectual pursuit for Mahalic than past posts at the United Nations and later Pacific and Portland State universities. He's developed nuanced ways to cast the state: For instance, all our big sportswear companies give us a higher "sports IQ" than anywhere else. And he has a spreadsheet of numbers and facts in his head about how we stack up in the professional sports world: the largest city with only one pro franchise, the eighth-highest TV rating for the World Series last year, the two-thirds majority in Portland who support major league baseball recruitment.

Getting Mayor Potter to champion baseball will demand all of Mahalic's mental faculties. Potter has said he will put up no city funds for a major league stadium, and he's offered, at best, mixed moral support for Mahalic's recruitment effort.

One would be hard pressed to find a city that has successfully recruited a new team without the mayor leading the charge, tax revenues for a stadium in hand. 

Mahalic is not ruffled by city hall's stance; he doesn't even shift in his seat when asked about it. He has a sports metaphor to offer, instead.

"I had a coach in San Diego who used to say about tackling people on a screen pass: 'If it were easy, nobody would run screens,'" Mahalic says. "There's no sense of frustration here," he continues. "This is complicated stuff."


 

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