When Paul Pelosi bought a United Football League franchise in 2009, he insisted that he wasn’t living out some silly childhood dream of owning a professional sports team. “I’m in this because I think it is a very solid financial investment that is going to be very successful,” Pelosi said on the eve of the league’s inaugural coin toss.
It has, of course, been neither. The UFL suspended games in the fall of 2012, promising that it would finish its fourth season in the spring. We’re still waiting. Meanwhile, a newly released financial disclosure report reveals that Pelosi has dumped as much as $50 million into the league, including between $4.36 million and $9.45 million last year.
How did the husband of the most powerful woman in Washington find himself subsidizing the country’s umpteenth failed football league? It seems that Pelosi’s friend William Hambrecht, the California investment banker who underwrote Google’s initial public offering, persuaded him to ignore the lessons of history -- does no one remember the somnolent Indoor Football League or Vince McMahon’s XFL train-wreck? -- and take a fresh run at breaking the NFL monopoly. “I’m excited about it,” Nancy Pelosi said about the UFL.
The plan was to focus on “under-served” media markets, such as Las Vegas, Omaha, Virginia Beach and Sacramento, the home of Pelosi’s Mountain Lions. Having created supply, the new league soon discovered it was missing demand -- and thus, all the things, such as major TV deals and corporate sponsorships, that make professional sports leagues successful.
The league struggled. Litigation inevitably followed, including a lawsuit last year by former Mountain Lions head coach Dennis Green seeking more than $1 million in unpaid salary. (At Pelosi’s request, the suit was settled in arbitration.)
Hambrecht hasn't gotten off easy, either. He was personally named in a suit, filed in March by a group of 78 players and staff of the Omaha Nighthawks and Las Vegas Locomotives, seeking millions in back pay, punitive damages and legal fees. The UFL is proving to be an embarrassing, expensive misadventure for him, too. But at least he isn't married to the minority leader of the House of Representatives.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)