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The billionaire behind the bid for Pittsburgh Penguins brought wins and gentrification to Boston

Boston Red Sox owner John Henry walks on the field before a baseball game against the New York Yankees, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Boston.
Michael Dwyer
Boston Red Sox owner John Henry walks on the field before a baseball game against the New York Yankees, Friday, June 25, 2021, in Boston.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are on the market. That's according to a number of reports this week that current ownership is nearing a deal to sell the franchise to Fenway Sports Group.

FSG is led by billionaire businessman and investor John Henry, a name likely unfamiliar to many Pittsburghers, but not so unfamiliar to the people of Boston. Henry and Fenway Sports Group purchased the Red Sox in 2002.

90.5 WESA’s Christopher Ayers spoke with Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy. He's the author of the book “The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry are Remaking Newspapers for the 21st Century.”

Ayers: Who is John Henry?

Kennedy: John Henry is, as you say, a billionaire financier. He has based himself in Boston for the past couple of decades. And despite the fact that he owns two of the most prominent institutions in Boston — the Red Sox and the Boston Globe — he's pretty low-key, and we don't hear from him that often.

His influence is really felt in the decisions he makes at The Globe and with the Red Sox, rather than in anything that he says.

Ayers: Henry has ownership stakes not only in Major League Baseball but the English Premier League, as the principal owner of the Liverpool Football Club, and an auto racing team.

He's also, as you mentioned, the owner of the Boston Globe newspaper, along with some other media interests. So how would the acquisition of the Penguins fit into Henry's sports and media portfolio?

Kennedy: He began as a baseball fan. That was really what got him into this. But I think he really wants to expand beyond that. He is very involved in his football team in Liverpool. So I think that if he were to acquire the Penguins, he wouldn't be hands-on, and he probably wouldn't turn his attention to it every day. But I do think he'd be pretty involved in decisions aimed at turning the Penguins into a successful franchise because he's been pretty successful at everything he's done. And I think that's important to them

Christopher Ayers: Knowing what we know about Henry and FSG as owners, what would their stewardship of the team mean for the city outside of sports ownership?

Dan Kennedy: I think that his experience with the Red Sox may be somewhat instructive. When he headed the group that bought the Red Sox, they were trying to get the city to help them build themselves a new stadium. They were going to tear down Fenway Park, and Henry came in and immediately turned all that around. He began a massive upgrade of Fenway Park, which certainly endeared him to everybody in Boston.

He upgraded the area around Fenway Park to his own enrichment in many respects, but [he] really sparked this enormous renaissance of economic activity around Fenway Park.

Ayers: Discussion of [the sale of the Penguins] comes during a time when major developments are underway in the Lower Hill district, where the Penguins are located. And the team has been very much involved in developing plans for the site of the former Civic Arena.

So, just based on what you've seen in Boston, how has that neighborhood around Fenway changed, whether it be for better or for worse?

Kennedy: John Henry's ownership of the Red Sox definitely contributed to the massive gentrification of an area that had been economically lagging for a long time. Now, maybe this was going to happen anyway. Just about every section of Boston has become gentrified.

Unfortunately, it's become a place where working-class people can no longer afford to live. And the downside of what's happened to the area around Fenway Park is that it's become kind of a playground for rich people.

But you know, there is a downside when you gentrify and develop an area that had been less affluent at one time, and that is the people who used to live there can no longer afford to live there.

Christopher started listening to public radio shortly after he picked up the keys to that '98 Chevy Cavalier back in 2004. He no longer has that car (it's kind of a funny story), but he still listens to — and now has a hand in creating — public radio programming everyday.