Art Rooney's letter to his sons is proving to be as telling today as it was in the months before his death.
July 13, 2008 8:00 AM
The 'mom-and-pop' business is in danger.
By Bob Smizik Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Just as politics makes strange bedfellows, money, particularly lots of it, makes unusual adversaries.
The Rooney brothers, the five sons of The Chief, the great Arthur J. Rooney, are at odds over the ownership of the Steelers -- their business, our passion.
We can only imagine what The Chief would think of this, of his boys fighting over the football team he founded. After all, he had warned them. He had told them -- more than 21 years ago -- it might come to this if they didn't listen to him. But like so many sons, they didn't heed the advice of their father. They knew better.
And so it has come down to this:
On one side is Dan Rooney, the eldest son and team chairman, who has run the organization so well for about 40 years. At his side is his son, Art II, who succeeded his father as team president.
On the other side are the four other Rooney brothers, Art Jr., Tim, John and Pat. Only Art worked in the football end of the family business, and he's been out of it for more than 20 years. Considering their ages, late 60s and older, the four brothers are concerned about their heirs. By most accounts, they want out of the football business and want what they believe is the proper remuneration for their 16 percent shares. That is said to be about $140 million apiece.
It has been written the four brothers are prepared to sell most or all of their holdings in the team, with multibillionaire Stanley Druckenmiller said to be ready to buy. Druckenmiller could control the team if the four brothers sell everything to him.
To avert this, Dan Rooney is reaching out to other billionaires to help him buy out his brothers and keep himself in control of the team.
There will be winners and losers in this, and we're not just talking about the Rooney brothers. We're talking about Steelers fans and the entire region.
It's hard to see Dan Rooney coming out of this a winner, although he never should be underestimated. His brothers are going to sell to someone, probably Druckenmiller, or he's going to bring in a partner. Either way, it will be difficult for him to maintain the control of the team that he has held. Generally speaking, when billionaires plunk down hundreds of millions of dollars, they want to be part of the action.
The days of a Rooney making the major decisions on football operations with the Steelers could well be near an end.
That makes the fans losers.
No disrespect for Stanley Druckenmiller because by all accounts he is a brilliant and generous man who loves the Steelers. He loves them so much he has been known to show up at Heinz Field with his face painted, just like any other crazed fan.
That's the problem. For all his business brilliance, Druckenmiller is a fan. Fans don't make good owners. Fans can't make the necessary ruthless business decisions involving their team. They lead with their heart, not their head.
Case in point: If a fan were running the Steelers, Alan Faneca would still be with the team. A fan wouldn't have the heart to allow the team captain, classy guy and extraordinary leader -- to say nothing of a great player -- to walk away through free agency. And that would have been a bad business decision.
Who knows? With a fan in control, Plaxico Burress might still be with the Steelers.
A fan might have fired Chuck Noll after a 1-13 season in 1969.
Dan Rooney ran the team he loved with his head, not his heart. Maybe he learned from his dad, who allowed his heart to dictate too many decisions, which caused the Steelers to be lovable losers for most of their first 40 years. But that doesn't mean he has always made the right decisions, always been in step with the times.
In a story last week, the Wall Street Journal wrote: "... the Rooneys have been operating the team as a mom-and-pop business for years, and the financial underpinnings of the team are fragile."
The newspaper pointed out the Steelers are in a small market, which once wasn't so important but now is. The days of NFL teams being on a level economic field are over. The Rooneys are stuck in Pittsburgh, with a small population and nowhere near the corporate might other NFL cities provide their teams. The Houston Texans, for example, receive $10 million annually from Reliant Energy for stadium naming rights. The Steelers get $2.9 million annual from Heinz.
Wealth equals might in the NFL and the Steelers -- neither ownership nor the region -- have it like other teams do. The Steelers are at a economic disadvantage. It hasn't caught up to them on the field -- but it might. It has hurt them in other areas. According to the WSJ, the Steelers are in the bottom half of the NFL in terms of profit.
About that advice from the Chief, which he offered 18 months before his death.
In a letter to his five sons, dated March 18, 1987, and which appears on the last page of Art Rooney Jr.'s book, "Ruanaidh [Rooney in Gaelic]," The Chief, in part, wrote:
"Time is running out on me. ... I would like to reach some kind of understanding so there will be no questions or complications regarding my Estate.
" ... I believe if this does not happen, down the road there's going to be nothing but lawsuits. I do not want this to happen. I want you to start working on this immediately and try to come to a fair conclusion."
Art Rooney was a wise man who through grand experiences knew the ways of the world. His sons could profit from his experience now -- especially after they failed to heed it 21 years ago.