Professional football has longtime gambling ties

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The Rooney family's racetracks in New York and Florida have been out of step with the NFL's broad anti-gambling policies for years. That may be cleaned up in the ongoing restructuring of the family's ownership of the Steelers, but also serves as a reminder of pro football's longtime ties to gambling, from its founding fathers down to the fans placing bets today.

The National Football League's policy manual has long stated that "no owner of an interest in a NFL club may own, directly or indirectly, any interest in any gambling casino." Other policies for players and other team personnel (including management) bar any promotion of acts "that can reasonably be perceived as constituting affiliation with or endorsement of gambling or gambling-related activities."

Yet the NFL has long allowed the Rooneys to keep their interest in dog and horse racing tracks, because gambling at the track is an inexorable part of the team's -- and the league's -- very DNA.

Urban legend says Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. bought the team in 1933 with horse race winnings: That is in dispute, but certainly two big days at the track in 1936 let him keep the Steelers alive during the Depression. He joined other early team owners with links to the gambling world, including Chicago Cardinals founder Charles Bidwill Sr. , a horse track owner like Mr. Rooney, and New York Giants founder Tim Mara, a (then-legal) bookie.

The racing connection continues today: Houston Texans owner Bob McNair is a longtime race horse and stables owner and famed former coach Bill Parcells is such a horse-racing fan he bought a home close to Saratoga Race Course.

So over the years, as the league has taken a hard stance against casino-based forms of gambling, team owners have been allowed to keep an interest in dog and horse racing, as "a narrow, historically based exception" to the league's rules, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said yesterday.

Otherwise, those rules clearly prohibit team owners -- such as the five Rooney brothers who share an 80 percent interest in the Steelers -- from owning other gaming ventures. Under a league policy last reviewed in 1997, team owners are barred from owning not just casinos but "card rooms, lotteries, slot machines and the like."

The Rooney-owned Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. -- a dog track with televised horse racing -- opened its first poker card room in 1997. State-sanctioned increases to poker bets that took effect last summer have helped the club gather almost $10 million in poker bets over the past year, the most card room receipts of any track in the state, according to Florida's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. (Through May, it took in $82 million in live and televised track bets during the 2007-08 fiscal year.)

In 2006, the Rooney-owned Empire City Yonkers Raceway outside New York City, a horse-racing track, started its first video-gaming operations, now offering more than 5,000 video slot and lottery machines and raking in more than $400 million in annual net revenues.

The tracks are run by Tim, Pat and John Rooney, three of Art Rooney Sr.'s five sons, who each have 16 percent stakes in the Steelers. The other equal stakes are held by Art Jr. and Dan, the team chairman. Dan Rooney released a statement Monday saying the family, in conjunction with the NFL, has been discussing Steeler ownership changes for the past two years, partially due to the new gaming offerings at the family-owned tracks.

(The restructuring would also address another league rule where the Rooneys are out of compliance, requiring team owners to have at least 30 percent interest in franchises.)

Cleaning up the gambling connections inside the Steelers ownership is part of the league's effort, Mr. Aiello said, to enforce "on a strict and uniform basis our long-standing policy separating gambling and football."

Gambling experts scoff at the NFL when it says things like this, noting that betting is a major driver in fan interest in football games -- $1.176 billion in authorized football bets were placed with Nevada sports books last year, almost twice that of basketball or baseball, according to the state's Gaming Control Board. A record $94.5 million was wagered on the February 2006 Super Bowl won by the Steelers. (Estimates on illicit sports betting vary widely -- a 1999 federal report put it between $80 billion and $380 billion.)

Major newspapers, including this one, print betting lines on NFL games and the league releases player injury information, partially (but unofficially) to keep gamblers away from inside information.

The gaming industry also looks at the league's tough talk as a bit patronizing. While Nevada casinos won $173 million on football bets in 2007, it won loads more -- $12.8 billion -- in table games and slot machines. That kind of interest and spending has led to the casino booms nationwide, including at the Rooney-owned racetracks.

"These are public companies subject to state regulation, with a lot more transparency in their dealings than with most sports franchises," said David G. Schwartz, director of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Center for Gaming Research.

Casinos can make easier money with slots machines and poker than with sports, which may be why Pat Rooney said in 2002 that the Kennel Club was the most profitable of all the family's holdings.

"Maybe legal gaming should put restrictions on its operators owning football teams," said I. Nelson Rose, a California-based attorney specializing in gaming law.


Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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