Rooneys may add another investor

Venture capitalist from Detroit in talks with Steelers owners

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The Rooney family may bring on an additional investment partner as it seeks to complete a new ownership structure that consolidates the team into the hands of Dan Rooney and his son Art Rooney II.

J.B. Smith, a venture capitalist from Detroit, confirmed yesterday that he is in investment talks with the Rooney clan, after he was viewed at the Steelers victory party and other Super Bowl events over the weekend. He would not say how much he is putting into the team, but said it was "a sizable investment" in the tens of millions of dollars.

Steelers spokesman Bert Lauton said the team cannot "comment, confirm or deny any investor or potential investors unless or until they approved by the NFL."

Mr. Smith, the managing partner of Equity 11, a private equity firm, jetted into the Tampa area Saturday after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and attended team events with Larry Lee, an Equity 11 business partner and former player and front office member of the Detroit Lions.

Therein is one tie between Mr. Smith and the Steelers: Mr. Lee worked for the Lions as vice president of football operations when current Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was their pro scouting director and Steelers college scouting coordinator Ron Hughes was Detroit's player personnel director. Mr. Smith also took a private jet with Mr. Lee to visit Steelers training camp for a day in August.

Mr. Smith, 36, a Philadelphia native who graduated from Penn State University, also is a fan -- of both the Steelers and the Rooney family.

"Over the last NFL season I became enamored with the Rooney family and what they've done not only in sport, but in being role models in business. They had multiple chances to sell out, and many would have done that. Their passion for the Steelers is an amazing thing," he said in a phone interview.

"I could invest in other places with better returns, but I want to help these guys out so they keep control."

In December NFL owners unanimously approved the ownership restructuring forwarded by Steelers CEO Dan Rooney and his son Art II, the team's president. Through the deal, they will be borrowing about $250 million to buy out all or part of the team shares held by Dan Rooney's four younger brothers.

At the time, the Rooneys confirmed three major investors helping them with financing: the Paul family of Pittsburgh, which owns specialty steel manufacturer Ampco-Pittsburgh; James Haslam III of Knoxville, Tenn., the president of truck stop firm Pilot Travel Centers; and Thomas Tull of Los Angeles, a film producer of "The Dark Knight," "We Are Marshall" and other films.

Mr. Smith would be a fourth. He would not describe his role in the investment team, but said it was due to be finalized by March 31, the closing date the Rooneys gave the NFL.

Equity 11, based in Auburn Hills, Mich., owns companies including iSekurity, a leading identity theft prevention firm employing more than 100 former federal agents, and Ecology Coatings, which develops clean coating technologies for manufacturing.

The proposed Steelers investment would be from a division of Equity 11 called Reign Sports. It is tied to another of Mr. Smith's ventures called WM Reign, an investment firm dedicated to funding churches and religious outreach. Mr. Smith developed the concept through the "Legacy" financing program helmed by the Rev. James L. Morman, the pastor of Christian Tabernacle Church in Southfield, Mich.

Another of Mr. Smith's spiritual advisers is Pastor Randall Cunningham -- the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who has a church in Las Vegas.

One of the things that sealed Mr. Smith's interest in the Rooneys was their religious faith. The family is Roman Catholic.

The Steelers "are an ethical organization. This is a nice bridge for me," Mr. Smith said. "I play in a dangerous space, venture capital, where things are ruthless and cutthroat, because that's where the money is. But my ultimate goal is to provide churches with finances and Christian causes with finances, so this is a nice bridge between the two."

Mr. Smith graduated from Penn State in 1995 with a degree in criminal justice. He lives in suburban Detroit and is married with two children.


Staff writer Ed Bouchette contributed to this report. Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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