It's no surprise that with the popularity of professional football, owning an NFL franchise is a lucrative business. In 2008 Forbes.com ranked all 32 NFL teams by net worth. The most valuable team? The Dallas Cowboys, worth an estimated $1.6 billion. The least valuable team? The Minnesota Vikings, only worth an estimated $839 million. My beloved Pittsburgh Steelers came in at #18, worth an estimated $1 billion.
Over the past year I've been watching the restructuring of the ownership of the Steelers closely not only because I grew up in Pittsburgh but also because with the astronomical values of NFL franchises comes the inevitable estate tax bill after the death of an owner. The NFL has seen its fair share of teams sold just to pay the IRS - the Miami Dolphins in 1992 after the death of Joe Robbie, the Washington Redskins in 1999 after the death of Jack Kent Cooke, the New York Jets in 2000 after the death of Leon Hess.
Couple estate taxes with the NFL's anti-gambling policies, and last year the Rooney family, who has continuously owned the Steelers since the franchise was purchased in 1933 by Arthur Joseph Rooney for a mere $2,500, reached a crossroads. Since the family owns interests in race tracks, some of which now have slot machines and video poker due to recent changes in gambling laws in Pennsylvania, the NFL forced the Rooneys to choose between football and gambling. Quietly the team was shopped around, and just when it looked like a deal had been struck in the fall with Stanley Druckenmiller, a billionaire Pittsburgh native, the deal fell through. Then in November 2008 it was announced that the five Rooney sons had reached an agreement that would result in two sons completely divesting themselves of their shares of the team (in order to remain in the gambling business) and two other sons selling some of their shares to current Steelers Chair Dan Rooney.
Well, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the deal is finally done. While the structure of the new ownership is being kept a secret, it has been rumored that members of the Rooney family, along with their cousins, the McGinleys, will own 66% of the team and a new group of investors, including Hollywood producer Thomas Tull and former Steelers wide receiver John Stallworth, will own the remaining 44%. The deal is expected to close within the next few weeks, just in time for the first preseason game - a rematch of the Super Bowl against the Cardinals.