Bargain Bengals Latest Small-Market Team to Score Big

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The Cincinnati Bengals are redefining the phrase “doing more with less.”

The Joe Burrow-led Bengals are headed to their first Super Bowl since 1989 after edging the Kansas City Chiefs in last week’s AFC Championship game. They’re making the trip to glitzy Los Angeles for the big game with an underdog franchise that’s anything but flashy. In the NFL, where the average franchise is valued over $3.5 billion, the Bengals—the least valuable team in the league in Sportico’s valuations, at $2.4 billion—stand out as one of the most overachieving investments in all of sports.

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The Bengals knocked off the Chiefs to become the latest small-market NFL team to find success. While both Cincinnati and the Chiefs made it to the AFC title game via the right arm of a phenom quarterback, the Bengals are yet to dole out any record-setting contracts.

The team will have the second lowest payroll going into 2022, according to Spotrac, which tracks player and team salaries. It’s also worth noting Bengals paid a fraction ($44 million) for their $455 million stadium, which opened in 2000, with taxpayers footing the rest of the bill.

Plenty of “Who Dey” fans have described longtime Bengals owner Mike Brown as being cheap. But sports economist and Smith College professor Andrew Zimbalist would rather use the word “careful.”

“People don’t gravitate toward it as a sexy franchise, but I wouldn’t mind owning it,” Zimbalist said facetiously. “So, if you have some shares to send me, go ahead.”

Brown, the son of Hall of Fame coach and Bengals founder Paul Brown, gained control of the team in 1991, with his family taking complete ownership in 2011. His tenure leading a perennial loser has been met with criticism, including when star quarterback Carson Palmer chose to retire rather than play on with the franchise.

Another dismal season in 2019 led to another first round pick the following spring, but the arrival of Burrow in 2020 marked the beginning of a turnaround.

The Bengals could potentially join the Chiefs as well as the Milwaukee Bucks and Tampa Bay Lightning—small market teams who have won titles within the last two years. But the gains shouldn’t be compared side by side. All 32 NFL teams share national revenue from media and merchandise deals, and small market teams aren’t dependent on regional TV deals like other major leagues.

The Bengals, who bring in one of the lowest local revenues in the league, benefit from the massive TV deals; they’ll receive $400 million in league TV money in 2023, up from $309 million last season.

The recent success likely won’t impact bottom line immediately, but it potentially changes the long-term perception of a team that won its first playoff game in 31 years two weeks ago. Edwin Draughan, vice president of sports advisory firm Park Lane, also believes the Bengals could use the moment to anticipate prolonged success, which will drive sponsor opportunities and brand awareness. That’s what Kansas City has done.

“It’s less about them having a (successful) year but more about them having great years in the future, thanks to the young phenom quarterback,” said Draughan, who evaluates investing opportunities in sports franchises. “That’s more bankable than the luck of getting to the Super Bowl.”

Whether they’re crowned champs or not, sustained success will provide leverage for the Bengals when stadium negotiations are expected to start again in 2024, two years before the lease agreement expires.

It could also play a role in if the Bengals will decide to finally sign a naming-rights deal, as they are currently one of the few NFL teams that doesn’t have a corporate sponsorship. But the Brown family seems willing to sacrifice millions annually to keep the namesake on the building. The Chiefs themselves agreed to a naming rights partner for Arrowhead Stadium for the first time in franchise history last year (GEHA Field).

“People want to be associated with a winner,” Ohio Wesleyan University professor and labor economist Robert Jitter said. “I would say five years ago, before Patrick (Mahomes) got there, Kansas City wasn’t considered such a hot property.”

The Bengals are hoping to stay similarly relevant for the first time in decades. Time will tell if this season was a fluke or the start of brighter days ahead for the downtrodden franchise. But right now, the Bengals’ run will fuel the conversation around small market teams and their ability compete with more lucrative franchises.