Steelers vs. Cardinals: not exactly the dream matchup NFL suits envisioned in November. Back then it looked like the big game might feature Manning vs. Manning, or Brett Favre squaring off against the Green Bay Packers, or the Dallas Cowboys traveling circus against anybody.
The Steelers-Cardinals pairing would seem to be a mismatch with little buzz to draw casual fans. NBC doesn't have much hope of matching last year's record 97.5 million viewers who tuned in to watch the New York Giants take down the previously undefeated New England Patriots.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are the Goliaths in this year's matchup, and the team is one of the NFL's model franchises. Over the past 40 seasons, it has won five Super Bowls, had 19 10-win seasons, and been a model of stability under the leadership of only three head coaches.
The Arizona Cards are the Davids, and the team has been the NFL's punching bag through much of its existence. It is the Cardinals' first Super Bowl appearance. The team has had only three 10-win seasons (none since 1976) and a revolving door of 14 coaches in 40 years.
Vegas has crowned the Steelers as well, making the Pittsburgh team the favorite by a touchdown.
Yet despite their disparate on-field histories, the Steelers and Cardinals are not so different when it comes to financial status. Last season the Steelers booked $216 million in revenue, compared with $203 million for the Cards. The Cardinals' operating income (in the sense of earnings before interest, taxes and depreciation) was $20 million, compared the Steelers' $14 million.
The similarities in their financial positions can be traced to the NFL's revenue-sharing policy. Each team received a $15 million share last season from the portion of ticket revenue that gets divvied up equally among the league's 32 teams. And each gets an equal cut of merchandise sales: $6 million per team in 2007.
The big equalizer in the NFL, however, is TV money. The NFL's contracts with Direct TV, Walt Disney Corp., General Electric and News Corp. paid each team $109 million in 2007. These deals were responsible for half of the league's $7 billion in revenue.
The Steelers and Cardinals do share some common history, which has been blurred by the Steelers' rise to prominence in the 1970s.
The teams were purchased a year apart by the fathers of the current owner: Charles Bidwill bought the Cardinals in 1932, while Art Rooney reportedly used his winnings at the racetrack to buy the Steelers for $2,500 in 1933. Only the Chicago Bears and New York Giants have had family ownership stakes longer than the Cardinals and Steelers.
Both teams were completely inept before the 1970s and languished at the bottom of the standings. The Steelers failed to win 10 games in a season until 1972 and only made the playoffs one time before then. Over this same period the Cardinals had two 10-win seasons and made the playoffs twice.
The Steelers' fortunes turned in the 1970s under the guidance of coach Chuck Noll, who assembled a squad filled with Hall of Famers including Terry Bradshaw, Joe Greene, Franco Harris and Jack Lambert. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in a six-year stretch, the only NFL team to accomplish such a feat.
The Steelers' fortunes had turned on the field, but it remained one of the NFL's financial have-nots through much of the 1980s and 1990s. The Steelers' home, Three Rivers Stadium, was used for football and baseball and failed to produce the luxury suite and sponsorship revenues that teams in new stadiums were earning. By 2000, only one NFL franchise (the Cardinals) generated less revenue than the Steelers.
The Steelers turned the corner financially in 2001 with the opening of the $281 million Heinz Field; the team contributed $109 million to the cost while taxpayers picked up the rest of the tab. The stadium features 129 luxury suites that cost $105,000 on average today. Pittsburgh-based Heinz in a twist on its "57 Varieties" slogan agreed to pay $57 million over 20 years for naming rights to the building. Profits have topped $10 million every year since the stadium opened.
The Cardinals took a little longer to turn things around. The Cardinals hosted only one playoff game and won only two total before this year's run to the Super Bowl. The franchise was hampered by William Bidwill's tight-fisted ways, demonstrated by his one jock strap and T-shirt per player policy; if a player wanted an extra, he had to pay up.
The Cardinals had the league's lowest revenue each year between 2000 and 2005. The team's prosperity improved dramatically, however, with the opening of the new $395 million University of Phoenix Stadium in 2006. The team kicked in $148 million to the cost but pays a mere $250,000 rental fee and gets to keep all of the stadium revenues generate during games.
The new stadium bumped team revenues 20 percent in its first year. Online-education titan University of Phoenix is paying $155 million over 20 years to brand the stadium, the third-biggest naming-rights deal in NFL history. The Cardinals have sold out 24 straight regular-season games in the three years the stadium has been open, compared with 12 home games in the prior 18 seasons.
On the field the Cards poached former Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt in 2007 to lead the team. Whisenhunt delivered in only his second season. It is an amazing turnaround on and off the field for a team that was the laughingstock of the NFL for decades.
Steelers vs. Cardinals: maybe not such a mismatch after all.
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