A decade ago, the Steelers were entirely owned by members of the Rooney family. As some of them began to acquire gambling interests that didn’t mesh with the NFL’s confusing and malleable gambling policy, some began to sell off their interests.
As recently explained by Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the only remaining Rooneys to own any significant percentage of the team will be Dan Rooney (pictured in 1966 with team founder Art Rooney Sr.) and Art Rooney II. The son and grandson, respectively, of Art Sr., Dan and Art II will continue to run the team, even as more non-Rooneys pile up more and more of the equity.
“I’m a lifelong Steelers fan but also a lifelong Rooney fan,” Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull, a significant owner of the franchise, told Bouchette. “It’s very important to me that the Rooney family is always the head of the Steelers.”
The Steelers apparently will enjoy at least one more generation of Rooney ownership, with Art II’s son Danny being groomed to eventually take over.
“The future of the Rooney family is bright,’’ Tull said. “Danny is driven, competitive, and learning the business from the ground up. Rather than using his last name to get a front-office position, Danny interned at the NFL and started on the lowest levels of the scouting department, doing all of the unglamorous work that goes into building a football team.”
In some cities, NFL ownership has become the local equivalent of royalty, with ownership passing from generation to generation until it reaches a generation that can’t or won’t carry the flag. The biggest challenge continues to be estate taxes, which can require heirs to sell ownership in the team in order to raise the money to pay the government. In some cases, it requires control of the franchise to be sacrificed.
It won’t get any easier as franchise values continue to grow. The more the inherited team ownership is worth, the more it will cost to pay the estate taxes.
Eventually, the NFL may not be able to find enough rich people to own and retain equity in franchises. And that could compel the league to dramatically overhaul its ownership rules. The ultimate end game would be the transformation of all franchises to a shareholder model, with the stock becoming a real asset that can appreciate and depreciate on the open market, and in which individuals can make real investments — no a Packers-style non-stock stock certificate that is essentially a very expensive piece of memorabilia.