New money plays old in a Super Bowl clash of cultures

As American football prepares for its season finale tomorrow, the future threatens to undermine the game's stability. Nick Halling reports from Detriot
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The Independent Online

An intriguing sub-plot to tomorrow night's Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the Pittsburgh Steelers is not the battle on the plastic surface of the splendid Ford Field complex in downtown Detroit, but the ideological war being waged in the boardrooms between the old and the new in the National Football League.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are the fourth-oldest franchise in the NFL. They were founded in 1933 by a local businessman, Art Rooney, the son of an immigrant Irish saloon keeper. Legend has it that Rooney liked to gamble on the horses, and after a successful afternoon he plonked his $2,500 winnings for the day to buy the fledgling league's Pittsburgh franchise.

The Steelers have remained a family business ever since. Art's son, Dan, who was still in nappies when his father had his day at the races, assumed the chairmanship on the death of his father in 1988, while grandson Art II is in charge of day-to-day administrative duties.

The Steelers emerged from four decades of failure to win four Super Bowls in the 1970s, and although success has eluded them for the past 26 seasons they have remained a byword for constancy under the careful watch of the Rooneys.

In contrast, the Seahawks, who entered the league in 1976, are owned by the billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft (along with Bill Gates). Last year Allen's personal fortune was estimated at $21bn(£11.9bn), making him the seventh-richest person on the planet. The Seahawks have never graced a Super Bowl before this season, but since Allen began investing in the franchise they have emerged from the also-rans, and seem well placed to contend for some time to come.

That the homely Steelers and the corporate billionaire's Seahawks can meet on a level playing surface is one of the triumphs of the NFL. Roman Abramovich could not thrive in this sport simply by waving his wallet around. Each of the league's 32 teams are governed by a salary cap, limiting how much they can spend on the 53 players on their roster. Of even greater importance is the revenue-sharing which decrees that television money generated by the teams is divided equally between the members. The league's oft-stated mantra that on any given Sunday any team can beat any other is no empty rhetoric: it is a proven fact.

However, this stable state of affairs is under threat. The collective bargaining agreement between owners and players has less than a year to run. If a new deal is not brokered before then, the cap will simply cease to be, leading to a potential free-for-all in which the owner with the deepest pockets will attract the best players. Of greater concern is that a new breed of NFL owner - young, ambitious types like Daniel Snyder, of the Washington Redskins - want to see an end to revenue sharing, leaving each team to secure its own television deals. The small-town franchises would be squeezed.

It is perhaps stretching things too far to suggest that Super Bowl XL is a battle between the haves and the have-nots, but the symbolism is discomforting for those who are charged with steering the game through the choppy waters ahead.

The irony is that in terms of philosophy the two owners have much in common. Both leave the running of their clubs to experienced football men. Both have supported their coaches through difficult times but, equally, both are prepared to be ruthless when necessary.

Pittsburgh's coach, Bill Cowher, endured a losing season in 1999 which prompted the inevitable calls for his dismissal. Instead, Rooney fired Cowher's boss, the general manager Tom Donohoe, thereby giving his coach his unqualified support.

"Look at the ownership. Mr Rooney is a football guy, and he understands his business," Cowher said this week. "In today's NFL, a lot of people are looking to make changes. I have been fortunate to have had his support through those times."

Holmgren arrived in Seattle with the two titles of coach and general manager but failed in the dual role.Allen stripped him of his executive authority, leaving him to concentrate on what he does best.

Like Cowher, Holmgren also had issues with a superior. Last season Allen stepped in to arbitrate on a spat between the coach and the team president, Bob Whitsitt. Whitsitt was fired.

"For the first few years, most of my communication with Paul was through e-mail," Holmgren said. "This year was different. The lines of communication to him have been opened up."

A shy, reclusive man, Allen was the guest of honour when the Seahawks booked their Super Bowl berth by defeating the Carolina Panthers in the NFC Championship game two weeks ago. After the win, Holmgren paid tribute to his owner. "I thanked him in front of the players for being patient with me in a volatile business," he said. "You don't always see that as much as you should."

Unlike some of the newer, more financially driven owners in the NFL, Allen can afford to indulge his whims. This, after all, is a man who bought Captain Kirk's chair from the Starship Enterprise, and is spending $240m to build a museum in tribute to another Seattle icon, the guitarist Jimi Hendrix. However, as much as he would reject the charge, he symbolises a new breed of owner who wants success no matter what the cost.

For Rooney, and a dwindling band of family-owned franchises, a way of doing business is threatened. There are no cheerleaders or mascots at Steelers games. "We don't need those types of things," Rooney once said. "Good, entertaining football is what people come to see."

As for tomorrow's contest, the Steelers and Seahawks will slug it out with each possessing a genuine chance of success. But the fight for a sport's soul is just beginning, and its eventual outcome is every bit as uncertain.