BIGPLAY’s NFL 100: 100 Personalities From the NFL’s First 100 Years: #49 Art Rooney

Art Rooney took a $2,500 dollar gamble to bring professional football to Pittsburgh. Two generations later the gamble is still paying off.

photo courtesy of Codey Dauch

Our NFL Top 100 personalities countdown goes off the field today. Today we know NFL Football as the prizefighter of American sports. Each year the Super Bowl is among the highest-rated television events of the year. Giant stadiums will pack to the brim on a Sunday to watch the elite football players face off in competition. Owning an NFL franchise is now a huge status symbol for the filthy rich. It is hardly a gamble as the league looks as big as ever in its 100th season.

That wasn’t always the case. In the formative days of the NFL, professional football was a bit of a novelty. Football was widely thought of for college kids. NFL ownership was more of a gamble at the time. In 1933 the NFL was entering its teenage years. There was a demand to perhaps bring in a franchise to the city of Pittsburgh. It was Art Rooney who first paid the $2,500 franchising fee to the league to bring a team in. Since in those days an owner didn’t exactly get the built-in fanbase marketing was key. Rooney decided to call the team the Pittsburgh Pirates to milk some publicity from the already popular MLB franchise in the city.

While Rooney’s team didn’t exactly see early success, Rooney himself was earning respect among the owners due to his mediation skills. His ideas helped save struggling franchised from moving from cities, including his own in Pittsburgh. In the first years of the Pirates, they were faced with the harsh reality that they didn’t have the financial backing to truly compete in the NFL. When faced with his own financial crisis Rooney’s gamble paid off in the form of a horse race. His winnings helped improve and sustain his team until the NFL hit a boom period in the 1940s.

Art Rooney (1901-1988) was the founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo courtesy of

In 1940 Rooney rebranded the team the Pittsburgh Steelers. Suddenly the gamble paid off in full. With the popularity of the league growing the Steelers became more financially self-sufficient. Rooney finally was able to focus on bringing an NFL championship to the city of Pittsburgh.

The issue is that before he decided to be a football owner Rooney had an interesting history in athletics. He was an Olympic qualifier in boxing in 1920, he was a minor league baseball player and played semi-professional football. Perhaps an always the bridesmaid never the bride trifecta. For the Steelers, their legacy was becoming very similar. The 1950s saw them playing second fiddle to the Cleveland Browns. The 1960s eventually saw the Green Bay Packers take that torch.

By the 1970s the NFL popularity had exploded. Improved television coverage had made the league’s popularity skyrocket. After years of being the bridesmaid, the Steelers suddenly found themselves married to the Lombardi Trophy. The Steelers won an unprecedented four Super Bowls in the decade cementing a new legacy of excellence in Pittsburgh.

As if a decade of dominance wasn’t enough that era marked the start of an era of consistency that will never be rivaled. The Steelers have not fired a Head Coach since the end of the 1968 season. Since the Steelers have only employed three Head Coaches. A legacy that outlived Rooney himself. Art Rooney passed away in 1988 leaving the team to his son. Dan Rooney wasn’t just a passive owner as he left his own impact on the NFL as the head of the NFL’s Diversity Committee. Now a third-generation has taken the reigns in the form of Art Rooney II and the Steelers have continued to be a staple in the NFL. Not too shabby for a $2,500 investment.

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