HOUSE RULES Bigger, Better Stadiums Are Driving the Future of the NFL

Article excerpt

Time grows short for Dan Rooney's place of memory.

A place he loves, a steel-and-cement structure stuffed with glory, history and tradition, soon will be no more. For that, he is wistful and thankful, too.

Rooney, owner of the Steelers, soon will watch a game in Three Rivers Stadium for the final time. That is the site of what he considers the greatest play in NFL history: 1972's Immaculate Reception. Four times in the 30 years the Steelers called the place home, they won the Super Bowl. After this season, it will be torn down, part of an overwhelming NFL-wide trend toward shiny, new revenue-producing -- and very expensive -- state-of-the-art stadiums.

Rooney is quick to say he's not sad, and the trend isn't evil, good or even easily definable. The trend, he said, is one of necessity; the demise of Three Rivers, a sign of the times in the era of free-spending and free agency.

"We needed this to stay competitive, not only with other teams, but in this market," Rooney said. "There's no avoiding it. The way it is now, you must have great facilities. We had tremendous memories here, so many great games. You need memories, but you also have to know when to move on."

Who needs memories? No one in the NFL, not when faced with a choice: Memory or fiscal survival. That, owners and general managers say, is the fundamental issue in the trend toward new stadiums. The late Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner from 1960-1989, said stadium construction would be the league's most important issue in the 1990s and 2000s. Now, there is little dispute among owners that Rozelle was right, that the NFL is very much a stadium-driven league.

Even Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium, only six years old, isn't immune. Though not antiquated, the cost of the construction that made it the NFL's newest stadium in 1995 was $121 million. At the recent NFL owners meetings, just before the owners awarded Jacksonville the 2005 Super Bowl, Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver said he was seeking $40 and $50 million in as yet unspecified renovations.

"I used to go to league meetings and you'd never hear, 'stadium,' -- now, you hear it all the time," Packers president Bob Harlan said.

"Every NFL team has a place to play, but it's more than that," Vikings owner Red McCombs said. "It's about having a place to play that is competitive and allows you to be on a level playing field.

"It's really not an issue of whether one owner has 20 marbles and another guy has 10. It's an issue of, 'Do I have enough marbles to compete?' "

Stadiums are being built at a numbing rate. From 1976-1995, three stadiums were built for NFL teams -- the Metrodome in Minneapolis (1982), Joe Robbie in Miami (1987) and the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (1992). Since 1995, when Alltel Stadium was completed for the Jaguars' expansion season, eight stadiums have been built, nine more are scheduled for completion by 2003, and four more teams are pushing their communities for new stadiums.

The costs have escalated simultaneously. Alltel cost $121 million. The cost of the most recently completed stadium, Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, was $400 million.

How much has changed? How rapid is the growth? On the first day of next season, Alltel will turn six years old.

The AFC Central, the Jaguars' division, will have six stadiums. Alltel will be the oldest.

"Is it good or bad?" Giants owner Wellington Mara said, rhetorically. "I don't know if you can look at it that way. It is what it is."

WANTED: CASH ON HAND

Just how it is. A sign of the times. All may be true, but it didn't make life easier for Harlan the past year.

Wisconsin's Brown County approved $295 million in renovations to Lambeau Field in September, but only after Harlan spent a year educating voters on why renovations were necessary. The Packers have played in Lambeau since 1957, when it was built at a cost of $960,000, and won a Super Bowl in 1996. …