The Billion Dollar Game
Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day In American Sport - Super Bowl Sunday
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A fascinating portrait of the National Football League, the Super Bowl, and all the position players who come together to create the biggest cultural phenomenon in American sports.
Think the Super Bowl is only about two teams of titans clashing on the field? Think again. The Super Bowl is about fans, hundreds of millions of fans. It’s about money, more money than the GDP of twenty-five sovereign nations. It’s about precision, the timing of everything from the notorious commercials to the epic halftime show. And it’s about the vision and skill of designing a state-of-the-art stadium to house the great show. Here, Allen St. John reveals how America’s biggest sporting event is more than just a couple hours on a Sunday: it’s a high stakes, real-life dramatic story, with millions of participants all hoping for the same thing—the greatest game ever.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
; January 2009
274 pages; ISBN 9780385529273
Download in secure PDF format
Title: The Billion Dollar Game
Author: Allen St. John
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If You Build It . . .
“It all started with an innocent phone call,” says Peter Eisenman.
Wearing a navy blue cashmere sweater with a small hole, Eisenman is sitting in the sunny, unpretentious Manhattan loft space that he calls his office, perched in an old black Breuer chair, at one end of a conference table big enough for a game of platform tennis. (Just the thing for spreading out pages of blueprints, I assume.) Eisenman is one of the major figures in contemporary architecture. He is also the first of many auteurs of Super Bowl XLII.
The man on the other end of that phone call in September 1996 was Mike Rushman. Rushman is a Phoenix-based lawyer who had worked briefly with Eisenman on a proposed, and ultimately abandoned, project at the Boston Navy Yard. Now he came to the architect with a proposition.
“Are you interested in football?” Rushman asked.
“Yes,” Eisenman replied.
“Well, the Arizona Cardinals are thinking of building a new stadium. And we’re going to have a competition, with Frank Gehry and Will Bruder, who’s a local architect,” Rushman explained.
“Frank Gehry doesn’t know anything about football,” Eisenman countered.
“This season is the fiftieth anniversary of the Cardinals winning their first NFL championship, so it’s a good time to kick this thing off.”
“Yeah, I know. I saw that team play,” said Eisenman casually.
“Really?” said Rushman.
“Not only did I see that team play, I can name the starting backfield. Paul Christman, who played at Missouri. Elmer Angsman, the fullback who played at Notre Dame. Pat Harder, who played at Wisconsin. Charley Trippi, who played at Georgia. And the fifth one was . . .” Eisenman paused, more for effect than anything else. “Marshall Goldberg, who played at Pittsburgh.”
Unlike Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenman knew a thing or two about football.
He went on to tell Rushman how the Cardinals had gotten their name. “They were an Irish club on the South Side of Chicago, and they had no money for jerseys.” Believe it or not, a half century ago, the National Football League was just a ragtag organization that took a backseat to the big college programs of the day. How ragtag? When Jay Berwanger of The University of Chicago, winner of the very first Heisman Trophy in 1935, was selected first overall by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the first NFL draft, he decided against playing pro football and became a successful foam rubber salesman instead.
“The University of Chicago was called the Maroons,” Eisenman continued. “And they would give their hand-me-down jerseys to the local pro team. But after being washed all year, by the end of the season they were no longer maroon, they were cardinal red.”
And with that casual phone call began an odyssey that would see a sleepy desert farming town become a place where, a dozen years later, the worlds of professional sports, high finance, and mass culture would come together on a sleet-gray January Sunday for Super Bowl XLII, not only the biggest Super Bowl but also the best. For a brief shining moment at least, Glendale, Arizona, would become the center of the universe.
The truth is that Super Bowls don’t really have a beginning, or at least one single beginning. A lawyer in search of a creation myth might settle on the day when bid contracts were signed. A football fan might consider the countdown to the next Super Bowl under way when the last one ends. A guy in the street might settle on the moment when the banners go up on the light posts.
But most years, it really is impossible to pin down where a Super Bowl starts. Super Bowls intersect and overlap, building on each other in a bumpy continuum that stretches all the way back to that first game between Vince Lombardi’s Packers and Hank Stram’s Chiefs.
But Super Bowl XLII is unique in this regard. It really does have a beginning, and it harks back to that fortuitous phone call between Eisenman and Rushman. This marked the moment when Arizona entered the Super Bowl business and the very first stadium built to host a Super Bowl began taking shape. It’s no coincidence that this conversation came only a few months after Arizona first hosted the Super Bowl, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe in January 1996.
The buildup to that first Super Bowl was rocky, to say the least. The NFL originally awarded the Cardinals Super Bowl XXVII, which was to be played in January 1993. But a growing controversy regarding the state’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday intensified. Facing a broad-based boycott of the state, which included both national convention planners and entertainers such as Stevie Wonder, the NFL took action. They made the unprecedented move of pulling the Super Bowl from Arizona and moving it to the Rose Bowl. This was a most uncharacteristic action. The NFL avoids taking public stands on political issues at all costs, but once the NFL Players Association weighed in, this one couldn’t be ignored. It was only after the state reversed its position on the King holiday that Arizona got its Super Bowl, three years late.
Swamped by all this brouhaha was an important truth: The greater Phoenix area was an almost ideal Super Bowl host city. The warm, dry midwinter climate was a huge attraction, as were the many golf courses and resorts in the area. There was a reason why professional athletes including Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, and Steve Nash would ultimately choose to play in Phoenix, and other superstars such as Kobe Bryant would seriously consider it. And the growing city had plenty of hotel rooms, restaurants, and convention facilities as well to handle the 89,000 visitors who flocked to the city during Super Bowl week. Before the game the organizers projected an economic impact of $187 million, but their final tally—$305 million—was even rosier.
But Arizona lacked one thing. The Cardinals were the only NFL team not to have its own stadium. They played in Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, home of Arizona State’s college team. Despite several expansion projects, the forty-year-old facility was subpar even by big-time college standards, featuring backless bleachers instead of seats in some sections. It wasn’t the kind of place that would impress someone paying $5,000 a ticket for the world’s premier single-day sporting event.
Still, on balance, the first Arizona Super Bowl was a success, and the message from the NFL was clear: “You’ve got a shot at getting into the Super Bowl business, but only if you get a new stadium.”
This was easier said than done. More than anyplace else in the league, building an NFL stadium in Arizona was a gamble. The price tag of a state-of-the-art football stadium can be $400 million or more. But unlike baseball, basketball, and hockey, where that expenditure can be recouped over as many as eighty-one home games every season, an NFL stadium hosts only eight home games per year. And in the 1995 and 1996 seasons, the Cardinals’ attendance lagged at only 65 percent of capacity, despite ticket prices that were among the lowest in the league. Getting a Super Bowl every five years or so could make all the difference in that equation.
The phone call between Rushman and Eisenman set in motion a roller coaster, a procession of false starts and dead ends, political intrigue, and simple whims all moving in the direction of getting that stadium completed and fitting the last piece of Arizona’s Super Bowl puzzle. Fast-forward a dozen years and the result is something singular: a landmark stadium unlike any other and the first one ever built to host the Super Bowl.
At first it seemed almost easy. After hearing Eisenman rattle off the names of Elmer Angsman and Charley Trippi, Rushman could see the next move clearly. The next day he called back and invited Eisenman to Cincinnati, where the Cardinals were playing that weekend, to meet the Bidwill family, who owned the team. Eisenman accepted, although it meant missing the season opener for his beloved football Giants.
Peter Eisenman seems to delight in keeping people a little off balance. Just take his Web site. The home page features nothing more than the firm’s name in stark sans serif capitals, all white except for the second N, which is red, all set against an inky black background. It’s certainly sleek, but it’s also a tad sterile at the same time.
The firm’s offices are anything but, however. The building is a nondescript brick structure in the mid-twenties, just off Fifth Avenue, a part of Manhattan where the scale is more intimate and even the tallest buildings don’t top ten stories. Next door sits a shockingly large parking lot that somehow escaped a developer’s attention, and across the street is a passel of antique dealers. The small lobby has seen better days. The elevator is the size of a phone booth, seemingly built when people were smaller, and features plastic wood paneling that’s the antithesis of style. It always seems ready to stop unexpectedly between floors, and you’re thankful when it doesn’t. The building is the kind of place where you’d expect to see struggling talent agents and private eyes.
Opening onto Eisenman’s office, the cramped elevator spills onto a bright and spacious top-floor space with lofty ceilings, big windows, and an open floor plan—no cubicles here—that enhances the sense of space. But the wood floors haven’t seen a sander or a coat of finish since the Eisenhower administration, and the computers sit on metal desks that could have come from the nearby shops that sell surplus office furniture. But for the computers, the Eisenman offices hark back to the days when architects were men in white shirts and skinny ties carrying briefcases, rather than black-clad hipsters slinging messenger bags. Here, it’s clear, form follows function.
And Eisenman himself continues the contradictions. With round black-framed glasses, short-cropped graying hair, and a serious mien, he cuts a stern, almost Randian figure. If you were casting him in a movie, he might be played by Ian Holm. Favoring tailored fashions from Paul Stuart worn in a slightly rumpled, academic way, he looks every bit the part of a Yale professor, and his booming baritone is perfectly suited to the lecture hall, a living alarm clock for snoozing students. But if you keep peeling away the layers of the onion, deconstructing the deconstructionist, you’ll find something surprising at the center. At heart, he’s a sports fan first and foremost.
“My father was a Dodger fan,” he says. “In the thirties and forties, if you were a lefty, you read the p.m. [the afternoon edition of the daily newspaper], you were close to the Communist Party, and you were a Dodger fan,” he says. “No one in my house could be a Yankee fan.”
And his knowledge of football goes well beyond that old Cardinals championship team. When I tell him that I live in Montclair, New Jersey, just down the road from South Orange, where he grew up, he starts citing chapter and verse about half-century-old teams from his high school days, recalling how Montclair’s star Aubrey Lewis broke Eisenman’s brother’s leg.
“I have this photographic memory for total wacko nonsense,” he admits.
And his appetite remains undiminished. Eisenman confesses, almost sheepishly, that the night before, with pro sports having a rare dark night during baseball’s All-Star break, his wife, Cynthia, had to drag him away from watching a high school baseball game on cable.
But the center of his sports obsession is pro football. And to Eisenman, pro football means the New York Giants. He’s been a season-ticket holder for fifty years, and his first season ended with a game that was at once iconic and heartbreaking. In that 1958 NFL Championship Game the Giants lost to Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the first sudden-death game ever played in the NFL. Many have called it The Greatest Game Ever Played.
Eisenman combines cutting-edge architecture credentials with an almost childlike love of the game. Some architects wouldn’t deign to build a stadium. Not Peter Eisenman. The University of Phoenix Stadium is the building that he was born to build.
And for most NFL teams, none of that would have mattered at all. It’s useful to think of NFL owners as one of the most exclusive—and expensive—clubs on earth, a literal billionaire boys’ club. In 2007, Forbes magazine valued the average NFL club at $957 million, and gaining control of a franchise took not only huge wealth but also significant connections, because any franchise purchase must be approved by the league’s other owners.
In most other NFL teams, if Eisenman somehow managed to get the meeting at all, he would have sat down with the vice president of operations and immediately faced tough questions about cost control as well as his reputation for designing high-concept buildings that proved impractical once constructed. They would have talked seriously, and Eisenman would have become one of the marquee names in their nationwide search. The VP would have dropped Eisenman’s name on background to a few reporters and then moved on to a blander but safer choice.
But the Arizona Cardinals are not most football teams, and that was even more the case a dozen years ago. They were a mom-and-pop operation. The Bidwill family had owned the team since 1932. The Cardinals are the oldest continuously operating professional football franchise and, along with the Chicago Bears, are one of two remaining charter teams from the founding of the NFL. Indeed, Eisenman will remind you that Bill’s brother Stormy Bidwill loaned George Halas the money to buy the Bears.
But the Cardinals were different from the other venerable franchises in the league. George Halas cut a larger-than-life figure, and the 1985 Bears were one of the great teams of all time. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney built one of the sport’s great dynasties during the 1970s, with his Steelers winning four championships. Wellington Mara’s New York Giants won two Super Bowls, and Mara himself was widely respected throughout the league. He was famous for putting the good of the game over his own personal gain, like the time he strongly advocated for the sharing of television revenues. That move was one of the keys behind the success of the league, allowing teams in small cities such as Green Bay to compete on an even playing field with franchises in New York and Chicago, but it also cost Mara money, and likely cost his big-market Giants at least a few championships. Mention any of these old-school owners, and football fans get a warm, fuzzy feeling.
From the Trade Paperback edition.