By Bob Cohn, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, September 18, 2011
The crowd, mostly young girls, screamed and squealed. So did many Steelers fans, for different reasons.
On the night of Aug. 18, 2001, *NSYNC took the stage at the 50-yard line and put on a show -- and Heinz Field was officially open for business. Meanwhile, a letter to the editor professing to speak for "thousands of people too outraged to put pen to paper" complained that the new stadium would be "defiled before it was consecrated."
The 65,000-seat North Shore facility survived the presumed sacrilege, and the anger passed. Justin Timberlake continued on his fateful journey to wardrobe malfunction and Super Bowl immortality. After a couple of exhibition games, the Steelers' home opener, pushed back to Oct. 7 by the Sept. 11 attacks, finally happened.
Jerome Bettis blessed the field with 153 rushing yards, the second-highest total of his 13-year career. The Steelers beat the Bengals, 16-7.
Looking back on the game 10 years later, Bettis said, "Not many times do you have the opportunity to open a new stadium. I opened it with a bang."
More than seven months earlier, the Steelers outfitted "The Bus" with a $6 million bonus and contract extension, launching a spending spree fueled by the move from Three Rivers Stadium.
"They definitely needed to have a new stadium," Bettis said. "And I believe I was the first recipient. In getting the stadium, they were able to keep me."
Several others profited, too, including Hines Ward, Casey Hampton and coach Bill Cowher. In all, a franchise known for its thrift paid a team record $30 million in signing bonuses. Director of football operations Kevin Colbert at the time called it "an indication that the organization probably has more positive cash flow than previously."
The Steelers were prepared for the next decade, when league-wide expenses, including salaries and bonuses, would skyrocket. During the contentious, often bitter fight over the funding of Heinz Field (and PNC Park), team president Art Rooney II repeatedly pushed the point that the club needed a new building to stay competitive.
Many argued (and still do) that the club was doing well enough to get by without taxpayer help. A ballot measure for funding was defeated before the Regional Asset District board -- not a public vote -- approved a measure to release tax funds. The outcry was significant.
Still, the record shows that the Steelers during their first 10 seasons in Heinz Field won at least 10 games seven times, made six playoff appearances and played in three Super Bowls, winning two. In the preceding 21 years at Three Rivers Stadium, the Steelers had six double-digit victory seasons, went to the playoffs 10 times and played in one Super Bowl. And lost.
While astute coaching and player evaluation probably best explain the recent success, the Steelers have had the financial brawn to back that up. Forbes magazine this year listed the franchise's value at $1.1 billion, 13th in the league.
"There's no doubt Heinz Field put us in a situation where we felt like we could be competitive with the other teams," said Rooney, whose family, which has owned the team since 1933, reportedly considered selling in 1994 and later threatened to move to Washington County. "It brought us into the next century, so to speak.
"Our system relies first and foremost on the draft. It's the foundation for what we hope will be success. One of the keys to that, hopefully, is you draft, and after that you need to keep those players. To keep players into their prime, you need to re-sign them to second and third contracts."
Rooney cited the NFL's "stadium boom" at the time, especially among AFC Central rivals Cincinnati, Cleveland and Baltimore. All got new stadiums between 1998 and 2000. "We were afraid of getting left behind," he said.
Pitt football also moved into Heinz Field in 2001 after leaving ancient Pitt Stadium, its on-campus home for 75 years, and spending a season at Three Rivers. The switch upset fans and alumni who preferred the old stadium be renovated, but athletic director Steve Pederson, who orchestrated the move, said Heinz Field has been an asset.
"During a decade when facilities in college athletics have become such an important component, having a tremendous stadium like Heinz Field has been significant for our program on all levels," he wrote in an email. "It would be hard to imagine a college program having a stadium with better amenities for fans than those at Heinz Field."
Pederson noted that "every student season-ticket sales record has been shattered" since the team moved to Heinz Field, and the school has set highs for overall season-ticket sales.
Heinz Field has been well-received by the critics for its design and amenities, but there were small gripes at first. The vivid color of the seats irked more than a few. "Steeler gold," Rooney has described it. "Mustard yellow," countered others.
There was the inevitable longing for the old place. Like other so-called "cookie cutter," multipurpose facilities, Three Rivers Stadium, which opened in 1970, became antiquated before its time. But it had its charms, like history. The Steelers forged a dynasty that won four Super Bowls there. And it was loud. Louder than the new place. Also, it literally shook.
After the opener, Cowher said, "It's just like going to a party where nobody knows each other. It is not as loud."
"(Heinz Field) was never gonna be as loud as Three Rivers because Three Rivers was enclosed," Bettis said. "And the stadium actually bounced. It made a sound I'll never forget. When it got rockin', it was super loud. Heinz has got that little open area. But I promise you this: There is nothing better than seeing those Terrible Towels. When they get to wavin', the place is electric."
Heinz Field cost about $281 million. The Rooneys originally put up $76.5 million (the total has since exceeded $100 million), but most of that was offset by the $57 million (over 20 years) from Heinz for the naming rights.
At Three Rivers, the Pirates basically ran the show, and the Steelers got just 10 to 15 percent of the revenue from 115 luxury suites. At Heinz, there are 129 suites, and the Steelers keep all of the money. Personal seat licenses further widened the revenue stream.
This year, Heinz Field hosted four major concerts, the most ever. The Steelers keep all of that money, too. Ticket prices this season average $74.32, 13th in the league and nearly equal to the league average.
Leaving Three Rivers for the last time "was an emotional day," Rooney said. "There were so many great memories. But you move on, and I'm certainly happy with the way things have turned out."