The Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams punched their tickets to Super Bowl LVI in thrilling come-from-behind victories on Sunday. Las Vegas is expecting a tight game, with the Rams opening as a 3.5-point favorite at most sportsbooks. While the teams are a close match on the field, it is a different story off of it.
“It is a contrast of polar opposites from their markets to their owners to their stadiums,” sports consultant Marc Ganis, co-founder of Sportscorp, said in a phone interview. “But because of the way the NFL is organized, every franchise has a chance to reach the Super Bowl, and it does not have to be lightning striking, like in baseball.”
The league’s equally shared TV windfall money and salary cap keep teams on relatively equal footing. Both the Rams and Bengals spent roughly $1.5 billion on players, including salaries, bonuses and benefits, over the last seven years.
There has not been a Super Bowl in at least 30 years featuring two teams so far apart in the NFL’s financial hierarchy. Sportico valued the Rams at $4.68 billion in September, third in the NFL behind the Dallas Cowboys ($6.92 billion) and New England Patriots ($5.35 billion). The Bengals bring up the rear in the 32-team league at $2.4 billion, a tick behind the Detroit Lions ($2.44 billion). For a league built around parity, the NFL’s seven least valuable teams today have combined for zero Super Bowl wins; five other squads have also never lifted a Lombardi Trophy. The Bengals will attempt to break the streak Feb. 13.
The Rams paid a $550 million relocation fee to leave St. Louis for L.A. in 2016, and in November, the league and team agreed to a $790 million settlement with the city over the relocation process. The Rams, now operating in the country’s second-biggest market, generate nearly four times as much local revenue as the Bengals, who play in the NFL’s sixth-smallest market.
The Owner’s Box
The Super Bowl team owners feature a real estate billionaire, married to a Wal-Mart heiress, versus the son of an NFL coaching legend.
Stan Kroenke, 74, first invested in the Rams as a minority partner in 1995, when they moved from Anaheim to St. Louis. He exercised his right to buy the rest of the team in 2010 after the death of former owner Georgia Frontiere. The deal valued the team at $750 million. With a $12.5 billion net worth, Kroenke is the NFL’s second-richest owner, behind Carolina’s David Tepper, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Kroenke’s sports empire includes teams in the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLS and Premier League.
Ganis thinks the Super Bowl appearance validates Kroenke’s decision to move, and it will help boost the fan base and stadium revenue. “Southern California loves winners, and the Rams are winning on the biggest stage in the biggest sport in the country,” said Ganis.
The Bengals were an AFL expansion club that started play in 1968, with an expansion fee of $7.7 million. Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown was part of the original ownership group that launched the Bengals, and his son, Mike, inherited the team when his father died in 1991.
Mike Brown, 86, was one of two owners to vote against the NFL’s 2006 collective bargaining agreement, because he didn’t think the revenue sharing from high-revenue teams to low-revenue teams was sufficient. For years many big market owners, most vocally Jerry Jones, were critical of Brown for complaining about his team’s lack of revenue and small-market status when he refused to sell naming rights to the stadium that bears his father’s name and had a minuscule sales and marketing staff. Only two other teams, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, play in stadiums without a corporate moniker. The complaints against the Bengals and Brown have softened, as the NFL eventually ended its revenue sharing plan when shared media revenue skyrocketed.
For all of their apparent differences, Brown and Kroenke share some similarities, according to Ganis, who has sometimes been called the NFL’s “33rd owner.” Ganis says both are steady and willing to stick with their agendas, even when things get rocky, and he adds, “Neither one wants a lot of attention for themselves.”
The two Super Bowl-bound owners also have significantly involved their children in their sports franchises. Josh Kroenke is president of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche and sits on the Arsenal board. Brown’s daughter, Katie Blackburn, is an executive with the team, and in November, she became the first woman appointed to the NFL’s powerful competition committee. Brown’s son, Paul, is an executive on the personnel side.
SoFi vs. Paul Brown
The stark contrast in the Rams and Bengals is best exemplified by their stadiums. Hamilton County-owned Paul Brown Stadium opened in 2000 and cost $455 million, including infrastructure work around the building. The Bengals only kicked 10% of the cost of the 65,000-seat venue, with taxpayers footing the balance.
The Rams’ SoFi Stadium cost $5 billion, more than two-and-a-half times the NFL’s next most expensive venue, Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. Kroenke footed the entire bill, with the help of stadium seat licenses, big-ticket sponsors and a construction loan from the NFL. SoFi Technologies, an online personal finance company, is paying $625 million over 20 years to brand the building.
SoFi Stadium is the centerpiece of a 298-acre mixed-use development, which is home to the NFL’s West Coast headquarters. In addition to this year’s Super Bowl, SoFi will host the 2023 College Football Playoff National Championship and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies at the 2028 Summer Olympics.
Demand has been “unprecedented” for luxury suites at SoFi for the Super Bowl, according to Bobby Gallo, the NFL’s vice president of club business development. Multiple suites have sold for more than $1 million; the previous high-water mark was $750,000, for a box at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, in February 2020.