Tightwad vs. big spender: Super Bowl is contrast of styles for owners Mike Brown, Stan Kroenke | Opinion
LOS ANGELES – There’s some serious contrast in Super Bowl 56 that starts at the top.
Stan Kroenke? The Los Angeles Rams owner is the face of real-life “Sports Monopoly.” On top of one of the NFL’s most valuable franchises, he owns the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, NHL’s Colorado Avalanche, MLS’s Colorado Rapids and Arsenal F.C., one of the world’s signature soccer franchises, based in the United Kingdom.
Mike Brown? The Cincinnati Bengals owner is one of the remaining faces of the NFL’s “old guard.” He inherited the team from his legendary father, Paul Brown, who founded the franchise. Although the Bengals are worth an estimated $2.275 billion according to Forbes, it is the second-least valuable franchise in the NFL.
Oh, and Brown, 86, who is not among the 16 NFL owners on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest Americans, houses his team in a stadium named after his father that was fully subsidized by taxpayer dollars.
Divergent paths and assets in tow, Kroenke and Brown have wound up at the same place this week, with their teams one victory from a Super Bowl crown. Talk about NFL parity.
The Rams are quite the reflection of Kroenke’s image as a major league wheeler and dealer. His name is mud to many in St. Louis, the market he fled to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles in 2016. But his stamp on the assembly of the team that went “all-in” with an aggressive approach to land star talent is undeniable – and so Hollywood-esque.
“His support has been enormous,” Rams coach Sean McVay told USA TODAY Sports.
McVay went on to describe his phone call from Los Cabos, Mexico, to Kroenke in January 2021, when the Rams were closing in on the trade to land quarterback Matthew Stafford from the Detroit Lions. In addition to giving up two first-round picks and a third-round pick, the Rams would have to absorb $22.2 million in dead money under the salary cap (since adjusted to $24.7 million) in dealing Jared Goff to the Lions. McVay and GM Les Snead needed Kroenke to sign off on the deal.
“He told me, ‘If it is going to make our team better, then do it,’ “ McVay recalled.
The final outcome in the exchange that secured Stafford is hardly a surprise, given Kroenke’s repute as a big spender.
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Brown’s reputation is quite the opposite. For years, he has been considered a major league tightwad – although I’d suspect that Brown would accept that as a compliment. Sure, Brown, who has run the franchise for more than 30 years, has paid top-market prices for quarterbacks over the years. But the Bengals have also traditionally operated with the smallest front-office staff in the NFL while their facilities were undeniably scant.
“I think his reputation is still intact,” former Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams told USA TODAY Sports. “They still don’t have an indoor practice facility for a team in a northern climate. But he has spent enough to put this Super Bowl team on the field.”
Boomer Esiason, who, like Williams starred on the last Bengals team to reach the Super Bowl in the 1988 season, knows all about Brown’s persona.
“If you saw him accepting the Lamar Hunt Trophy, that’s Mike Brown,” Esiason told USA TODAY Sports, alluding to the trophy presentation after the AFC title game in Kansas City. “He has the same raincoat, same blue shirt, that’s he’s probably had for 50 years. Part of that is the lovable Mike Brown.”
Esiason, now a panelist on CBS’ “NFL Today” and co-host on WFAN in New York, pointed out that Brown paid him well enough on two different occasions that he was the NFL’s highest-paid player. Williams had a different experience, battling over contracts during the 1980s and later over worker’s compensation.
“We have a good relationship now,” Williams said. “But I’ve had much worse days with Mike Brown.”
Mindful that Bengals coach Zac Taylor began this season with many pundits placing him on the hot seat, Esiason made a point that speaks to the frugal image that envelops Brown.
“In two years, he won six games,” Esiason said of Taylor. “Most coaches would get fired for that. But not with Mike Brown as the owner. Mike Brown is not going to pay double coaches’ salaries.
“But he’s also keen on quarterback and coach relationships,” Esiason added. “He knew, watching Joe Burrow as a rookie, he knew how well he communicated with Zac Taylor. He had something there was something special in that pairing.”
Marc Ganis, a consultant who has worked extensively with dozens of sports franchises, finds the differences between Kroenke and Brown striking.
They were clearly at opposite ends several years ago when supplemental revenue sharing caused a rift among NFL owners. Brown was criticized for not being as aggressive in growing revenues, such as selling naming rights to the team’s home stadium, while benefitting from revenues generated by more lucrative franchises. The issues were ultimately resolved, Ganis said, with the NFL’s labor deal following the lockout in 2011.
“It generated a tremendous amount of animosity,” Ganis, president of Sportscorp, told USA TODAY Sports.
Brown’s “old guard” roots might have also been a factor. While several of the more recent additions to the NFL ownership club include those who amassed fortunes in building non-sports businesses, Brown, like John Mara (New York Giants), Michael McCaskey (Chicago Bears), Art Rooney II (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Clark Hunt (Kansas City Chiefs) had a perspective influenced with the inheritance of franchises.
“There’s a different mindset,” Ganis said of the old guard. “They’re more conservative. Some may be more uncomfortable with how big the business has become.”
Still, while the paths to NFL ownership and the varied businesses of some of the wealthiest owners underscore differences, Ganis points to some of the similarities between Kroenke and Brown.
“Neither seeks the spotlight,” he said. “And they both have their children heavily involved.”
Brown’s daughter, Katie Blackburn, has been the team’s executive vice president since 2001 and is hailed as the first woman in the NFL to extensively negotiate player contracts. Kroenke’s son, Josh, is president of the Nuggets and Avalanche, in addition to other roles within his father’s empire.
Esiason realizes the contrasts, but adds, “Mike’s a different type of businessman.
“Remember, Mike used the city of Baltimore to get the stadium that he has. It’s one of the best stadium situations, financially, in the NFL.”
Then again, it was the type of taxpayer-funded stadium deal that would never fly in California – which is partially why the NFL didn’t have a franchise in the lucrative L.A. market for 20 years.
Kroenke achieved what others failed to do in getting the stadium that now will undoubtedly be in the rotation for additional Super Bowls.
“If it wasn’t for Stan having the backbone to lay out his aspirational plan and then actually execute it, despite tremendous obstacles, it’s unlikely the NFL would be back in L.A., much less have the success they’ve had,” Ganis said. “This is the stuff of legacies.”
Maybe. But come Sunday, the tightwad could still walk away with the trophy.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.