The Pittsburgh Steelers are tied with the Patriots for the most Super Bowl victories in NFL history, but it took the franchise a while to find its footing—although longtime owner Arthur “Art” Rooney wasn’t exactly in dire financial straits thanks in no small part to his knowledge of horse racing.
The NFL had spent over a decade exploring the possibility of starting a team in Pittsburgh and was able to do exactly that when Rooney paid the $2,500 franchise fee in 1933 to become the proud new owner of the squad he initially dubbed the “Pirates.”
Rooney was a multisport athlete who had played semi-pro football prior to starting his own NFL team, but it wasn’t his primary passion; he’d taken an interest in horse racing from an early age and developed an uncanny ability to handicap races and correctly predict the entrants with the best chance of outdoing the rest of the field.
There’s a long-standing rumor that Rooney used some of his winnings at the track to pay for the aforementioned financing fee, and while it doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, there are other stories that make it pretty clear the team he eventually rebranded as the Steelers owes a ton of credit to his betting prowess.
Steelers owner Art Rooney partially funded the team with the money he won betting on horse races
The Steelers entered a new era when they won their first NFL championship with a victory over the Vikings in Super Bowl IX, but they’d taken a very long road to get to that point after spending decades trying (and failing) to secure a title.
The team posted a winning record just two times in the course of its first ten seasons, and Rooney claimed he lost $10,000 operating the team in 1934 alone. Thankfully, he was able to fall back on what people today would refer to as a “side hustle”—and a very successful one.
Art Rooney Jr. chronicled some of his dad’s ventures at the track in a book that was published in 2008, which includes a fairly legendary story about what unfolded over the course of two days in New York in 1936.
According to people who were there to witness what went down, the elder Rooney first headed to the Empire City racetrack in Yonkers and walked away with $105,000 (around $2.3 million today) after successfully picking the winner of six consecutive races.
While most people would’ve been perfectly satisfied with heading home at that point, Rooney opted to head upstate to Saratoga Race Course and saw his hot streak get even hotter, as it’s believed he headed home with between $256,000 ($5.6 million) and $380,000 ($8.4 million) when everything was said and done.
That unreal run was far from the only time Rooney was able to clean up, and the man who described horse racing—not the NFL—as his “big business” raked in six figures at the track on at least one more occasion the following year.
The Steelers have understandably tried to minimize the role horse racing played in keeping the franchise viable in its early years, but Rooney used it to do things like offer eventual Supreme Court justice Byron White a then-record-breaking $15,000 to suit up for Pittsburgh at halfback.
The spending didn’t initially translate to success on the field, but it nonetheless helped the Steelers stay competitive (and afloat) en route to transforming into the franchise that’s now worth an estimated $3.9 billion.