It was a shotgun arrangement. And supposedly a temporary one.
The public spat between Arizona State University and the Arizona Cardinals over advertisements that were sold at Sun Devil Stadium has put a spotlight on what has been a steadily deteriorating relationship.
The crux of the dispute is practically as old as the Cardinals themselves.
It's the stadium. It's the stadium. It's the stadium.
Or rather control of a stadium. The Cardinals have long waited for a home to themselves.
They were second banana when they played in Comiskey Park in Chicago, second banana when they played in Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and have found themselves for 15 years (and counting) in the Grand Canyon State still without the same control of a home field that their NFL brethren enjoy.
That's more than half a century of being the tenant having to ask the landlord permission to change the color of a room.
It's no wonder then that the frustrated Cardinals challenged ASU in court about advertising money ASU has collected since 1999 but didn't share per an agreement the two had signed in 1994. ASU claimed the Cardinals aren't owed anything because they couldn't sell any advertisements, and they're now trying to mooch off ASU. An arbitrator, however, ruled last year in favor of the Cardinals and said ASU owes the NFL team between $12 million and $21 million.
The judgment prompted ASU athletic director Gene Smith to go ballistic publicly, saying his entire department was in jeopardy. That in turn created another public relations nightmare for the Cardinals, who were still reeling from the battering they took in the media over their first two selections in this year's NFL draft.
The team was seen as a greedy corporation demanding money from a struggling established mom-and-pop outfit that was experiencing temporary financial hardships.
A POOR START
The working relationship between ASU and the Cardinals has been troublesome from the start. It's such a touchy issue that those with intimate knowledge of the two parties' dealings wouldn't speak to the Tribune on or off the record. Several former ASU employees would not return phone calls.
Those who spoke to the Tribune off the record were consistent in evaluating the relationship: It was never great from the start.
The Cardinals never got the welcoming from the Valley, that, say, Indianapolis showered on the Colts when they slinked out of Baltimore in 1984. In two weeks, the Colts received 143,000 season ticket requests.
"When they came to Arizona, it was not the most rosy reception," said former Arizona Sen. Dennis DeConcini, whose conversations with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle in the mid-1980s helped bring the team to the state.
Owner Bill Bidwill was given inaccurate advice that the Valley was clamoring for NFL football. So he erred in raising ticket prices for a franchise that has always been among the most poorly run. The move was a public relations disaster.
"I don't know if it was the miscues of the Bidwills or the interpretation by the media. But it was not real joyous from the beginning," DeConcini said. "When he raised the ticket prices the press really came down on him hard. He got a lot of bad publicity, and I thought it was somewhat unfair."
The Cardinals’ public relations problems only gave the ASU faction that didn't want the NFL team around in the first place more reason to maintain an us-vs.-them mentality.
They became even more of a threat as ASU began to realize that its football program wasn't going to duplicate in the Pac-10 Conference the dominating success it had in the Western Athletic Conference. When the Cardinals arrived for the 1988 season, Arizona State had won one conference championship in 10 years. ASU left the WAC having won championships in seven of its last nine seasons.
Larry Marmie, current Cardinals defensive coordinator, was ASU's coach in 1988. During Marmie's four-year tenure, average attendance at ASU fell from 70,717 to 55,715.
Revenue declined accordingly and the athletic department started bleeding red ink. The Cardinals were a competing property for ASU and were viewed as part of the Devils' revenue problems.
If the Cardinals would only go away, the thinking went inside what was then the University Activity Center.
The Cardinals would have gladly left — to a new stadium in the Valley. But a community that started talking about a football stadium as far back as 1969 had yet to find a way to build one. The Cardinals weren't going to settle for being the only NFL team playing in a decades old college stadium.
"It was a marriage of convenience," DeConcini noted. "The Bidwills were always under the impression a new stadium would be built. Where they got that, I don't know. My guess is they got that from (Valley) business people who tried to entice them out there. But I don't ever remember seeing (a promise of a new stadium) as contractual."
Sources familiar with the working relationship of ASU and the Cardinals said part of the problem was the athletic department at the time didn't control everything involved in staging a football game. One sticking issue was parking, which was handled by the university, not the athletic department. Things didn't necessarily improve when management of the stadium was moved to Public Events. There was always that added layer of bureaucracy.
With ASU's revenue decreasing because the university had not prepared for the day when football ticket sales would drop dramatically, school officials began looking for new revenue.
One effort upset the Cardinals.
When the Cardinals got the Arizona Board of Regents to allow the sale of alcohol at Sun Devil Stadium, ASU officials tried to negotiate an advertising deal, or signage, with a local beer company, according to a knowledgable source.
When a former Arkansas football player named Jerry Jones purchased the Dallas Cowboys in February 1989, the business in the NFL was about to change — and have an impact on ASU.
Jones was the first owner to go outside the NFL's revenue-sharing structure and negotiate his own sponsorship deals. He generated new revenue outside the customary ticket sales, network TV income, concessions, parking and programs through independent deals with local businesses.
Like other NFL teams, the Cardinals wanted to follow Jones' lead. The original 10-year lease agreement precluded the Cardinals from selling any advertising at Sun Devil Stadium.
In 1994, the Cardinals were allowed to procure signage and both parties agreed to share revenue. While ASU had permanent signage, the Cardinals’ signage had to be added to the stadium. Sometimes that didn't occur until after ASU had played a night game.
Privately, the Cardinals felt ASU benefitted from its permanent signage that was also visible during the the Cardinals 10 home games. That provided "added value" to the signage.
The Cardinals also claim their revenue potential was limited because they were prohibited from selling same "category" advertisements. For example, if ASU sold signage to Kmart and Cadillac, the Cardinals couldn't sell ads to Target and Mercedes.
By coincidence, ’94 was the season when ASU's worst fears were realized. Coming off a 7-9 season with the blustery Buddy "You've got a winner in town" Ryan at the helm, the Cardinals for the first time averaged more fans than ASU. The Cardinals averaged 62,166 fans while ASU's steady decline from the ’88 season had fallen to 46,802.
And ASU's financial woes continued to the point that president Lattie Coor instructed athletic director Charles Harris to eliminate the deficit. At one point early in the 1990s, ASU's athletic department budget was pared to $11.5 million to improve the balance sheet.
The uneasy alliance of college landlord and NFL tenant evaporated when Kevin White became athletic director in 1996. White, who arrived when the Sun Devils won their second Pac-10 championship in 17 years, wanted to cash in while the program was on top, which meant aggressively marketing the program.
The ’96 Rose Bowl season allowed White to erase the $2.6 million deficit he inherited. With the books balanced, White expanded the athletic department with a goal of increasing ASU's budget from $18 million to more than $30 million to keep pace with other Pac-10 public institutions. White understood the financial impact of sharing a stadium with a pro team, having been athletic director at Tulane, which plays in the Louisiana Superdome, also the home of the New Orleans Saints.
White used the expiration of the original 10-year suite leases to make another significant revenue policy change. Originally, the suite leases included ASU and Cardinal games, plus the Fiesta Bowl. White decided ASU would market the suites separately.
"This was a real change from where the university had been coming from before," said a source familiar with ASU and the Cardinals.
Efforts to reach White, athletic director at Notre Dame, were unsuccessful.
DRAWN OUT CASE
The Cardinals' claim against ASU says they were cut out of the revenue sharing starting with the ’99 season when ASU erected signs to help pay for modest improvements to Sun Devil Stadium.
At the heart of the dispute, according ASU, is the ’99 upgrade of the scoreboard and videoboard. ASU says the Cardinals would agree to split the costs when asked. So ASU believes it deserves to keep whatever additional revenue the new boards generated.
There's also a semantic disagreement over what is defined as permanent signage for shared revenue.
ASU says the Cardinals were too busy lobbying for a new stadium to procure sponsors.
ASU believes the Cardinals won't be able to prove they could have sold $12 million to $21 million worth of signage since 1999. The issue probably won't be settled until August or September. If ASU isn't satisfied with the ruling from what is called the remedy phase of the dispute, it would take the case to state court, which would prolong it for another year.
And so it goes.
NOT ALL BAD
The Cardinals’ push for a stadium contributed to the souring relationship. As the Cardinals became more frustrated over not having their own stadium, their explanations for needing a new home became criticisms of Sun Devil Stadium, which upset ASU and its fans. It didn't matter that the Fiesta Bowl now also is of the same opinion of the 44-year-old facility and is moving to the new stadium in Glendale to stay competitive with its peer bowls.
The Cardinals privately have complained about the cleanliness of the stadium following an ASU night game and the condition of the turf. That ASU practices at least once a week at Sun Devil Stadium contributed to the wear and tear, which often left the field in poor shape for the NFL team's December schedule. ASU said tough, it's our stadium.
"The Cardinals do have a public relations problem," DeConcini said. "But people have to remember football is a business. (The Cardinals) have their charities, and they're generous to the community.
"But when it comes to the business side they have to be business people whether they're dealing with ASU or the Sports Authority."
The Cardinals say the $50 million in cash and construction projects they've contributed to ASU should earn them more respect in the community. They also point out they would have agreed to share a new stadium with ASU.
The relationship is not totally contentious. ASU football coach Dirk Koetter has spoken at Cardinals clinics and the Sun Devils have practiced at the Cardinals complex in south Tempe.
ASU coaching great Frank Kush, a former Colts head coach, has done some work for the Cardinals and attends Cardinals functions.
"I'm hopeful they can solve their differences for the remaining time the Cardinals will be playing in Tempe," said Tempe Mayor Neil Giuliano, who works in ASU's office of Institutional Advancement. "It's in everyone's best interest for that to happen. Hopefully, they can do that."