HOT TICKET : Cardinals’ High-Priced Show Opens in Sun-Baked Arizona
After nearly 70 years in more than 30 other states, the National Football League finally came to Arizona on Monday night for what was both a football game--the first regular-season NFL game played here--and an event.
As a game, it was another loss for the Phoenix Cardinals, formerly the St. Louis Cardinals, who were the Chicago Cardinals before that. This time, they lost to Herschel Walker and the Dallas Cowboys, 17-14.
As an event, it was perhaps the most unusual opening night in league history--the most expensive and probably the hottest. Yet it was coolly received by many.
The temperature at the Cardinals’ new home, Sun Devil Stadium, was 98 at the opening kickoff, heating up the players, but not the spectators who have been protesting the club’s record high ticket prices.
At the start of what was expected to be an exhilarating new sports era in Arizona, the game was a sellout only because a local television station bought up the last 3,100 of 72,000 tickets. Actual attendance was 67,139; there were 5,036 no-shows.
“I don’t intend to cheer much for this bunch,” one Phoenix sports fan, Cal Widell, said on the way in. He had paid $40 each for two seats on the 15-yard line.
If there wasn’t too much enthusiasm for the Cardinals--at least until the fourth quarter, when some fans perked up--there was an obvious explanation. This was pro football’s first multimillion-dollar gate--the first, that is, for a regular-season game--and Arizonans had to pay for it.
They paid $200 for some tickets. Or $800 for a family of four. And the best seats were all priced at $50 or more.
“I paid $95 apiece for my four seats,” said former Notre Dame coach Dan Devine, who lives here. “I mean $950 for each season ticket.”
In the Cardinals’ new home Monday night, the cheapest seat was $15. The average was $38.
And the same prices will be in place all season, the club promised, although the Cardinals have appeared in only two playoff games in the last 40 years--and haven’t won one since 1947.
“It’s a gouge,” said a Tempe resident, Mrs. Bruce Readie.
What has happened in this pleasant, hot little Valley of the Sun is that the Cardinals have taken a new road to high finance under their controversial leader, William V. Bidwill, who has come up with the NFL’s most creative ticket pricing plan.
Borrowing the idea from college football--which often asks season ticket holders to pay annual bonuses of $500, $1,000 or more for the privilege of retaining good seats--Bidwill, the Cardinals’ second-generation owner, is simply charging premium prices for premium seats.
Instead of asking a flat $35 for a top-price ticket, he is asking, and getting, $35 plus a premium of $165--or a total of $200.
Figured for a 10-game schedule of two exhibitions and eight regular-season games, the top price is $350 per season ticket, plus a premium of $1,650--or $2,000.
Premium payments are based on seat location in six premium areas.
“Most people here think of a Cardinal ticket as a $50 ticket, $25 plus $25 (premium),” said Devine, who is now an Arizona State University executive. “The bulk of the good seats seem to be in that range.”
Some seats near the end zones are priced at a mere $25. No premium. The 2,000 in the end zone are a mere $15. No premium.
But in a stadium with a capacity of 72,000, about half is premium seating--for a team that has ranked among the NFL’s weakest during most of its history.
“The Cowboys are taking home more than $1 million tonight for a road game,” Arizona Republic sports columnist Bob Hurt said. "(Bidwill) will take in about $25 million this year--for 10 home games--with TV (income) on top of that.”
Although, by contrast, the Cardinals grossed $3.8 million last year in St. Louis, Bidwill doesn’t see that his Phoenix ticket prices are out of line.
“They were all sold,” he said, referring to his highest-priced seats.
“And many of them were scalped for a lot more (than face value).
“When you get away from sports, these prices are (not so high). Look at a New York theater ticket today.”
In New York this year, theater seats are up to $55.
“Try to get one for $55,” said Bidwill.
He also said that the Miami Dolphins have some premium seating.
“But it isn’t the same in Miami,” said Hurt. “They give you parking, personal waiters and other services there, and their one premium section isn’t very large.”
Bidwill disagreed with Devine and others regarding whether the ticket prices have dampened Arizona interest in the Cardinals.
Speaking for the team, Bidwill said: “It’s been a media controversy, mostly. We’re playing football now, and the (emphasis) has shifted to the games.”
Speaking for many fans, Devine said: “Most new NFL teams or coaches can expect about a three-year honeymoon anywhere. My guess is that the (high prices) have cut the Cardinals’ Phoenix honeymoon in half.”
In any case, the citizenry is keenly aware that there is no correlation between the current ticket pricing and past team success. The Cardinals have started 0-2 this year after finishing 7-8 last year. They haven’t had a winning season since 1984.
“The Cardinals aren’t fooling me,” said a Tempe sports fan, Jeff Miles. “I’m just hoping for the best.”
Cardinal fans have been hoping for the best now for the better part of a century of mediocrity. Phoenix, the youngest NFL city, is getting the league’s oldest team. Born in 1898 on Chicago’s South Side, the Cardinals are so old that they didn’t have to share Chicago with the Bears for two decades, until the 1920s, when the Bears were known first as the Decatur Staleys and then as the Chicago Staleys.
During their half-century in Chicago, the Cardinals, who had been managed for about half that time by the Bidwill family, were seldom successful, either competitively or financially. Forced out in 1960, when the NFL used them to keep the new American Football League out of St. Louis, the Bidwills hoped to make their fortune in Missouri. Instead, they found more hard times.
The problem in St. Louis, their critics said, was that although the Cardinals were appealing to a new clientele, they were doing it with the same old management.
And now in Phoenix, they’re in the same old predicament.
Except that this time, taking no chances, they’re making their fortune first. They have found a way.
At NFL conventions, they still talk about the day that Bill Bidwill was watching the Cardinals get off the plane for a game in Philadelphia. Idly inspecting the players, he turned suddenly to a Cardinal executive and asked: “Who’s that?”
“That? That’s your starting left guard,” the man replied. “Been here three years.”
That story could be apocryphal. The real story of the Cardinals this year isn’t the mood of Phoenix. It isn’t how they’re initially received. It is whether, down the road, they can make a new hometown proud of them under this owner.
And it will take awhile to get the answer.
The owner is a deep mystery to many who have tried to understand him. They say that, on one hand, Bidwill is sometimes so detached from the team that he doesn’t always recognize some of the younger coaches, let alone players. On the other hand, he seems to be an intensely involved manager, closely monitoring front-office performance.
“He is a hands-on owner. That’s obvious,” said Phoenix writer Hurt. “Some people have said that he enjoys that part too much.”
Rich Koster, a St. Louis television writer who covered the Cardinals there for 20 years, said: “Billy cares deeply about the team, but not so much about the players.
“He had some favorites in St. Louis--Conrad Dobler, Dan Dierdorf, Larry Wilson, Charlie Johnson--but his basic attitude about football players is that if they weren’t playing football, they’d be driving trucks.”
It is the big-business side of the game that appeals to Bidwill.
“He’s awfully interested in football,” Koster said. “Little happens that he’s not up on.”
A former employee, Joe Pollack, now the drama critic of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, agrees. "(Bidwill) worked at it,” Pollack said. “He just didn’t get results.”
Bidwill, in other words, is hardly a goof-off rich kid. In fact, at 55, he does not resemble any kind of kid. He was overweight in his St. Louis days, weighing around 300 pounds, but he has taken off so much weight in recent months that he is almost gaunt.
“When I saw the new Billy Bidwill not long ago, I thought he was dying,” Koster said.
Not so. The drawn look has merely replaced the heavy look, but the features are as familiar as ever: the rimless glasses and the mustache, the invariable bow tie.
Bidwill’s most prominent character traits, in the words of one club owner, are “super shyness, super stubbornness, and super loyalty.”
These have helped lead him, his peers suggest, to the bizarre moves that have so long identified the Cardinals--their strange drafts and, among other things, their series of out-of-the-ordinary coaching hires.
One coach, Bud Wilkinson, was 62 when Bidwill brought him in. Another was hired solely on the strength of a letter he wrote to Bidwill, who likes to answer his own mail and phone calls.
Born in Chicago, father of four, Bidwill was one of the two adopted sons of the longtime Chicago owner of the Cardinals, businessman Charlie Bidwill, who sent his boys to Georgetown. They had grown up at Cardinal training camps.
Bill Bidwill has run the club since 1972, when he bought out his older brother, Charles Jr., who is called Stormy. The two boys also inherited Charlie’s interests in race tracks and dog tracks, and in Illinois today, Stormy runs Sportsman’s Park.
NFL people who were around in the 1960s say that Stormy and Bill never got along. Their biggest problem, their friends say, was that both wanted to boss the club.
The story in St. Louis is that a buy-or-sell price on the Cardinals was fixed at $13 million in 1972; that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded Stormy to give the option to Bill; that Bill surprised and disappointed the league when he came up with the required $6 1/2 million; that he borrowed much of it from St. Louis banks and got the rest from his wife, Nancy, whose prominent North Shore family in Chicago was in the wholesale candy business.
According to one version of the story, Nancy still owns 49% of the Cardinals. It’s a family company, there are few public records, and the Bidwills don’t talk about it.
“I’ve never commented on any of that,” Bidwill said before Monday night’s game. But he denied that his wife is an owner.
In their St. Louis days, Bill and Nancy were separated for some time, and Bill only recently sold the bachelor condominium he bought there in that era. The family home was in upscale, suburban Clayton before they moved to upscale, suburban Scottsdale.
Cardinal watchers say that Bill’s principal goal in a league that keeps moving faster is to keep up with the NFL’s movers and shakers, and, where possible, to upstage them a little.
And this year, he has won their respect with his new premium ticket pricing policy that will enable the 1988 Cardinals to make more money than any other organization ever has in football.
“I know that this pleases Billy,” Koster said from St. Louis. “He has one-upped the other owners.”
Phoenix is getting a team that is somewhat duller than it was when Bill’s father owned it in the boisterous Chicago of the ‘30s and ‘40s. A race player as well as a confidant of politicians and sportsmen, Charlie Bidwill was in the printing business there with a partner named O’Hare, whose son, Butch, became a Navy flyer.
Shot down in World War II, the young pilot was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, and in tribute, Chicago put his name on its airport.
One of Charlie Bidwill’s other 1930s friends was George Halas, who in that era, as the owner of the Bears, was often short of money. At times, Bidwill kept Halas alive with loans that took care of the Bears’ payroll, and in one depressed year, when several Chicago banks went under, Bidwill even helped Halas buy out a partner.
Remembering it in his 1979 autobiography, “Halas by Halas,” the Bear founder wrote: “Charlie Bidwill by some magic raised $5,000 from a bank that was already closed.”
For his pains, Bidwill got a share of the Bears and was made vice president.
In those days, Bidwill kept a yacht in Lake Michigan, in a small harbor off the South Side of Chicago, and one night in 1933, he invited Halas and others to dinner. One of the others brought a guest, Dr. David Jones, the veteran city physician of Chicago, who since 1929 had owned the Cardinals.
Even then, the Cardinals were habitual losers. And so during a lull in the conversation, Jones’ friend, doubtless by prearrangement, casually asked Bidwill if he’d ever thought of owning a football team himself.
It is in the record that Bidwill instantly replied, “How much?”
Somewhat tentatively, Jones, who had paid $25,000 for the franchise four years earlier, said, “I’ve got to have $50,000.”
“Sold,” said Bidwill. And to seal it, he pulled two bills out of a hip pocket and handed them over.
Two $1,000 bills.
Since the 1933 day that Bidwill turned back his Bear holdings--at the start, coincidentally, of the NFL’s modern era--the Bears and the Cardinals have appreciated at an average rate of not quite $2 million a year to reach their present worth, an estimated $90 million each.
Not that the Cardinals have earned it on the field of play. In the hands of the Bidwills, they have won only one NFL championship since the league was divided into divisions 55 years ago. And before that, they had only won once. Yet--and such is the nature of life in the NFL--the more games the Cardinals lose, the more money they make, finally hitting their financial apogee in Phoenix.
Chronologically, Charlie and Bill Bidwill are on the Cardinal register as the club’s third and fourth owners in 90 years, not counting the co-tenures of various kinfolk--Bill’s wife and brother, Charlie’s wife, Violet, and Violet’s second husband, Walter Wolfner.
In the same time span, the club has had 40 head coaches, throwing some light on Al Davis’ decision some time ago to counsel the Raiders as an owner and leave the coaching to others.
A painting contractor named Chris O’Brien was the first owner as well as the original organizer of the Cardinals in 1898, when they were an all-Irish outfit playing in a city league on the South Side. That first year they were the Morgans, representing the Morgan Athletic Club.
In 1900, O’Brien made a trip to a South Side rummage sale, where he picked up a treasure--a collection of second-hand, red football jerseys that had been abandoned by the University of Chicago.
That night, browsing in a book, O’Brien noted that cardinal is synonym for red. The team has been the Cardinals ever since--in three states--through the long administrations of O’Brien, Jones and the Bidwills.
Why doesn’t it win more often?
One very good explanation is that for the last 15 or 20 years, the team’s scouting department and coaching staff have functioned as if they worked for separate owners.
The Cardinals’ veteran director of player personnel is George Boone, who has feuded with every coach since at least Don Coryell, who arrived in 1973.
Regardless of the new coach’s philosophy--and Boone has worked with six Cardinal coaches--he runs the draft to suit himself. Or so the six coaches have said, one after the other.
Just last year, when Coach Gene Stallings pleaded for lineman Jerome Brown in Round 1, Boone took a quarterback, Kelly Stouffer, who was later banished to Seattle. Drafted by Philadelphia, Brown became one of the league’s best defensive linemen.
The coaches have all blamed the Boone problem on what one of them called “Bill Bidwill’s tunnel-vision loyalty.” Boone, they say, has been unwaveringly loyal to Bidwill, who is simply reciprocating.
Bidwill’s loyalty has been repeatedly tested, and it has never been found wanting.
For example, his favorite Cardinal player was Larry Wilson, the veteran employee who last week was promoted to general manager. At his retirement several years ago, Wilson put Bidwill on the spot when he asked for a new job: head coach.
Koster said from St. Louis: “After worrying about it for two or three days, Billy went to Larry and told him, ‘If you want to be the coach, you’ve got it, I’ll do it. But coaches have no security anywhere. I can’t protect you there. I strongly recommend that you try personnel.’
“The next day, Larry went to Billy’s office and told him, ‘OK, personnel it is.’ ”
Said Koster: “I thought Billy showed a lot of wisdom as well as loyalty.”
As general manager, will Wilson get the authority needed to improve the team?
Calling on 20 years’ experience with Bidwill in St. Louis, Koster said: “Nobody runs his team for Billy.”
A potentially damaging myth has accompanied the Bidwills to Phoenix. It will destroy them if they believe it--if they believe that St. Louis is a poor football town, that Phoenix is a good football town, and that they’ve gone to an NFL paradise.
To be sure, Phoenix courted the Cardinals at length--spending a great deal of money on them during the courtship, and afterward--but this doesn’t make Phoenix unique. Most cities want NFL teams. Mayors, governors and U.S. senators stand in line to get NFL teams.
The myth that threatens the Cardinals is that St. Louis isn’t much interested in pro football and that moving to Arizona assures them a bright future.
The reality--in the view of most of their critics--is that the Bidwills blew it in St. Louis, as they had in Chicago, and that their future here is up to them.
"(Missouri) people once supported the Cardinals,” said Pollack, the Post Dispatch writer, from St. Louis. “They would have continued to support them if they’d had a better team--or if they’d shown a real effort to improve the product.
“They failed in St. Louis because they didn’t show the fans that they were committed to producing a winning team.”
Bidwill’s explanation is different. He said he left because there are seats for only 53,000 in St. Louis, about 20,000 fewer than the stadium capacity here. He would have stayed in a larger facility, but the city declined to build it.
Observing that last year’s crowd average was 28,000. Pollack said: “In recent years, the Cardinals couldn’t fill the place they had. St. Louis simply lost confidence in the Cardinal organization.”
There’s little evidence that they lack confidence in Phoenix.
For one thing, said Phoenix writer Hurt, “Bidwill is spending money now for players.”
For another, turning to a clean page in Arizona, the Cardinals have found some friendlier fans--at the moment, at least. They have been greeted by thousands of well-wishers in the Valley of the Sun.
The Cardinals are the main conversation topic at area shops and stores and parties, and many people seem more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Regardless of ticket costs, they’ll be ‘our boys’ if they have a winning season,” said Phoenix resident Devine, a former NFL coach.
Said a Scottsdale resident, Marian Phillips: “Sure, the ticket prices are a little high, but if they win, who cares?”
A pro football fan from Mesa, Bud Urquhart, said: “The Cards turned it around last year, I thought. Anyhow, it’s great to have a pro team right here in your own town.”
Even the local university, Arizona State, has been consistently supportive, although elsewhere, college and pro football are often mutually antagonistic. The Cardinals’ Arizona negotiator was none other than ASU vice president Brent Brown.
“The feeling was that pro football was inevitable here and bearable,” said ASU spokesman Gary Rausch.
But, plainly, area sentiment is divided:
--Many fans are rooting for the home team.
--Many feel intimidated by the Cardinal ticket system--the strange priority plan as well as the pricing plan.
ASU controls the stadium, and the top two ticket priorities are held by groups that previously bargained with the school for those rights--the 11,800 who owned season tickets to United States Football League games here several years ago and the 55,000 who own ASU season tickets now.
Noting that a number of potentially good pro football customers have been shut out of all of the good tickets, Associated Press writer Walter Berry said: “The Cardinals have started on the wrong foot with (Arizona) fans.”
But it isn’t all their fault, Hurt said, adding: “Bidwill was stuck with the (ASU) guarantees. The only thing the Cardinals are responsible for are their outrageous prices. They’ve alienated the little guy.”
So pro football has begun as a rich person’s sport in Phoenix, and it will get more so next year with the construction of 60 huge luxury boxes on the stadium rim.
The downtown business group that underwrote the Cardinal invasion, the Metropolitan Phoenix Sports Alliance, has guaranteed Bidwill $2.4 million annually from the luxury boxes--all of which have already been leased--on top of $4.7 million annually in ticket revenue.
It is clear that in Phoenix, Bidwill has opened for business on Easy Street. But to stay there at these prices, his team will have to reverse a 90-year trend of mediocrity. The history of the Cardinals in Chicago and St. Louis suggests that for the Bidwills, Easy Street may only run one way, uphill.