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Could the Steelers’ sale be a tax issue?

2008 July 16
by Skip Sauer

From today’s WSJ Opinion Page:

One of the league’s iconic teams, the Steelers have been owned by the Rooney family since 1933. The five sons of the original owner, Art Rooney, control 80%—and they are getting into their 70s. With the team’s value estimated at $700 million or more, the 45% federal death tax rate could put each brother on the hook to the IRS for tens of millions of dollars.

That may be more than they can afford. NFL franchises have appreciated quickly in the past decade, and the more a franchise goes up in value, the greater the challenge for estate planning. While a given brother’s share of the team may be worth more than $100 million on paper, that doesn’t mean he or his heirs have half again that much in cash to fork over to the IRS.

Daniel Rooney, the eldest brother who runs the team, is offering to buy his four brothers out of their shares. He has said he will do “everything possible to ensure my father’s legacy” and keep the team in family hands, and in Pittsburgh. Good luck to him. Challenging Mr. Rooney’s offer to buy about a third of each of his brothers’ stakes now with more down the road is hedge-fund billionaire Stanley Druckenmiller, a man with considerably deeper pockets.

Adding urgency to the Pittsburgh transaction is the prospect of a Democratic President in 2009 who opposes repeal of the death tax and wants to raise the tax rate for capital gains. Barack Obama has promised to raise the rate from 15% to at least 25%, and perhaps the Clinton-era peak of 28%. The artificial timeline adds appeal to a buyer like Mr. Druckenmiller who has the dough to complete a transaction before the end of this year.

The estate tax certainly gives an edge to buyers other than the elderly Mr. Rooney. I haven’t read much about the other four brothers. They might not see things the same way. Legacies can be costly to protect, and this is no longer their father’s NFL.

Also in today’s WSJ, an article on the cost of the Beijing Olympics. Here are the opening paragraphs:

China’s record spending on the Olympics, estimated to total $42 billion, is a big sum for a developing country to put into a two-week sports show. While much of the money is going into infrastructure projects with long-term value, at least some of the spending is drawing criticism for wastefulness.

The tab for China’s massive Olympic projects — ranging from a $3 billion airport terminal to the $500 million “Bird’s Nest” National Stadium — dwarfs the Athens Olympics budget of $15 billion, which helped drive Greece into debt. London, host for 2012, is already embroiled in controversy over its Olympics tab.

In Beijing, few details are being spared. Along Jing Shun Lu, a formerly dusty road in the capital’s suburbs, the government spent $30 million for an Olympics facelift, including trees, flowers and an ornamental wall. The road is a secondary access route to the city’s airport, and near the rowing venue. People who used to live along the road have been given a small sum in compensation and forced to move.

China can afford the financial cost of the biggest Olympics in history. The bill amounts to a small fraction of the country’s gross domestic product, expected to be nearly $4 trillion this year, and corporate sponsors have underwritten some of the costs. Moreover, most of the spending isn’t going toward running the Games, but toward roads, subways and airports.

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