SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/One On One

One-on-One with Michael Bidwill, vice president and general counsel, Arizona Cardinals

Bidwill gave up his prosecutor’s job to help the Cardinals win a new football stadium.

The massive trusses raised last week that eventually will support the retractable roof at the Arizona Cardinals’ new stadium were not only the largest and heaviest engineering lift in North American history. For all practical purposes, they could have symbolized Michael Bidwill’s efforts to revive the team from a generation of mediocrity.

The centerpiece of his efforts sits among fields of cotton, alfalfa, tumbleweeds and little else: a $450 million stadium that boasts both a retractable playing field and a retractable roof. The 40-year-old former federal prosecutor recently spent a day with SportsBusiness Journal research director David Broughton discussing the team’s stigmas of the past and the future of football in the desert.

Hometown: St. Louis
Resides: Paradise Valley, Ariz.
Career: U.S. attorney’s office as a federal prosecutor in Phoenix specializing in homicide and other violent crimes, 1990-1996; Cardinals’ vice president and general counsel since 1996
Education: Bachelor of science, finance, St. Louis University, 1987; law degree, Catholic University, 1990
Hobby: A pilot since age 19, he flies to games, meetings and the occasional spur-of-the-moment late-afternoon trip to Vegas
Favorite vacation spot: Wherever my cell phone doesn’t work. I like going to Europe, and I like San Diego.
Vice: I drive too fast. Way too fast.
Overheard once at a local pub: “Do you think the Cards will ever make the Super Bowl?” “I dunno. I guess if Bidwill’s kid got people to vote for a new stadium, I suppose anything’s possible.”

Your family has owned the team for nearly three-quarters of a century. Talk about growing up in a football family.
It’s interesting. You know, my grandfather bought the team in 1931 and owned part of the Bears at the time. So, yeah, football has always been in the family. The first time I worked for the team was 1973 — I was a ball boy. I was 9 years old and out on the field with the players — that was a big deal, you know? As I grew up I worked at training camps as a ball boy and runner and things like that, and through college, too. I decided in college, when I was a senior, I said, “You know what? I think I’d like to go to law school. I think I’d like to go out and do my own thing.” So I got my law degree and became a federal prosecutor here in Arizona.

Did you always figure you’d come back to the family business?
Well, yeah, I think so, but I really wanted to get out there on my own. I did that for six years — worked in the violent crime unit putting murderers, rapists and robbers away. … I would go to lunch every week or two with Dad when I was at the U.S. attorney’s office and I would ask, “What’s going on with the stadium” and he would kind of shrug and say “you know …” and this and that. Finally I told him I was thinking about leaving the attorney’s office soon. The last few cases I’d tried — they take awhile — I felt like I had sort of plateaued. And you know how when you start not feeling challenged, or maybe not as excited every day, maybe it’s time to move on?

Coincidentally, I was getting frustrated that there was just nothing happening on the stadium deal, and really felt like the law firm that was representing Dad’s interests was not really advancing the ball much.

So your coming back to the team wasn’t like Michael Corleone joining the family business?
[Laughing] The funniest thing is, and very few people know this, Dad and I were talking about the stadium, we had this ongoing dialogue, and

The team’s new home will feature a retractable roof and retractable field.
I had already left the attorney general’s office and I had taken a couple of weeks off. There were about 10 local law firms that wanted me to go work for them in their litigation department. I knew by that time I wanted to be either an in-house lawyer for the team and work on the stadium project or work with the firm that was already with the project. So I said, “Dad, there’s this class in Green Bay on sports facilities, and maybe I should go to that as part of a continuing legal education class.”

Now, you can’t really get to Green Bay on a nonstop flight from anywhere, except O’Hare, so I was flying into O’Hare and I realized, “I don’t know what hotel I’m staying at in Green Bay.” So I called the Cardinals office and talked to the executive assistant and she said, “Oh, congratulations.” There was a long pause and I said, “Thank you. On what?” She said, “Well, uh, your dad just circulated the memo around that you are the vice president and general counsel.” All we were doing was talking about it! ... It was kind of funny, you know? He had never said the magic words: Here’s the offer, and do you accept?

The Bidwills are the longest-tenured team owners in Phoenix. Do you think you’ll ever get rid of the stigma of being carpetbaggers, or a relocated team?
I think the No. 1 thing we need to do is win football games. That’s what this whole thing is about — competition. The new stadium is going to help us do that.

Voters rejected your original plan, the FAA nixed another — the stadium drama played out like a soap opera for quite a while. There must have been some point where you sat down and said, “This is just not going to happen.”
Never. I always believed it would happen, and I knew that every one of these deals in every city is hard. And I think you need to keep the commitment to it and I always thought that we would get this done. Yeah, there were a lot of times where we had a setback. … We would just get back at it and come up with another plan and advance it to get around that setback. I think there were many people who, when I first took the job, thought that this was going to take a long, long time, and said we were going to have to win the Super Bowl first. I felt like, yeah, we’d love to win the Super Bowl first, but in the meantime, we have to move this project forward. It’s the chicken or the egg. New stadiums are so important to teams that are going to be successful. If you look at the last five or six NFC championship teams, or even recent AFC championship teams — the ones with new stadiums are the ones that go to the Super Bowl. I think as we move forward to finishing this, people will recognize that when we were saying that we were at a disadvantage by playing in a college stadium, we were right.

A lot has changed in the years since the original project was conceived. Did you ever think maybe the price tag was getting too high?
We made a conscientious decision to stick to the high design element, and we knew we would have to pay a little more to make it happen. This is really going to be breaking the mold for stadium design going forward.

How did the “NFL income tax” come about?
The “jock tax” was just an idea we had come up with, which is, basically, the players’ income tax would help support the stadium financing, which was a popular idea with the people in the city. “Hey,

Bidwill likes how the stars are lining up for the team.
yeah, the players can help pay for their stadium.” We don’t believe anyone’s ever used this to help finance a sports facility.

Obviously the financing is not the only unique part of the project. Talk about the economics of a retractable field.
The retractable field is the only one of its kind in North America. It will weigh 12 million pounds. It’ll move on 12 rails, and will only be used for 10 or so dates a year. The rest of the time it will be outside the bowl getting sunshine. The amount it will cost to move it for those dates will be far outweighed by the savings in groundskeeping. It’s always been part of our overall plan. It’s funny, back when this thing really starting moving ahead, the engineers said they weren’t concerned about making it move, but making it stop.

You worked with the Navajos a great deal while you were with the U.S. attorney’s office, and you spoke a little Navajo earlier today. According to the Navajos, if you see a jumble of stars in the night sky, it is just a mirror reflection of the disorder and confusion of life on Earth. How are the stars looking from Glendale?
The stars are aligned for the team in 2005. Dennis Green is turning around the program. We had a great draft last year. We’ve got a great position in the draft this year. The day we unveiled our new logo we had over a million hits on our site — our biggest day ever. We’re really moving forward.

Look for more of this conversation in our sister publication, The Sports Business Daily, located at

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