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Only In Pittsburgh

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In many ways, Pittsburgh is one of the most fortunate sports cities in America.

Even though Pittsburgh was never the biggest town on the professional sports landscape, some of the biggest starts in the history of American sports have called the Steel City their home. Roberto Clemente. Joe Greene. Mario Lemieux. The list of Hall of Famers who have worn the town’s iconic black and gold is as expansive as any of the three rivers.

Perhaps more than their successes on the field, Pittsburgh’s sports teams have become so firmly engrained within the town’s culture that they are practically inseparable. All three professional teams are clad in the city’s black and gold colors. The Steelers are one of the few American sports franchises that are a national brand. The Pirates were established just 71 years after Pittsburgh became a city. The Penguins have featured one or more of the best players in hockey since they drafted Mario Lemieux in 1983.

Currently, each of Pittsburgh’s three professional sports teams tout one of the best players in his respective sports. Crosby with the Penguins, Andrew McCutchen with the Pirates, and Ben Roethlisberger with the Steelers all serve as pillars around which winning teams have been built.

Of course, part of what helped those Pittsburgh sports heroes gain legendary status was that they never left. In the age of free agency, it is increasingly rare for a player to stay on one team for his entire career. Three of the best professional athletes in the world currently play in Pittsburgh. But how long will they stay here?

Age: 28
Contract: Signed a 12-year, $104.4MM in 2012 contract that will expire in 2025
Forbes sports business writer Mike Ozanian said that of the three aforementioned Pittsburgh sports stars, none are more valuable to their team than Sidney Crosby is.
Penguins Sidney Crosby
“The NHL has the least revenue sharing of any of major American sports leagues,” Ozanian said. “Hockey teams generate most of their revenue from gate sales, which makes it very important to have a good team that makes the playoffs frequently.”

From that standpoint, Crosby’s arrival in Pittsburgh marked a significant turnaround for the Penguins franchise. Before the Penguins won the 2005 draft lottery and took Crosby with the first pick, they were a fledging hockey team that was struggling to fill an outdated Mellon Arena.

Since then, Pittsburgh has become one of the premier hockey destinations in America. Crosby has helped the Penguins become a perennial Stanley Cup contender and has sparked a consecutive sellout streak that eclipsed 400 games this past January.  

But, according to Penguins Live radio host Brian Metzer, Crosby’s greatest contribution is the building that sits at the corner of Fifth Ave. and Washington Place in downtown Pittsburgh.

“There is a giant new building that has his fingerprints all over it,” Metzer said. “Sid, from the moment he was drafted, changed everything. They started selling out games and became a very viable product in the city. Like Lemieux before him, he’s found a way to save the franchise.”

When the Penguins explored relocation in 2006, Crosby’s superstar promise helped the team owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle negotiate a deal to build CONSOL Energy Center: A luxurious 18,387-seat arena that has never hosted a Penguins game that has not sold out.

While Crosby’s relevance to recent Penguins history is almost indescribable, he will likely mean just as much to the future of the franchise. Team owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux put the Penguins up for sale in the offseason and Crosby is one of the main reasons why the team is reportedly asking for $750 million, more than seven times the $107 million the Lemieux Group paid to buy the franchise in 1999.

Crosby will be 37 years old and nearing the end of his career when his contract expires at the end of the 2024-2025 season. For the Penguins, it made sense in 2012 to keep Crosby around for an extended period of time and it will likely continue to make sense as Pittsburgh’s star center enters the later stages of his career.

“If there’s one athlete who is going to stick around forever, it’s Sid with the Penguins,” Metzer said. “He’ll probably be one of those guys that’ll be a lifer here in town.”

Age: 29
Contract: Signed a 6-year, $51.5MM contract in 2012 with a $14.5MM option for the 2018 season
The star athlete least likely to spend the rest of his career in Pittsburgh is McCutchen. While both he and club owner Bob Nutting have expressed interest in keeping the Pirates’ star center fielder in town, McCutchen’s future with the club will come down to the almighty dollar.

McCutchen is approaching the end of an extremely team-friendly contract through which he has posted MVP-caliber numbers for a fraction of the price. But when McCutchen’s current deal expires, one can be assured that he will not take a similar discount. With Major League Baseball saturated with cash, McCutchen could almost assuredly sell the remaining years of his baseball career for dollars in the hundreds of millions.

For an analytically driven, and notoriously frugal, franchise like the Pirates to commit that heavily to a player’s waning years would be uncharacteristic. But the end of McCutchen’s contract cPirates Andrew McCutchenoincides with what could be a reformative event in Pirates history: The negotiation of a new television deal.

Currently, the Pirates have one of the worst television contracts in the league. Their deal with ROOT Sports, which expires in 2019, pays them $18 million per year. Compare that to the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose 25-year television contract with FOX Sports West pays them $280 million per year.

The Dodgers represent an extreme example, but several other teams have signed billion-dollar television contracts in the past few years. Included among them is Pittsburgh’s chief divisional rival, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Red Birds had a similarly bad contract as Pittsburgh until they signed a $1.6 billion deal with FOX Sports Midwest.

Ozanian said that McCutchen’s future might lie with how much the former MVP’s departure would impact television ratings.

“The Pirates’ television deal is going to go up, the question is whether it’s by 30 percent or 80 percent,” Ozanian said. “So the Pirates are going to have to determine if losing McCutchen will dramatically affect their television ratings. If they’re going to lose him and not replace him, that will factor into the negotiations.”

While McCutchen’s numbers might wane with age, his likeability and popularity probably will not. Through the past three winning seasons, the Pirates have reestablished themselves as a legitimate sports entity in Pittsburgh for the first time in two decades.

If the Pirates decide that McCutchen’s marketability supersedes his risk for potential decline, Ozanian said that the team might try to negotiate a new television deal early and use an up-front bonus to extend their star player.

Age: 34
Contract: Signed an 8-year, $102MM contract in 2015
The NFL is a steamrolling juggernaut that burns money for fuel, so Roethlisberger’s financial value to the Steelers is not as significant as Crosby’s is to the Penguins or McCutchen’s is to the Pirates. Rather, the two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback’s value is more focused on cementing a legacy.

Throughout his ten-year NFL career, Roethlisberger’s grit and determination has earned him a reputation as one of the league’s toughest players. His ability to play through injury will perpetually be referenced among Steelers lore long after the former first-rounder from Miami (OH) retires.

But, at 34 years of age, Roethlisberger is working on a new legacy. With an uncanny arsenal of weapons surrounding him, featuring elite wide receiver Antonio Brown and explosive running back Le’Veon Bell, Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his career when most professional athletes would be starting to slow down.

Former Steelers lineman and current radio personality Craig Wolfley said that as players mature, they rely more on their instincts than their physical ability. Advancements in nutrition and rehab, combined with the NFL’s commitment toward protecting quarterbacks, have allowed smart players like Roethlisberger to remain productive.

“As guys mature and keep their athleticism, it melds with their ‘game brains,’” Wolfley said. “It goes when you really understand the game bSteelers Ben Roethlisbergereyond the X’s and O’s. Quarterbacks are able to be more productive later in their careers than they ever were before.”

Like Crosby, Roethlisberger’s contract should allow him to retire as a Steeler. But in a modern quarterback-focused NFL that has recently seen the Indianapolis Colts sever ties with future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, who knows what the future could hold?

“I remember as a kid when Joe Namath was wearing a Rams uniform, it just looked wrong,” Wolfley said. “But after Peyton Manning, who knows? You certainly hope he stays and goes down in the annals as being one of the greatest Steelers of all time.”

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