When Paul Tagliabue took over as NFL commissioner in October 1989, he made two memorable pronouncements.
First, he said his principal goal was solving the labor dispute that had plagued the league since the four-week strike in 1987 and remained in court.
Second, that he wanted the job “because it would be fun.”
It took him three years to solve the labor dispute. As for the fun, he says he’s still having it.
He should be. The NFL is now the only league in professional sports with labor peace, and it is reaping billions of dollars from television, marketing and ticket sales.
So, is Tagliabue the smartest commissioner in sports?
“He understood what had to be done,” says Gene Upshaw, the Hall of Fame guard who heads the players’ union. “If it had been up to him, we’d have had labor peace even sooner.”
“A great, great commissioner,” says Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the “old guard” owners who originally backed the late Jim Finks for the job vacated by Pete Rozelle.
“I don’t know where we’d be without him.”
Still, can’t a “great” commissioner prevent the kind of franchise free agency that’s left the NFL without a team in Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest media market?
And is Tagliabue a genius, or simply a beneficiary of events?
He clearly has benefited from events that occurred before his time:
--The decision in the early 1960s under Pete Rozelle to share all television revenue. For that to happen, owners in cities such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles had to agree to share much larger receipts with Green Bay, Pittsburgh and other smaller markets.
--A players’ union that abdicated free agency after winning it in court in the late 1970s and is congenitally weak because of high turnover.
And there are other factors beyond his control:
--The recent labor problems in baseball, basketball and hockey have made the NFL a constant in fans’ lives.
--The NFL in general and Monday Night Football in particular remains popular due to the huge amounts of money bet on the game, both legally and illegally.
But Tagliabue has made his contributions to the NFL’s burgeoning health--like manipulating the networks to get $1.58 billion from Fox two years ago. For not only did he push to solve the labor problems, getting a salary cap that is the envy of all sports owners, but he has kept the NFL ahead of the corporate curve.
Go back 50 years, just after World War II, and the NFL was a bunch of mom-and-pop businesses--Rooney, Mara, Halas, Reeves and Brown, overseen by Bert Bell, who ran what was essentially a one-man office in Philadelphia.
Then came Rozelle, a public relations man, who moved the headquarters to New York, sold the league to television, and watched it explode all over the country. His biggest contribution: revenue sharing, the AFL merger and the incredible explosion in televisor revenue. What CBS bought for $2 million in 1963 cost Fox 2,500 times more 30 years later.
Tagliabue, a senior partner in Covington & Burling who served as the NFL’s Washington Council for 20 years, emerged from an eight-month election process after Rozelle stepped down in March 1989. He defeated the late Jim Finks, a “football” man who was the favorite of all those Rooney, Mara and Halas heirs who think so highly of Tagliabue.
In fact, Finks’ election was barely blocked by a coalition of outsiders led by, among others, Edward DeBartolo Jr. of San Francisco and Jerry Jones, who had just bought the Dallas Cowboys.
Among the current ironies:
--Many of those who blocked Finks are no longer in the league;
--The “old guard” owners are Tagliabue’s staunchest supporters; and
--Tagliabue, with DeBartolo at his side, is engaged in a burgeoning feud with Jones over the Dallas owner’s desire to keep all the Cowboys’ marketing money for himself.
Jones’ action could have been predicted. If he epitomizes the new bottom-line owner, he’s not alone. And Tagliabue himself has built the league office like a corporation.
He brought in investment executive Neil Austrian to fill the new post of league president; he hired Sara Levinson from MTV to run NFL properties; and he’s generally put professionals into jobs that under the Rozelle regime had been held by former public relations men.
Tagliabue also backed up his pledge to increase the number of minorities in non-player positions. The number of black assistants has tripled since he took over. He had a major hand in the hiring three years ago of Dennis Green as head coach of the Vikings, calling Roger Headrick, the team’s president, to recommend Green.
“I don’t know what effect that had,” Tagliabue says. “When I called him, Roger was out of the office--in Chicago, interviewing Dennis for the job.”
But the most important step he took--the one that eventually led to the labor settlement--was to take over labor relations himself and appoint to the Management Council’s executive committee more flexible owners than the ones who had hard-balled the union during the 1987 strike. Rooney, the lone “dove” in 1987, was the only holdover on a group that had been headed by Hugh Culverhouse, the late owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
It’s just the kind of thing that didn’t happen in baseball, where hard-line owners in effect abolished the commissioner during their labor dispute.
“It made sense, the only sense,” Tagliabue says today of his decision. “They were running independent of the commissioner on a matter that was of prime importance to the league. It had to be done.”
But it still wasn’t easy--it took a verdict by a jury in Minneapolis and hardball by U.S. District Court Judge David Doty to get the two sides together. Finally, in October 1992, three years after his election, Tagliabue agreed with Upshaw that the players would get free agency after four years if the owners could get their salary cap.
“It was still a hard sell, but I figured we’d get it,” Tagliabue says.
That cleared the way for the new, corporate NFL and, as a side-effect, got Tagliabue a new contract with a big raise--well into the David Stern range of $2.5 million, or about as much as an average starting quarterback.
When expansion franchises were awarded two years ago, the first went to Carolina, which was financing its new stadium with Permanent Seating Licenses, or PSLs. That is, essentially, asking people to pay simply for the right to buy a ticket, then to pay more money for the ticket itself.
The St. Louis group that lured the Rams from Los Angeles used the lure of PSLs and the Raiders moved back to Oakland when the city agreed to use PSLs to finance renovation of the Oakland Coliseum.
Tagliabue has pledged to put a team or teams back in Los Angeles by 1998 and doesn’t see a negative in the NFL’s absence from the nation’s second-largest market.
“It’s only a temporary situation dictated by unusual circumstances,” he says.
For most of the things he does, a subtle sense of humor is unnecessary. What’s needed, and what Tagliabue possesses, is the ability to convince 30 disparate owners what’s in the best interest of all of them.