Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Time for Paul Tagliabue to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Each of the last five years former National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been a couple of steps away from reaching the Pro Football Hall of Fame a semi-finalist each year. In 2007 (the first year he was eligible) 2008 and 2009 he was a finalist. Will Tagliabue reach the steps and enter the Football Hall of Fame this year? The first and most important question – should Tagliabue be in the Football Hall of Fame?

In his 17-years at the helm of the NFL, Tagliabue took a business that was running on all cylinders under Pete Rozelle’s leadership, to a business that annually generates $6 billion, an example the entire sports industry should stand and applaud.

When Tagliabue exited the National Football League on September 1, the NFL as a sports property had become a global brand. The league played a regular season game in Mexico City last year, has plans to play a regular season game in London and next year will send the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks to Beijing. And NFL Properties now generates more then $1 billon annually.

Fourteen months into his term as commissioner Tagliabue would be forced to deal with the terrible aftermath of The Gulf War, and had to consider how the NFL would react to ‘events beyond the scope of football'; Operation Desert Storm. Days after the first President Bush sent Americans into battle, the NFC and AFC championship games were scheduled for Candlestick Park in San Francisco and Rich Stadium in Orchard Park , N.Y. The following Sunday, the Super Bowl was scheduled to be played before 75,000 fans in Tampa Stadium.

As he told The New York Times’ Ira Berkow, there was no doubt whatsoever in his thought process as to what the NFL would do.

"We can't be paralyzed as a nation," Tagliabue said, "and can't act out of fear. We have to maintain appropriate respect for the situation, and keep appropriate proportion. So we've decided to play the games, but we're going to follow events right up until the kickoffs. There could be a change at any moment."

A month later, Tagliabue started setting the table for the dramatic moves forward the league has made in increasing their television rights fees. The NFL was in the final year of the league's four-year, $3.6 billion contract with five networks: the Big 3 of ABC, CBS and NBC, and the cable networks ESPN and TNT. The vision Tagliabue had was to develop the NFL as a sports property capable of moving beyond the barriers of offering their games on over-the-air carriers in each NFL market.

"We're thinking of something like a season's-ticket concept," said Tagliabue. "Maybe take an attractive game at the end of September, October, November, and December, a four-game package. You get the fans' attention by putting it on a regular basis, just like you do with 'Monday Night Football.' "

Tagliabue’s idea would be the birth of DirecTV’s NFL Sunday Ticket. Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the NCAA for both men’s football and basketball each now offer and generate tremendous sources of revenue from a concept first thought of by Paul Tagliabue. The league would wait a few years before moving forward with a ‘season-ticket package’ but it was the NFL who created the opportunity.

The next landmark date during Paul Tagliabue’s tenure took place on January 6, 1993. It took nearly two years, but Tagliabue led the NFL to the finish line with a new collective bargaining agreement with the NFL Players Association. Tagliabue had been beside Rozelle when NFL players went on strike early in the 1987 season, leading the owners to use replacement players. Years of litigation followed. Tagliabue was determined to find a solution that didn’t include litigation, a strike, or replacement players.

The key to the NFL’s 1993 CBA was the changing of free agency rules, allowing each team to designate only one player as their franchise player. Every other player could become a free agent once their contract had been completed. The essence of the 1993 CBA remains a key component to the CBA the NFLPA and the league agreed to in March.

Labor peace allowed Tagliabue’s vision of a bigger National Football League to move forward. The league expanded to Charlotte and Jacksonville in 1995 ($140 million for each franchise). The NFL also expanded into Houston ($700 million in 2002) and Cleveland ($540 million in 1999). The four expansion franchises have generated $1.54 billion in expansion fees for NFL owners.

It was Pete Rozelle who convinced NFL owners in 1963 for the good of the league the league’s television rights should be sold nationally with each franchise sharing in the revenues equally. The 32 NFL franchises will each receive $106 million annually for the league’s current TV agreement. This chart shows the incredible increase in NFL television rights since 1982:

Period AFC Package NFC Package Sunday Night Monday Night Thursday Night Total Amount
1982–1986 NBC CBS None ABC $420 million/yr
1987–1989 NBC CBS ESPN (2nd half) ABC $473 million/yr
1990–1993 NBC CBS TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half) ABC $900 million/yr
1994–1997 NBC Fox ($395 million/yr) TNT (1st half)
ESPN (2nd half) ABC $1.1 billion/yr
1998–2005 CBS ($500 million/yr) Fox ($550 million/yr) ESPN ($600 million/yr) ABC ($550 million/yr) ESPN $2.2 billion/yr
2006–2013 CBS ($622.5 million/yr) Fox ($712.5 million/yr) NBC ($650 million/yr) ESPN ($1.1 billion/yr) NFL Network ($0/yr) $3.085 billion/yr

This does not include the DirecTV package that brings the total to $3.6 billion per year.

September 11, 2001 is a date will remain etched in the conscious of everyone who was alive that terrible day. Two days later, Tagliabue made the only decision he could concerning the NFL games scheduled for Sunday, September 16, 2001, the second Sunday of the regular season – Tagliabue postponed the 15 scheduled games.

''We wanted to be sensitive, certain, and right,'' a tired Tagliabue said in a conference call with the news media, ''and certainly not superficial.''

He added: ''At a certain point playing our games can contribute to the healing process. Just not at this time.''

Five hours after Tagliabue announced he was postponing the NFL’s slate of games; Major League Baseball announced they would follow the NFL’s lead and postpone their games for the entire week. All Division I-A college football conferences -- some of which earlier had said they would play that week -- called off their weekend games. NASCAR called off its Winston Cup race in New Hampshire this weekend. In each and every case, it was leadership by example; the sports industry followed the decision Paul Tagliabue believed was in the best interest of the National Football League.

''This was our commissioner's finest hour,'' said Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell to the New York Times. ''He did the right thing. I wanted our league to take the initiative, to be the pace-setter by making the correct decision quickly and decisively. Paul did just that.''

Forbes Magazine released their 2006 Business of Football Report the day before Tagliabue’s last day as NFL commissioner, August 31, adding this note relating to Tagliabue’s legacy: This year the average NFL team is worth $898 million, 212% more than when Forbes began calculating team values eight years ago. Look at it this way: Football team values have increased 11 times more than the S&P 500 since 1998. Profitability? In 2005, the average NFL team posted $30.8 million in operating income (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization), versus $5.3 million in 1997.

There are currently 18 members of the Professional Football Hall of Fame included in the”contributors” category:
Bert Bell 1933-1959 -- Commissioner - National Football League, 1946-1959; Team Owner - Philadelphia Eagles, 1933-1940, Pittsburgh Steelers, 1941-1946
Charles W. Bidwill, Sr. 1933-1947 -- Team Owner - Chicago Cardinals, 1933-1947
Joe Carr 1921-1939 -- President - National Football League, 1921-1939
Al Davis 1963-present -- Team Owner - Oakland /Los Angeles Raiders, 1966-present; Head Coach - Oakland Raiders, 1963-1965; Commissioner - American Football League, 1966
Jim Finks 1964-1982, 1986-1992 -- Team Administrator - Minnesota Vikings, 1964-1973, Chicago Bears, 1974-1982, New Orleans Saints, 1986-1992
George Halas 1920-1983 -- Founder/Team Owner - Decatur Staleys/Chicago Staleys/Chicago Bears, 1920-1983; Head Coach - Decatur Staleys/Chicago Staleys/Chicago Bears, 1920-1929, 1933-1942, 1946-1955, 1958-1967; Co-Founder - National Football League, 1920
Lamar Hunt 1959-present -- Co-Founder - American Football League, 1959; Team Owner - Dallas Texans/Kansas City Chiefs, 1959-2006
Earl (Curly) Lambeau 1919-1953 -- Team Founder/Coach/General Manager - Green Bay Packers, 1919-1949; Head Coach - Chicago Cardinals, 1950-1951, Washington Redskins, 1952-1953
Tim Mara 1925-1959 -- Founder/Team Owner - New York Giants, 1925-1959
Wellington Mara 1937-2005 -- Team Administrator/Team Owner - New York Giants, 1937-2005
George Preston Marshall 1932-1969 -- Founder/Team Owner - Boston Braves/Boston Redskins/Washington Redskins, 1932-1969
Hugh (Shorty) Ray 1938-1952 -- Technical Advisor on Rules, Supervisor of Officials - National Football League, 1938-1952
Dan Reeves 1941-1971 -- Team Owner - Cleveland/ Los Angeles Rams, 1941-1971
Art Rooney 1933-1988 -- Founder/Team Owner - Pittsburgh Pirates/Steelers, 1933-1988
Dan Rooney 1955-present -- Team Administrator/Team Owner - Pittsburgh Steelers, 1955-present
Pete Rozelle 1960-1989 -- Commissioner - National Football League, 1960-1989
Tex Schramm 1947-1956, 1960-1990 -- Team Administrator - Los Angeles Rams, 1947-1956, Dallas Cowboys, 1960-1989; President/CEO - World League of American Football, 1989-1990
Ralph Wilson, 1960 to present, founder and owner Buffalo Bills

Without discussing the merits relating to any of the 18 men who have been honored, nor opening a debate to those who haven’t yet been recognized for their contributions to the growth of football as a sport and as a business, one name on the list of those in the Pro Football Hall of Fame – Jim Finks – stands in direct relationship to Paul Tagliabue.

Tagliabue replaced Rozelle on October 26, 1989. Tagliabue’s hiring is an often told tale. It took 11 ballots, three ownership meetings in three different cities, and a New York based executive-search firm before the NFL made the best decision the league ever made. Tagliabue was elected on the eleventh and final ballot. The NFL’s old guard was steadfast in supporting Jim Finks, then the vice president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints. The new guard believed Tagliabue was the man to lead the NFL into the 21st century.

''I've had the luxury and benefit of working with Pete Rozelle for 20 years,'' Tagliabue said at a news conference after arriving that fateful afternoon from Washington. ''He's the goal standard for all founders and leaders to come. I hope to have Jim Finks working with me. He called and told me he would be supporting me 100 percent. I told him I wouldn't let him off so easily.''

''I have worked with all of the league and feel no favoritism,'' Tagliabue said. ''I hope now that we can talk about the games and competition instead of the old guard and the new guard. I hope we talk about right guards and left guards rather than that.''

The NFL continues to be a money-making machine. The current broadcast agreement guarantees each NFL franchise $106 million annually in national television revenues alone. One of the keys to the NFL’s amazing growth in broadcast dollars was the 17 years of labor peace Tagliabue’s leadership provided the NFL with.

During Tagliabue’s tenure Major League Baseball lost part of the 1994 season, that season’s World Series and MLB owners were forced to pay the MLB Players Association hundreds of millions of dollars in damages when the MLBPA successfully won a collusion lawsuit against MLB owners. (The MLB owners were levied fines in excess of $280 million dollars.)

During Tagliabue’s tenure the National Basketball Association nearly lost the 1998-99 season to a labor dispute.

During Tagliabue’s tenure the National Hockey League lost their 2004-05 season to a labor dispute and nearly lost the 1994-95 season to another labor dispute.

The bottom line – there were no labor disputes that nearly crippled the National Football League during the 17 years Paul Tagliabue was responsible for managing its affairs. That alone speaks volumes when it comes to his leadership style – he kept the engine going.

Time for the NFL to make things right by and for Paul Tagliabue – make sure Paul Tagliabue is a member of the 2011 Pro Football Hall of Fame class.

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