Byline: Chris Harry
ORLANDO _ Just last week, New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was leaving his weekly Monday night tennis match with some friends when he was stopped by a stranger at his club.
'Thank you,' the man said.
The man told Kraft he recently had taken a copy of the Feb. 4 newspaper_the day after the Patriots' upset of the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI_and laid it at the gravesite of his father, a lifelong Boston sports fan and Patriots season-ticket holder.
Kraft listened, then issued a thank-you in return. For the loyalty. For the passion. For the tale.
'Obviously, this meant a lot to him,' Kraft said. 'Those of us who are fortunate enough to own a franchise in the National Football League are often reminded that we truly are customers of communal assistance.'
NFL owners are big on reminders. Always have been. Call it institutional memory. It has been the driving force behind the league since its founding more than 81 years ago when the heads of 12 club teams gathered Sept. 17, 1920, in the showroom of a Canton, Ohio, automobile dealership and formed the American Professional Football Association. Those 12 clubs were franchised at a cost of $100.
In the years to come_amid unfathomable growth and prosperity_the league would look for stability through the likes of icon owners such as George Halas, Art Rooney and Wellington Mara but also thrive under mavericks such as Al Davis, Joe Robbie and Eddie DeBartolo, and welcome new-age wealth with the likes of Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder.
Through this parade of diversified personalities, the philosophy set forth in that showroom eight decades ago has remained the overriding constant to make the NFL the envy of pro sports. On Sunday, as the NFL and its 32 owners_along with team executives and head coaches_arrive in Orlando for their annual meetings at the Hyatt Grand Cypress, there will be discussions and differences among these powerful men and women.
In time, barriers will be scaled, not necessarily to the complete satisfaction of each_and not to the benefit of the owner with the most money or the team in the largest market.
Instead, it will be done in a way that will guarantee financial prosperity for franchises across the board_like it always has been done.
'The people who set up our league don't get enough credit for formulating a structure that is superior to any other league_and it's not necessarily close,' said Tampa Bay General Manager Rich McKay, who doubles as co-chair of the NFL Competition Committee. 'They created a system, from revenue-sharing and competitive standpoints, that not only has withstood the test of time, it's gotten better.'
While baseball, basketball and hockey deal with such issues as competitive imbalance, TV contracts and sagging attendance, the NFL is thriving within the framework of its charter system and under the guiding hand of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks_which occurred three days into the 2001 regular season_the NFL emerged to stage one of the greatest seasons in its storied history, capped by arguably the most exciting Super Bowl of them all.
Now, compare that to Major League Baseball, our former national pastime. Its World Series also was one for the books, with the Arizona Diamondbacks coming from behind to defeat the three-time champion New York Yankees in a stirring seventh game on the game's final at-bat.
Yet, a week later, baseball's commissioner was talking about folding two teams.
'You wind up like the 6-year-old Woody Allen character in Annie Hall who slaps his forehead, always the wrong answer (coming from a slow classmate),' author Michael MacCambridge says of baseball. ' `Seven plus three is nine.' '
Football conquers America
MacCambridge has spent the last three years researching a book scheduled for release in the fall of 2003 tentatively titled The Big Game: How Pro Football Conquered America. The book will examine how the NFL overtook baseball as the nation's most popular sport, a surge that began in post-World War II and accelerated during the 1960s under then-commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Rozelle oversaw the passage of the 1961 Sports Broadcasting Act, which resulted in network contracts that required all games of all teams to be televised, providing for equal shares of revenue distributed to all teams. Its framework set the table for similar structural features with NFL Films and merchandising that strengthened the league in cities of all sizes.
The result of baseball's imbalance is at an all-time high. After reaching their fifth World Series in the last six seasons last year, the 2002 Yankees will operate with a record payroll of more than $120 million, a figure financed in large part by the team's own cable TV package and other local revenue that generated $217.8 million in 2001. Now compare those numbers to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, whose local revenue was $62 million and whose payroll for the upcoming season figures to be about $34 million. What sort of chance do they have? And the Devil Rays are much better off than the Montreal Expos, whose local revenue streams produced a grand total of $9.8 million in 2001.
With such a discrepancy, this should come as no surprise: Since 1995, baseball has had only five teams whose payrolls were in the lower half of the league qualify for the playoffs.
Not even baseball can ignore the imbalance any longer.
'We've gotten into a situation where some clubs are backing off payroll because it doesn't make sense given the cost of each additional win and what it would cost to be competitive,' says Sandy Alderson, the executive vice president of baseball operations. 'We need to get those teams spending money again on talent.'
In contrast, the NFL last year operated under guidelines of a Collective Bargaining Agreement in its ninth season. The CBA called for all teams to remain under a league-imposed salary cap ($67.4 million in `01). The result was a third different Super Bowl champion in as many years. And none of the three had a winning record the season before claiming its title.
As for the money, the NFL's 31 teams brought in a combined $4.2 billion in TV revenue alone, with each franchise getting a $75 million split.
'Nobody shares like the NFL does,' Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver says. 'Everything we do is to make sure we aren't a league of haves and have-nots.'
In 1981, Halas_then the owner of the Chicago Bears_testified before a Congressional subcommittee on relocation of NFL franchises. In one of the most memorable statements in league history, Halas reminded a nation about the NFL's mission statement.
Perhaps no one was more qualified to speak on the subject. Halas, after all, was in that showroom in 1920. He recalled how there weren't enough chairs, so he parked himself on the running board of a Hupmobile.
'Our league for me was then_and still is_best exemplified as a wheel,' Halas said. 'In 1920, we were 12 independent spokes. But spokes, if they are to serve a useful purpose and make a contribution, must have a rim. A spoke may weaken, even break, but the rim prevents collapse. Our league was and is our rim. The credo of sharing became the foundation of our league. On this foundation, professional football was built. This sharing concept was unprecedented in sport.'
In many ways, it still is.
'I think the real phenomena is with how (the owners) have adjusted over time,' says Joel Glazer, executive vice president of the Bucs and son of Tampa Bay owner Malcolm Glazer. 'Give credit to the pioneers and forefathers, if you will, but just as important is the way things have been adjusted as time has gone on. The world has changed. New things have come into play that no one could have imagined back then. But every step of the way, (the owners) have stepped up and said, `OK, what's in the best interest of the NFL?' '
A year ago, the hot-button item at the annual meetings was realignment. With the expansion Houston Texans set to join the league in `02, the NFL had to agree to a new and more practical NFC-AFC split. The issue had the potential to be contentious, but Tagliabue began his damage control more than a year earlier by meeting with smaller groups of owners and listening to their concerns as decision time drew near.
'The commissioner got everyone involved early and let everybody be a part of the process,' Glazer says. 'Not only that, but you had a group of owners who at the end of the day was going to do what was best for the National Football League.'
The most sensible solution was a proposal that sent the Seattle Seahawks jumping from the AFC to the NFC and the Bucs losing their rivalries in the NFC Central to join a new NFC South. Both moves ended 25-year affiliations for the teams.
'Did we want to move? No. Was it in the best interest of the National Football League for the Buccaneers to move? Yes,' Glazer says. 'So we moved.'
When it came time to move on the proposal, it was ratified in one day after the owners agreed to share gate receipts evenly across the league. By doing so, it made moot any arguments about teams wanting to be in divisions with sparkling new stadiums, armed with lucrative luxury boxes and club seats.
The split would be the same for everyone.
'My father was known for his friendship with everybody. He always gave the others a chance to say what his problem was. He would listen and he would try to work things out,' says Steelers President Dan Rooney, who took over team operations when his father died in 1988. 'I think that's pretty much the norm among the majority of owners in our league. We had our struggling times. We had the depression in the `30s, the war in the `40s and the AFL in the `60s. We survived them all.'
In 1987, the NFL endured perhaps its ugliest episode when ownership thumbed its nose at a striking players union and staged games with replacement players. The move led to the decertification of the NFL Players Union and sent the two sides to court.
The case eventually was settled in 1993 and resulted in the current CBA, which includes a benefits package unmatched in sports. It also granted players their long-fought desire for an acceptable form of free agency, albeit a balanced avenue for movement to keep salaries under control_to the benefit of each team.
Last October, the CBA was extended through the 2007 season, meaning the NFL is guaranteed at least 20 years of labor peace.
'All it takes is a couple of work stoppages, and your (CBA) contract is going to look a little different because the game is going to be perceived as different,' says McKay, who credits NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw with helping keep manageable what could have been a mess. 'The players want to know, when the game is over for them, `What is my severance package? What are my personal benefits? What's my retirement look like?'
'I say in our sport today, it all looks tremendous. Now those aren't things that are necessarily going to be written about or be at the forefront of anyone's stories, but they're critical, believe me.'
Critical, also, was the league's implementing a stadium-financing program in 1997, a development that addressed the issue of franchise relocation. From 1982 to `95, six teams relocated, including the Raiders twice (from Oakland to Los Angeles, then back to Oakland). The financing plan, known as 'G-3,' now allows teams facing stadium issues to get a loan from the NFL at favorable interest rates. So far, eight projects have netted loans of about $650 million. Palatial stadiums in Detroit and New England are set to debut in the fall, with new ones in Philadelphia and Chicago scheduled for `03.
'Relocation was a problem,' MacCambridge says. 'But the structure was there to deal with it.'
There appears the structure to deal with any bump in the NFL's road. Is it any wonder that pro football left baseball in its rearview mirror more than 30 years ago?
For perspective, MacCambridge suggests watching highlights of the first Super Bowl, circa 1967. Now compare that NFL Films footage to World Series highlights_if you can find any_of the same era.
'There is no comparison,' he says. 'You really get a sense at how stark the difference was and how many light years the NFL was ahead of other sports.'
The same conclusion can be drawn with regard to the NFL's overall structure in relation to rival leagues.
After all, how many can say a franchise in New York holds no competitive edge over one in Green Bay, Wis.?
End of argument.
'The only time we don't have aligned interest is during those three hours on Sunday when we're competing against one another,' Kraft says. 'Having passionate fans in every city in the country is really what our game is about, and it's good for the Patriots that 31 other cities care about their teams the same way we care for ours. We're sort of like one big family. We have our differences in our house, but outside, our bonds are too strong to let anyone else crack in.'
(c) 2002, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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