Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame: Paul Tagliabue, Turned the NFL into a TV Necessity

By P.J. Bednarski

Paul Tagliabue has a way of looking at a big picture and neatly editing it down to its most essential parts. It’s a character attribute his many admirers are quick to mention, and it’s a trait that exhibits itself quickly in a conversation with the former commissioner of the National Football League.

For example, ask him to assess the health of the NFL when he left the job to Roger Goodell in 2006, and he presents a sensible, unassailable verdict: “If you look at the business structure, it has three core components to judge: the game on the field, the game’s presentation at the stadiums, and the game’s presentation on television. If you look at that tripod from when I took over in the late ’80s and how it is 16 years later, we were extremely innovative.”

Case closed, and with a neat summation. Tagliabue, who turned 72 in November, is now senior member of the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Covington and Burling LLP, where he worked from 1969 to ’89 as counselor and litigator for, among other sports enterprises, the NFL itself. From 1989 to 2006, he ran the league, in charge of what really is the national pastime, especially on television.

Tagliabue’s predecessor as NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, was most responsible for taking the NFL into the modern television era, and it was during Rozelle’s years that the football league made its first big steps on network television. Tagliabue built on Rozelle’s success and made the giant leap forward: he helped make the NFL a television necessity.

“You never want to be the guy who follows the guy,” says Ed Goren, former vice chairman of Fox Media Group, referring to Rozelle’s exalted status in the league and acknowledging that even talented executives often look very ordinary replacing a legend. “You want to be the guy who follows the guy who followed ‘the guy.’ ”

Tagliabue seems to have passed on that happy situation to Goodell because he has left a mark just as enviable as Rozelle’s. In Tagliabue’s time at the NFL, the league grew from 28 to 32 teams and supported (to the tune of $150 million) the construction of more than 20 new stadiums. He negotiated TV contracts that made already rich NFL owners even richer and, in 2003, put the NFL in the cable business, with its own NFL Network.

ESPN reported that the NFL’s gross revenues in Tagliabue’s first year as commissioner were $1.1 billion. By 2006, they were $5.8 billion.

After two work stoppages under Rozelle, in 1982 and 1987, Tagliabue used his negotiating skills to make peace with the NFL Players Association; there were no work stoppages on his watch. He made labor peace in part by persuading the NFLPA to agree to a free-agency salary cap and getting team owners to agree to revenue sharing, a formula giving the NFL a mechanism that allows small-market teams an equal chance to compete with teams from larger ones.

“We’ve got the best labor deal in sports. We’ve got the best league. He’s been our leader. The whole way he’s done this has been wonderful,” the Pittsburgh Steelers’ owner, the late Dan Rooney, enthusiastically told the Associated Press after the 2006 pact was finalized.

From a television standpoint, Tagliabue understood, perhaps better than anyone, what pro football meant to broadcast networks.

“Oh, god, yes, he knew,” says an admiring Dick Ebersol, former chairman, NBC Sports Group. With Tagliabue at the helm, the NFL for the first time “asked each of the broadcast networks to spend more than they knew the NFL could make back on a [profit-and-loss] basis,” Ebersol recalls. “Where he was coming from was, he was telling the networks, ‘Look, you deficit-finance all of those sitcoms and dramas, and none of them offer such consistent ratings strength as the NFL.’ That is something that, intellectually, he and his team came up with, and I had to be on the other side of that. They definitely saw [the NFL] as the last bit of broadcasting-network beachfront property.”

Tagliabue got what he wanted. When he came in, he negotiated a relatively modest $3.6 billion four-year contract with networks. But, by 2006, the Tagliabue-led NFL had negotiated eight-year contracts for nearly $24 billion, placed a primetime Sunday-night game on NBC, and still had a Monday-night game on ESPN—and some new Thursday games on its own NFL Network.

“I like to say, and they like to hear, that the NFL has established that its product is the number-one entertainment concept in all of show business, more than any movie, more than a TV show,” Ebersol says. The Monday-night game on ESPN is always cable’s best-watched program; Tagliabue also helped refine the fine points that made NBC’s Sunday-night game the best-watched program on television. That helped the otherwise-limping NBC claim a rare broadcast-sweeps victory just last month.

One of Tagliabue’s boldest strokes was simply accepting that Fox Broadcasting was a real player when it bid on the NFL package in 1993. “I don’t think CBS or NBC fully appreciated how well Fox was positioned,” he says. From the outside, it was a scary proposition for the NFL to say goodbye CBS, which had been a partner for decades.

He pulled it off, says Goren, the former Fox sports executive. “He grew the league. That Fox deal changed the landscape of sports rights in this country.”

For Tagliabue, the risk was thought out.

“I guess I view what you do as a commissioner in two steps: anticipate the future and innovate for the future,” he explains. “If you can anticipate the future, you don’t have to be reactive. That’s not the position you want to be in.”

His anticipation paid off. By 1994, Fox attracted several stations that dropped their CBS affiliation, so, in many markets, the NFL launched on one of the top stations in town, not the hard-to-find UHF channel that originally carried Fox shows. The NFL made Fox successful, and Fox’s younger style reinvigorated the league.

Tagliabue says the trick to making contracts or settling disputes is to identify what both sides see as their core interests, identify the ones that are “parallel and aligned,” and then work from there.

He says, for example, that a simple unifying quality between players and owners is that both of them want to compete, so that every player and every team can plausibly dream the Super Bowl dream. “When you first say it that way, they don’t even know what you’re saying,” Tagliabue says. “But it’s far and away what the players and the owners want.”

Tagliabue, so say some of the people who know him, is always the smartest guy in the room. But the Jersey City, NJ, native keeps a deft human touch. After Ebersol was injured and his 14-year-old son, Teddy, was killed in a plane crash in 1994 —the lowest time in Ebersol’s life—Tagliabue learned that the network executive planned to build a dormitory in his son’s name at Teddy’s private school.

The commissioner quietly got the NFL owners to donate to build a wing and, more amazing to Ebersol, got the owners together with the players association to essentially double the gift. It was a seven-figure donation, from two groups that rarely cooperate on that level. They did it at Tagliabue’s urging.

“He’s just a class act,” says Goren, “I still have a lovely note he sent me when I came aboard at Fox. A classy gentleman. Always has been.”

Tagliabue might be uncomfortable about the kind words from those around him, but he does feel obliged to correct one story. Yes, both he and Patrick Ewing went to Georgetown University (where Tagliabue is a trustee), both played basketball for the Hoyas, and both wore jersey number 33. But the school retired the jersey to honor Ewing’s skills, not Tagliabue’s. Tagliabue thinks, though, that he might have been a better foul shooter. “That would be a close call,” he says, with a laugh.

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