National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue presides over the best of times for the preeminent sports league in the world. No matter which metric you employ--revenue, ratings, attendance, merchandising--the NFL's stature as America's game is undisputed. Perhaps baseball was as popular in the 1950s in its Willie-Mickey-and-Duke heyday, but it wasn't as lucrative. Maybe the NBA during the Magic-Larry-Michael years was as central to the pop-cultural conversation, but it never captured the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the heartland the way pigskin has. The NFL rules America to a degree unimaginable even 16 years ago, when Tagliabue, 65, succeeded Pete Rozelle as commissioner. Take league revenue: $5.7 billion this year versus $975 million in 1989. ( Major League Baseball made $4.1 billion in 2004, the NBA about $3 billion.) Or franchise value: more than $819 million per team versus $100 million back then. ( Major League Baseball franchises are worth, on average, about $332 million.) This February's Super Bowl XL will be watched by more than 130 million people in the U.S. alone.
In light of all this, it is easy to forget how rancorous the end of the Rozelle era was for professional football. Owners and players had endured two work stoppages, in 1982 and '87. The league had not expanded since '74 and, for the first time since the Eisenhower Administration, hadn't gotten a big bounce in its TV contract. The maverick owners and general managers who had built the league, including Tex Schramm, Al Davis and Jack Kent Cooke, were locked in a bitter dispute with players that had become an ugly class war--"Don't you see," Schramm barked during one negotiating session, "you're the cattle, we're the ranchers"--and Rozelle had rendered himself powerless to mediate. "I saw in Rozelle an unwillingness to bridge the labor-management divide," says Tagliabue, who was Rozelle's consigliere for two decades. "As the league grew, he not only didn't grow his role with it, he actually pulled back." By the time Rozelle stepped down, in 1989, the owners and the players negotiated primarily through depositions.
"You clearly saw that Rozelle's hands were tied when it came to labor issues," says Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association. "The change came when Paul became the commissioner." Among Tagliabue's first official acts was to centralize labor negotiations in his office; there has not been a work stoppage since. During that span baseball canceled a World Series, the NBA had to abbreviate its 1998-99 season and the NHL had to write off 2004-05.
Tagliabue's greatest accomplishments may have been instituting revenue sharing between players and owners, and maintaining the sharing of TV income among the franchises, to the tune of $3.73 billion per year. This bounty has led to competitive parity and franchise stability. Many of the owners hated the idea of sharing TV money with players. Some still do. Tagliabue equates his success in broadening revenue sharing as being similar to Nixon's opening relations with China. "It took a corporate lawyer to be a change agent," Tagliabue says, "because I could change [things] without appearing to be soft on communism, so to speak."
To keep that vast revenue stream flowing, Tagliabue says, there must be careful nurturing of what he calls the "sacred bond between football and fan." By the late '80s, when he took office, that bond was fraying. Owners had put newer stadiums and bigger markets ahead of any sentimental attachment to the traditional homes of franchises: The Raiders left Oakland for Los Angeles in '82, and the Colts left Baltimore for Indianapolis in '84. Tagliabue believed the NFL had to put an end to peripatetic franchises, yet from a business standpoint, why should an owner forsake the prospect of a new stadium with lucrative luxury boxes? Among his first acts as commissioner was to propose that the NFL enter into the stadium-construction business by establishing a fund to build new stadiums rather than rely on public money, the primary bait that cities were using to lure NFL franchises. The owners balked. Jack Kent Cooke, among others, condemned Tagliabue's plan as "mad, mad, mad" and argued that the " National Football League has no license, no authority, not even the vaguest reason to build stadiums."
Tagliabue disagreed, and he led the NFL into the stadium business, making it, in effect, one of the largest developers in the country as it helped finance new, high-tech, higher-revenue gridiron shrines such as Seattle's Qwest Field and Washington's FedEx Field (originally named, ironically, after Cooke). If it weren't for Tagliabue, we might be watching the Los Angeles Packers take on the Sacramento Chiefs this Sunday. He was also instrumental in keeping the New Orleans Saints from forsaking their deluged city, promising owner Tom Benson that the league would do whatever it could to keep the team in the Big Easy.
Yet for all the success the NFL has enjoyed under Tagliabue, it is remarkable how little credit has flowed to the commissioner, who, in the esteem of longtime football fans, will probably never be as loved as his predecessor, the dynamic and pioneering Pete Rozelle. Part of the blame falls on Tagliabue, who presides over press conferences with an almost imperial disdain. If he usually is, as many of his friends maintain, the smartest person in the room, he is sometimes too quick to let us all know that. "I'm bored," Tagliabue told me at his Park Avenue offices when I asked about revenue sharing. "I've been discussing this for 25 years. There are a lot of businesses more interesting than football--import-export, agriculture. As a business football is fairly simple--it's selling tickets; it's part box office and part movie studio. There are a lot of businesses more interesting as businesses."
Fair point. And in a one-on-one conversation he says this without a hint of haughtiness. But make the same observation in a room full of reporters, and you get a reputation for being cold and arrogant. "Those early press conference were awful," Chandler Tagliabue recalls of her husband's first meetings with the media. "Paul was impatient, and the press was used to Rozelle." Rozelle was famous for lighting a cigarette and telling reporters to "fire away." Tagliabue, stiff and distant behind a podium, is far more formal. Chandler describes him as a curious mixture of phlegmatic and short-tempered. "At the office he's very tough, impatient. I'll call him and ask him about something, and he'll bark, 'Who cares? It's a detail.' He can be frightening because he so seldom gets angry, but when he does...."
It is not that he's uninterested in the details of professional football. It's just that no one on earth has spent more time thinking about every aspect of professional football--not just about the players or the X's and O's, but about the public perception, the labor relations, the business, the substance-abuse policy, the potential in new media, the sometimes problematic halftime shows, the scheduling, everything--than Paul Tagliabue. And he can discuss every facet of the game with a rigorous, even intimidating intellect. This is a man, after all, who spent part of the 1960s working in the Department of Defense as a special assistant on nuclear-weapons-planning issues and the '70s as a corporate lawyer at Covington & Burling, the white-shoe firm at which he litigated cases that required him to delve into the minutiae of agricultural price supports and become, as he puts it, "the world's greatest specialist in the legal profession in high-heat-copying chemistry," whatever that is.
THE HOUSE on Jersey City's Columbia Avenue, just up from a railyard and a U.S. Postal Service depot, was a brown brick three-bedroom with a one-car garage in back. Next door was a vacant lot the family owned, which was where Charles Tagliabue Sr. parked the trucks for his contracting business. Paul was the second youngest of four sons born to Charles and Mary Tagliabue, second-generation Italian-Americans. The brothers were noted local athletes, like their father, who had played on a barnstorming basketball team until his own father died when Charles was just 18. "We made some iron brackets, and we made a backboard and a rim in the backyard," recalls older brother Robert, "and if you missed you had to chase the ball down the driveway. But we didn't chase it too much; we were pretty good." Paul, the best of the brood, went to Georgetown on a basketball scholarship. Despite the intense athletic competition among their sons, Charles and Mary placed tremendous emphasis on education. "My father used to say, 'Don't be a donkey,'" Paul says, "'Use your head, not your back.'" (Oldest brother Charles Jr. became the vice president of engineering at Lipton; Robert went into his father's business; and John is a correspondent for The New York Times, based in Paris.)