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PLAYOFFS ARE TOO WILD
For all of the improvements he has initiated and the energy he has brought to the office of NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue made a shortsighted move last March that has turned out to be the biggest mistake of his first year on the job. Pressured by the owners to hammer out a new contract with the networks that would guarantee a huge increase in TV revenue and seeking to increase late-season fan interest, Tagliabue bargained away the premium that two teams previously had earned for winning their divisions—a bye during the wild-card weekend of the playoffs.
Tagliabue expanded the playoff field from 10 to 12, adding an extra wild-card entry from each conference. That created two more first-round games—the broadcast rights to which brought in extra money from ABC. Now, with three wild-card teams in each conference, two wild cards will play each other in the first round, and the third will meet the division winner with the worst record. The other two division winners in each conference still have first-round byes.
Admittedly this is a freak season, in that the NFC's three dominant teams—the 49ers and Giants entered their Monday night showdown with 10-1 records, and the Bears are 10-2—are all runaway division leaders. But under the new postseason format, one of these teams will lose a week off and will have to play an extra game in its bid to win the Super Bowl.
Chicago president Mike McCaskey has mixed feelings about the expanded postseason. "I don't think we'll get screwed," he says. "Clearly, I think it was in the service of a larger goal. Everyone wanted more TV dollars. I'd personally rather have a smaller number of teams make the playoffs and make winning the division really meaningful. But a lot of people felt the TV deal was very important."
"There's supposed to be an incentive to win your division, and one of the incentives was that it took only three wins to be the Super Bowl champion," says Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. "Now, if you're, say, the Bears right now, you've got to win four games. You're being punished for winning your division but not winning it by enough."
One club executive said last week that "our problem right now as a league is we're running everything as a business. We need to get back to running it as a football business. We make decisions and forget all about football when we're making them. Every decision we make is based on money, not the sport."
All the blame can't be laid on Tagliabue. He didn't negotiate the previous TV contract, which provided for all 28 clubs to receive the same amount—$17 million—per season from 1987 to '89, a period when network payouts to other sports took a sizable jump. He was subjected to the not-so-subtle urgings of the owners to make up for "lost" revenues when it was time to sit down with the networks again.
He brought four bargaining chips to the negotiations: 1) spreading the 16-game regular season over 17 weeks in 1990 and '91 and over 18 weeks in 1992 and '93 so the networks would have more weeks in which to televise games; 2) giving the networks two more commercial minutes per game—for a total of 56 minutes—starting in '92; 3) giving a second cable network, TNT, nine Sunday night games; and 4) adding two playoff teams to create two more postseason games. Owners who had expected to receive an average of $27 million a team per season were thrilled last spring when Tagliabue announced a four-year deal that would bring each of them an average of $32.1 million a year.
In a speech to the American Bar Association last June, Tagliabue talked of the pressure he felt to cut a lucrative TV deal. He said that league executives "had a way of sending me every day a new headline saying BASEBALL QUADRUPLES INCOME, or BASKETBALL QUADRUPLES INCOME, or NCAA QUADRUPLES INCOME, and then they'd put these little notes on the bottom that made you sound like you might be the shortest-term commissioner in the history of the sport if you didn't also quadruple the income. When you looked at the [other sports' TV] contracts, one thing emerged very quickly. Not only were there substantially increased rights payments, but there were major increases in the inventory of programming. So we had to start facing up to the question of whether we redesign our schedule and add games, add product, or whether we stay the way we've been for 25 years. In the end, we did a little of each."