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Family ownership isn't the only way for the NFL
Unlike baseball and the NBA, the NFL prohibits the sale of franchises to corporations. The Chicago Cubs are owned by the Tribune Company and the New York Knicks by Paramount Communications, but since 1970 the NFL has barred corporate ownership for fear that, as former commissioner Pete Rozelle once said, it "would make it impossible for us to control ownership of our league."
Now the NFL's no-corporations policy is under fire. Two weeks ago, former New England Patriots owner William Sullivan filed a $348 million antitrust suit in federal court in Providence against the NFL, charging that the league improperly prevented him from selling 49% of the Patriots to an investment bank in 1987. Sullivan, who sold the club the following year to Victor Kiam, says that Rozelle selectively enforced the prohibition against corporate ownership when he allowed San Francisco 49er owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to transfer title of his club in 1986 to his family's development corporation. (Last year the NFL fined DeBartolo $500,000 for making that transfer, but the league allowed the new ownership arrangement to stand.)
Even if Sullivan loses his suit, there are indications that the league's new guard, led by commissioner Paul Tagliabue, is softer on the issue of corporate ownership than Rozelle was. If allowed to buy teams, corporations presumably would bid up the value of franchises, benefiting all clubs. Nevertheless, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Dan Rooney, whose father, Art, founded the team, speaks for several owners when he says, "Change creates concern."
That concern, however, may be largely unfounded. For example, some family owners fret that corporations will upset the competitive balance by spending too lavishly on player salaries. Mike Brown, assistant general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals and son of the team's founder, Paul, says, "We have always opposed corporate involvement in NFL teams for the obvious reason that corporations can fund the operation of teams far beyond anything we could do."
But there's no reason to think that a corporation, which has to answer to shareholders, would spend much more freely on players than current owners do. After all, NFL players don't enjoy unlimited free agency, so clubs don't have to get into bidding wars for players. "This competitive advantage thing escapes me completely," says Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, one of a handful of old-line owners who are open-minded about corporate ownership. "You don't need to have a corporate structure to go out and pay a lot of money. You can just write a check."
The anticorporation forces also profess to be worried about commercialization. "[Corporations] could start viewing football as a promotion for their other businesses," says Rooney. Yet that hasn't been a problem in baseball or the NBA; Patrick Ewing has yet to appear in ads for Paramount movies. What's more, NFL owners don't seem too distressed about commercialization, now. Bud Bowls I, II and III came and went even though Anheuser-Busch doesn't own an NFL team. Clearly, one reason some owners are resisting corporate ownership is that it would mean the end of the NFL as a pop-and-pop operation. Charming though the idea might be, the NFL isn't a club of cigar-puffing old men sitting in leather chairs sipping Scotch. It's a business, and the league ought to admit as much.
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