Goodell Moving Into Office With Long List of Challenges

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The New York Sun

Roger Goodell is getting a new nameplate with the word “commissioner” preceding his name and maybe new office space on Park Avenue, as he officially becomes the National Football League’s new top executive replacing Paul Tagliabue. Goodell probably can thank Bryant Gumbel for laying out what his top priority should be: getting the owners to sign off on the recently negotiated labor agreement.

But Goodell has a long way to go before he gets into field goal range. Getting his owners to work out, among themselves, a revenue-sharing plan that will satisfy the high revenue producers — Dallas’ Jerry Jones, Washington’s Daniel Snyder, New England’s Robert Kraft, Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie, and Houston’s Robert McNair, to name a few — as well as the small market operators, like Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson and Cincinnati’s Mike Brown, has become a problem.

Goodell probably won’t have to worry that much about the National Football League Players Association pulling out of the accord because it was the executive director of the NFLPA, Gene Upshaw, who implored the owners to come up with a proposal that the players could accept well before the end of the current collective bargaining agreement.

During an episode of his HBO broadcast, “Real Sports,” Gumbel quipped:

“Before he cleans out his office have Paul Tagliabue show you [Goodell] where he keeps Gene Upshaw’s leash. By making the docile head of the players union his personal pet, your predecessor has kept the peace without giving players the kind of guarantees other pros take for granted. Try to make sure no one competent ever replaces Upshaw on your watch.”

The veteran newsman publicly aired what former players, agents, and officials from other pro sports players unions have said in private for many years. Under Upshaw’s watch, the NFL players union folded after 24 days during a strike against the owners in 1987. Players like Dave Jennnings, who went through the 1982 and 1987 strikes, have long questioned the effectiveness of the union leadership. Instead of negotiating deals at the bargaining table, the NFL players union spent years in acrimonious litigation with the owners.

Jennings, who was a New York Jet punter at the time, thought the showdown with the owners was mostly worth it.

“The players were not that interested in a long-term strike, they were looking at the next paycheck,” Jennings said. “It’s tough to get players to strike and stay together. In 1987, it was a shorter strike and we had the court cases working and eventually it worked out for us. We got nothing from the 1987 strike, we didn’t get anything directly, but indirectly we got free agency and you see what happened. Free agency works.”

It took pressure from a Minneapolis Federal Judge, David Doty, to end more than two decades of labor strife in 1993. That seven-year agreement guaranteed more than $1 billion in pension, health, and post-career benefits for current and retired players. But the agreement also capped owners’ spending on players and, more importantly for an owner, established that players cut from a roster and given severance would no longer be guaranteed the full monetary value of their contract, unlike players in Major League Baseball, the NBA, and NHL. Upshaw and Tagliabue formed some sort of bond during that period and it seemed Upshaw was more interested in maintaining the owners’ financial health than that of his own constituency.

That connection is one of the main reasons many agents won’t represent NFL players.It has also left many union officials in other professional sports leagues shaking their heads, wondering just what Upshaw and the players are thinking when it comes to collective bargaining agreements.

Goodell has another problem on his hands: Gumbel was hired in April as the NFL Network’s lead play-by-play announcer. It’s highly unusual, if not unheard of, for an announcer to criticize the very league he’s been employed by the way Gumbel has. Of course, Gumbel — in his own way — has inadvertently given the league’s growing network invaluable publicity, which will only help bring attention to the NFL Network. But it’s unlikely that Goodell or anyone else from the network would fire Gumbel and risk validating his critical remarks about Upshaw.

Goodell’s primary dilemma lies in satisfying the needs of his 32 owners, no easy task. Also, Goodell’s political skills may be tested if Congress doesn’t like how the revenue sharing issue is settled. In April, the representative for New York’s Buffalo district, Congressman Brian Higgins, declared he would ask the House Government Reform Committee to set up a hearing on the NFL’s new labor deal and what impact it would have on small market clubs. So far that hasn’t happened, but the new labor deal is still a work in progress.

Goodell also will be battling some of the biggest cable TV providers, including Time Warner and Cablevision, in the league’s bid to get the NFL Network on those cable systems’ basic expanded tier no later than Thanksgiving, when the first of eight regular season games will air on the channel. There are stadium issues that need to be settled one way or another in San Diego, San Francisco, and Minneapolis.

The future of the New Orleans Saints franchise is still up in the air as that market struggles to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Goodell may also be faced with the prospect of allowing the Baltimore Ravens’ ownership to expand its market territory, merging Batimore–Washington into one television market instead of two, in an effort to increase local revenue. Major League Baseball has, in effect, combined the same market for the Orioles and Nationals for cable TV purposes so it is possible the NFL may do the same.

Goodell probably will pick up where Tagliabue left off in his ongoing effort to re-enter the profitable Los Angeles market, which has been without NFL football since 1994. Goodell will face the same problems that dogged Tagliabue: Will the league play in L.A. or in Anaheim? And who will pay for the stadium where they play?

At some point, Goodell will likely try to play catch up with the NBA, taking a crack at the China market.The NBA — thanks to Yao Ming and Lebron James — is the most popular North American sport in China (MLB and the NHL are also trying to make inroads in the expanding Chinese marketplace). Goodell cannot overlook Canada either in considering international expansion, particularly with a wide-open market in Toronto.There are even promoters in Mexico who are eager to do business with the NFL: One group of Monterey investors have expressed interest in building an NFL stadium on the Texas-Mexico border about an hour north of Monterrey. That may be unrealistic, but the NFL has been marketing its product in Mexico.

But none of this can take place until Goodell can convince 32 franchise owners to agree to a revenue-sharing plan that pleases both the big and not-so-big market guys.And that will be Goodell’s most difficult task.

The New York Sun

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