SBJ/September 1 - 7, 2003/Opinion

Tagliabue’s playbook: Critical calls for NFL

The NFL kicks off its 84th season Thursday night in the nation's capital, and by all measures, the business of the National Football League is strong, perhaps stronger than ever. NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue acknowledges as much in our pages this week, but he is mindful to point out the cyclical nature of economic conditions, human behavior and cultural trends. Tagliabue is smart to be cognizant of fluctuations in the marketplace, because he will be shepherding the league through some of its most challenging issues over the next few years. He must continue to be a modern commissioner for modern times — and be bold when making the necessary changes to a business structure that has enriched many and served the league, owners and partners so well.

There is plenty on Tagliabue's plate. With the expiration of the NFL Trust in seven months, the league has undergone an internal reorganization and developed a new sponsorship model that will turn over a majority of the inventory to its franchises. The teams seem eager to adopt this radically new (for the NFL) business model, but are looking to the league to lead the process and continue to oversee areas where the value of the aggregate marks exceeds the local brand. That's one challenge.

Like many in the industry, Tagliabue is bullish on the November launch of the NFL Network, and having the extremely capable Steve Bornstein at the helm has only heightened anticipation. But the league will face a juggling act in not over-leveraging such an asset in the years prior to renegotiating its television contracts. As the NFL Network takes shape, the league's television partners and advertisers will keep a watchful eye on the programming, pricing and positioning of the start-up, and teams will gauge whether it intrudes on its valuable preseason and shoulder programming.

While filling the open Los Angeles market is high on Tagliabue's list, the process continues to be marred with delays, new studies and alternative locations, while select owners publicly discuss it as an option for relocation of their teams. Tagliabue has yet to make a convincing argument to his peers or to residents and leaders in Los Angeles for the league's return to the marketplace.

The commissioner also is hearing concerns from owners about the growing economic disparity among teams, and some franchises are hoping he acts to level the playing field before the NFL follows the path to the wide economic gulf that exists in Major League Baseball.

And as we begin the regular season, a thoughtful re-examination of the preseason schedule is likely to be debated by ownership. Football is a physical game, and players get hurt. But owners will not sit still if they continue to lose their marquee players for long periods of time because of hits occurring in meaningless games in August. With the injuries to Michael Vick and Chad Pennington, both of whom will miss major portions of the regular season, it's clear that the owners, players and league business partners will study alternatives.

Finally, there is the paramount challenge of continued labor peace, which has been the foundation of Tagliabue's successful tenure and a major cornerstone of the NFL's popularity and economic vitality.

The NFL is the most successful sports league in the world, and Paul Tagliabue certainly deserves much of the credit for the growth and strength of an estimated $5 billion entertainment property. His lasting legacy will be judged not only on his current success, but also on these critical issues he will tackle in the days ahead.

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