SBJ/January 31 - February 6, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Weaver's commitment, clout win the day for city

Early in his career as general manager of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Michael Huyghue was driving through one of the city’s grittier sections when he spotted team owner Wayne Weaver’s car. Without a cell phone and hoping to catch up on some pressing business, Huyghue tailed Weaver’s $100,000 BMW — right up to the drive-through window of a Krystal fast-food restaurant.

“I was surprised to see the owner of an NFL team in this rocket ship of a car pulling into a burger joint,” said Huyghue, noting how the “common man” in Weaver was craving fast food, “but Wayne wasn’t concerned with that. He just didn’t want me to tell his wife he was eating burgers.”

Aside from having made a fortune with three different shoe businesses, the Nine West and Shoe Carnival chains and wholesale distributor Liz Claiborne shoes, Weaver, 70, is that fellow in the Rudyard Kipling poem “If,” the one who “walks with kings” yet retains “the common touch.” In a league where owners now buy franchises costing hundreds of millions of dollars largely for ego purposes, Weaver is one with a low profile who wields significant influence.

So if you’re wondering at all this week what in the world the Super Bowl is doing in Jacksonville — the smallest city ever to host the sports spectacle — it can be traced to the pull that Weaver has among the billionaire boys club of NFL owners, influence he has developed over a mere 10 years as the Jaguars’ chairman and CEO.

“It took someone like Wayne Weaver — a man with his clout and credibility among ownership — to get everyone to even consider Jacksonville,” said New England Patriots Vice Chairman Jonathan Kraft. “His commitment and dedication are the reason the Super Bowl is there.”

‘A knack for engaging people’

Weaver, a high school graduate, has worked his way into a position of enough respect among NFL owners that they

Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver (left), with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in May, has earned credibility as "a self-made guy" in a small market, the Browns' John Collins says.
feel comfortable handing him their showcase event. But when you ask him to talk about himself, you get an “aw shucks” kind of response. “The smartest thing I’ve learned in 50 years of business is to hire smart people and get out of their way,” he said.

Ask people around the NFL about Weaver, and the word that keeps coming up is “credibility.” As an owner in the NFL’s second-smallest market (some call it the smallest, feeling we shouldn’t even count Green Bay, since its legions of fans spread far beyond its municipal borders), he’s earned the respect of influential owners like Bob Kraft, Jerry Jones and Pat Bowlen and has come to represent the interest of every medium- and small-market team.

Typically self-effacing, Weaver calls his political clout within league circles a mere twist of fate. “I’m a voice for the small market because that’s who I am,” he insists.

No one buys that explanation. “He’s a self-made guy making it work in one of our smallest markets,” said Cleveland Browns President John Collins, who worked with Weaver while serving as the league’s senior vice president of marketing and sales. “That’s earned him enormous credibility across the league.”

Weaver and the Jaguars also turned heads with success on the field. In the first five years, the team had four playoff appearances and two division title games. Lately, Weaver has gone through the typical cyclical life of an NFL owner, as the team suffered four straight losing seasons from 2000 through 2003 and saw eroding fan support. But the team finished 9-7 this year and just missed the playoffs, while attendance shot up by 29.8 percent.

But it was his start in the league that got everyone’s attention. With Weaver moving quickly onto the NFL Properties committee (since morphed into the NFL’s Business Ventures group) his influence grew as his skill at problem solving and consensus building was demonstrated while serving on a committee with some of the league’s most acrimonious owners.

“It’s give and take, being patient and not trying to be the loudest voice in the room,” Weaver said when asked about getting the likes of Jones and Dan Snyder to agree with other owners on all sorts of disparate issues.

He must have had the right formula. Over the last five years, “Wayne Weaver has become one of the real influence peddlers in the league behind the scenes,” said Mark Holtzman, NFL senior vice president of consumer products, who worked closely with Weaver when the league was reshaping its consumer products business in 1999-2000.

Holtzman added, “Many times, he’s been the guy who takes the old guard and the new guard and finds common ground.”

Perhaps Weaver was miscast as a builder of retail empires. Those who work with him say his greatest ability is to galvanize groups and motivate them to action.

“He could build a consensus in just about any group,” said Deron Cherry, a six-time Pro Bowl safety with the Kansas City Chiefs who’s now a Jaguars limited partner. “Wayne just has a knack for engaging people regardless of who they are. When you have that knack, you have a knack for getting anything done.”

That sounds more like a politician or a soldier. However, those career choices wouldn’t mesh with Weaver’s populist bent.

“He can relate to people on the most common of levels and diffuse them so they forget they are talking to a wealthy businessman,”

Weaver and his wife Delores have been a force in the Jacksonville community.
Huyghue said.

Consequently, if Weaver is trying to find out about office automation, he’s not shy about talking to the custodian. If he’s trying to find out how bad traffic is on game days, he’ll talk to cabbies.

Befitting a man who’s triumphed in the foxholes of retailing, Weaver is also lauded for his business instincts.

“He’s one of the most intuitive marketers I’ve ever met,” said Holtzman. “Obviously, he understands retail, but certain people, whether they have an MBA or not, just have a great understanding in their gut as to what the right marketing decisions are.”

Added Huyghue, “Wayne’s got an intangible gut instinct that most very successful business people have. That’s something usually not taught at academic institutions.”

Bringing the game home

He also can talk NFL owners into bringing their jewel event in sports to his hometown. The city was awarded the 2005 game on Nov. 1, 2000, in a close vote among league owners, an outcome that took some observers by surprise. After the city was granted the game, many owners cited Weaver’s respect within league circles as the reason, plus Weaver’s belief that the Super Bowl would help lead to $60 million worth of renovation to Alltel Stadium, including a newly renovated club and suite level.

So how was he really able to get this group to move the game away from its steady rotation of Miami, New Orleans and San Diego to the small city along the St. John’s River?

By convincing them that it would be good for the Super Bowl to travel, and that if it could be in Jacksonville, maybe it could be anywhere.

“Wayne can convince you in a hurry that he wants what’s best for the league, so you have a tendency to listen,” said Green Bay Packers President Bob Harlan. “Look where we go next year — Detroit.”

Added NFL COO Roger Goodell, “[Weaver] attacked it directly and showed us why it would be good for the NFL. I think his sheer force of will got our ownership to say Wayne Weaver will make this successful.”

Weaver recalled first envisioning a Super Bowl for Jacksonville in 1999 after another heady playoff run for the young franchise.

“We were pretty full of ourselves and everyone was kind of tongue in cheek at the beginning because of the size of this market,” said Weaver. “But they were that way about the team in the beginning, too.”

Weaver said he got buy-in from league heavyweights like Goodell and Commissioner Paul Tagliabue earlier than he thought. The Super Bowl owners committee was more problematic, suspect of Jacksonville’s size, the weather and the logistical problems of replacing hotel rooms with ship cabins. “Miami, San Diego, New Orleans, we tried to convince them, ‘been there, done that,’” Weaver said. Still, in the end it was less, “‘why not us?’ and more, ‘think different.’ It was more ‘think out of the box with us’ and if the Super Bowl could be here, it could perhaps travel to any NFL town,” Weaver said. “That’s what I think we’ll prove here.”

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