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NFL alumni toast days when league counted in millions, not billions

It was a mishmash of a 20th high school reunion and a wedding between families large enough to make a caterer sigh. Call it “My Big Fat NFL Reunion.”

The recent gathering of 150 former NFL employees was held at a Manhattan steak house about halfway between the league’s headquarters at 280 Park Ave. and the old location at 410 Park Ave. Those old offices included such vestigial signs of authority as buzzers on secretary’s desks and “power doors,” which closed noiselessly and without warning when the executive behind the desk pressed a hidden button. You wondered if the trap door was next — and maybe that was the intended reaction.

Many at the reunion were at the league so long ago they were employees of NFL Properties, which no longer exists. Some, like Ann Kirschner, now dean of the Honors College at the City University of New York, were dot-com pioneers. They were around for NFL.com’s debut in the 1995 draft when the first question put to then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was, “Hey Commish, how come the Jets suck?” After an interminable delay, Web “surfers” were informed, “The commissioner declines to answer the question.”

Here was a mix of the deposed and the dedicated. Those who had gone on to make fortunes in other businesses, like former NFL Properties president turned new-age beverage maven John Bello, and those who continued to make their name in sports like Don Garber, now commissioner of MLS; former NFLP licensing chief Frank Vuono, who sold his first sports firm in the SFX rollup, started another and is now trying to launch a new football league. He’s a serial entrepreneur.

There are also those doing the same kind of thing, like former sponsorship chief Jim Schwebel, still successfully pairing brands and properties, and those doing something entirely different, like former NFL licensing executive Jeff Sofka, now tightrope walking the juncture of American and Chinese sports marketing.

Former NFL Properties presidents John
Bello (left) and John Flood; Bello (top)
with MLS chief Don Garber, another
former NFLer.

Even those absent from the event form a fairly powerful group across sports, including Arlen Kantarian, the U.S. Tennis Association’s CEO for pro tennis; John Collins, who is running the NHL’s media and marketing; Steve Phelps, NASCAR’s chief marketing officer; and Rick Dudley, running Octagon Worldwide. At NFL teams, there is Mark Donovan at the Philadelphia Eagles and Jim Steeg, COO of the San Diego Chargers.

Or course, the NFL, and NFL Properties in particular, was more than a little different 20 years ago. Tom Weiner, now a director at Virgin Mobile, laughed when recalling the job interview he had with Bello that got him hired. “There was no ‘hello,’” Weiner said. Bello just said, “Why the [expletive] should I hire you?”

“I just laughed and told him,” Weiner said. “It was a lot less corporate.”

Former NFLP corporate sponsorship executive Gary Jacobus, now managing director, corporate sponsorships, for the USTA, recalled negotiating terms to the dollar for Visa’s initial NFL deal with former President and CEO Carl Pascarella over the phone from China in 1995. “We finalized things and then Pascarella said, ‘We’d better stop because (former executive vice president of marketing) Jan Soderstrom is going to kill me when I get back,’” Jacobus said.

Visa has been an NFL sponsor ever since. Jacobus was there from 1991-97, during which corporate sponsorships grew from less than $10 million to around $100 million annually.

To be fair, any organization that has experienced the kind of growth the NFL has over the past 20 years has changed. When you start counting things in billions instead of millions, the lawyers and MBAs also grow exponentially.

“It’s probably become more about the business and less about the fans,” said Scott Lancaster (1995-2007), who served in a series of youth development roles, including senior director of youth football, and now has his own firm, Youth Evolution Sports. “But that happens when a business grows like that. Talk to anyone who used to work at IBM or Nike, I’m sure they will tell you the same thing.”

Added former NFL.com senior manager of programming development Mark Zimmerman, now director of marketing at Headline Media Management, “People say the NFL is more corporate and they are right, but as a realist, I will tell you that it is also fun to watch what you are working on grow. Dot-com was a one-story farmhouse — now it’s a skyscraper.”

Former NFLP licensing executive David Mitchell (1984-90) watched royalties grow from $4 million to $40 million during his time. “Other than a great fondness we all had for each other, there’s a great fondness for those times,” said Mitchell, now heading a licensing startup. “We knew we were growing something special.”

Lack of NFL oversight of NFLP may have led to shameless shenanigans, like Italian suits from Brioni turning into Italian client dinners in expense reports. Or a particularly infamous one when an NFLP executive needing a table at a restaurant during a crowded Super Bowl in Atlanta actually paid for the diners’ meals if they would “go have dessert somewhere else.” The NFL paid for both meals.

That old NFLP crew had an abundance of chutzpah, much of which was still on display at the reunion. Naturally, there was sentiment that the NFL crew on the outside was better than the one on the inside, just a few blocks down Park Avenue.

“From a business perspective, a lot of these people, including myself, feel like we took the league kicking and screaming into the 21st century,” said Bello, who once had plans for an NFLP IPO. “I’ve been telling everyone here that we’re buying an NFL team. I’ve got the staff right here.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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