SBJ/20100927/This Week's Issue

Noto quitting CFO post at NFL

Anthony Noto, the influential chief financial officer of the NFL, abruptly last week announced that he would return to Goldman Sachs, leaving a hole atop the NFL just months before the expiration of the league’s collective-bargaining agreement. Eric Grubman, who recruited Noto to the NFL, will assume the league’s CFO chores.

Noto quickly became an important executive after arriving at the NFL in early 2008, overseeing team financial planning, debt and even media talks. He, Commissioner Roger Goodell and chief labor negotiator Jeff Pash were the troika at the league most involved with the contentious labor talks.

Grubman, who, as executive vice president of business operations, already has a full plate in overseeing marketing and human resources, will now have to be considered one of the most influential men in the sport.

While Noto left on his own accord, his departure did not come as a complete surprise to some insiders, according to numerous sources within the sport, and his exit will not necessarily be mourned in some circles. According to these sources, he failed to understand the famous internal maxim coined by the league’s legendary communications director Joe Browne: There are owners, and there is everyone else.

A former Army officer, Noto, who was unavailable for comment last week, clashed with teams and, in particular, owners, who expect deference from officials at the league office. Even sources who supported Noto and what he was trying to accomplish in reducing team debt and preparing teams financially in the event of a lockout admitted that his style could ruffle feathers.

Noto’s departure also underscores the challenges that a league faces in recruiting from sectors like financial services that have highly compensated executives. Noto earned $853,000 in the period between April 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, according to the NFL’s tax return. That amount is the least of the top executives listed on the league’s return.

Sources indicated Noto would be earning substantially more as co-head of media and entertainment at Goldman Sachs, a public company that can also offer stock options.

“You run that risk whenever you take someone out of the family [of sports],” said Cathy Griffin, a sports executive recruiter.

Sources who know Noto said he received a generous package from Goldman. His last day at the NFL is Oct. 4.

One team source friendly to Noto said that while it would have been preferable for him to stay through the end of the labor problems, he has set up internal structures and systems that will serve the sport well in his absence.

The same risk of departure is not seen with Grubman, also a Goldman alumnus. Grubman is a generation older than Noto, having been an investment banker at Goldman and co-president of Constellation Energy Group. He is committed to stay on through to the completion of a new CBA.

It was unclear last week whether the league ultimately will hire to fill the CFO position.

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