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Team owners, the commissioner, network heads, the crème de la crème of the executive ranks — these are the positions that come to mind when describing the most influential men and women who make the NFL run. But look deeper into the ranks and you will find executives who are indispensable to running the business of professional football. They work largely behind the scenes, but put the stadium deals together, make sure television programming goes off without a hitch, look for the best ways to activate a sponsorship, and develop new revenue streams.
In the stories that follow, meet some of these people who are making their mark in the NFL and helping to shape the future of the sport.
— Stories compiled by Daniel Kaplan, John Ourand, Terry Lefton and Don Muret
Executive director, North American marketing
While the NFL didn’t get the massive technology sideline sponsorship deal it had hoped for after losing both IBM and Motorola as league sponsors, it did get a new corporate patron in Lenovo. China-based Lenovo is the world’s No. 2 PC maker, but many analysts say it soon will pass HP to become the top global PC brand. In the U.S., Lenovo is the No. 4 PC maker, with around an 8 percent share and eager to leverage the NFL’s power at retail to make a run at domestic competitors HP, Dell and Apple. Rabin is the man leading that charge. “We’ve grown from 400 retail outlets in the U.S. four years ago to 4,000 today, and a property the magnitude of the NFL is a way to keep that retail distribution and consumer sales increasing, while investing in growing our brand. We’ve gone from crawling to walking to jogging, and the NFL is a proven business builder that should get us there.”
Chief human resources officer
Photo by:Dallas Cowboys
If the Cowboys are run like PepsiCo, Weingartner is the reason. The team hired her from Pepsi to run human resources, and she has instituted across the franchise a range of programs typical for large corporations, such as compensation reviews, best hiring practices and employee evaluations. Insiders say she has changed the culture of the team to a far more professionally run one. For a decade before joining the team, she worked for PepsiCo, her last title vice president of human resources. There she worked on divisions ranging from Gatorade to Tropicana.
Yu (center) put the pieces together for the 49ers' new stadium project.
Photo by:Terrell Lloyd / San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
It’s hard to identify the former chief financial officer of YouTube and Facebook, and a part owner of the San Francisco 49ers, as someone only now to watch. But Yu is still a relative unknown in sports, despite his heady résumé and impressive early months with the 49ers. He joined the team in 2011 as chief strategy officer and became team president in February. Yu leads all team business, financial and strategic operations. He oversaw securing $850 million in financing for the new Santa Clara stadium, and a $200 million loan from the NFL. And he has spearheaded the effort to speed the opening date of the new stadium from the 2015 to 2014 season.
Senior VP, production
Photo by:Fox Sports
Television advertisers pay more to market their wares during NFL games than anywhere else on the medium. That’s what makes the job of a behind-the-scenes executive like Simmons so critical. Simmons oversees all of the commercials that are integrated into Fox’s NFL telecasts. Based in the network’s Los Angeles studio every Sunday, Simmons also keeps network affiliates updated on changes that may creep into Fox’s schedule. Says one network insider: “He ends up having his hands in virtually everything that takes place to get us to air.”
Director, stadium management
Photo by:Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers’ stadium manager was on the ground floor for pushing NFL stadiums as attractive concert venues. In 2005, Sacco helped form the Gridiron Stadium Network, a group of a dozen NFL facilities lobbying the entertainment industry to book more shows at their buildings. Using country artist Kenny Chesney as a test case that year, the Steelers and a few other clubs took financial risks to buy the act and serve as the promoter, a big shift compared with teams renting their stadiums to traditional promoters. Seven years later, Chesney recently finished a tour of 19 NFL stadiums, the highest number in the singer’s eight years of touring pro football facilities. Every tour has generated more than 1 million tickets sold. Most importantly, as Sacco will tell you, a team’s take of concert-related income is exempt from the NFL’s revenue-sharing formula.
VP, consumer engagement
Photo by:Dan Bigelow
It might be tougher than winning a Super Bowl. Harter is trying to get consumers of PepsiCo’s portfolio of beverages and salty snacks better connected by combining their two biggest passion points: music and sports. Pepsi was already one of the NFL’s biggest corporate sponsors; now it has doubled down on that investment with an incremental deal that will see it sponsor the halftime show at the next four Super Bowls. PepsiCo’s new “NFL Anthems” program sees pop stars Kid Rock, Kelly Clarkson, Ice Cube, Wiz Khalifa and Travie McCoy performing songs for their favorite NFL teams. The effort will be supported by 6 million Pepsi packages. It’s interesting to note that among those recently adopting music/sports strategies are fellow beverage marketers Coke and Budweiser. “We have great assets at consumers’ major passion points,” Harter said. “It’s all about authenticity and using that connection to design programs that really drive retail volume.’’
Chief financial officer
Photo by:Minnesota Vikings
Poppen, in his 14th season with the Vikings, played a crucial role in securing a new stadium deal for the team. Over the last few years, he played a major role in the Vikings’ attempts to pass new stadium legislation, an effort that culminated with Gov. Mark Dayton signing the stadium bill into law on May 14. But Poppen’s job is not done. He will lead the Vikings’ financing efforts for the new publicly owned and operated stadium, which will be built in downtown Minneapolis and open in 2016. He’ll work with the new stadium authority on the design and construction of the facility, and the team’s $477 million private commitment to the project.
Director, retail operations
Photo by:Matt Becker / Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
Hogan enters her 20th season in charge of one of the NFL’s most lucrative merchandise operations at Lambeau Field. The Packers are the league’s only publicly held team but they no longer separate retail in their annual earnings report. For fiscal 2011-12, the team listed local revenue of $130 million, a number containing total retail sales. Six years ago, in 2006, when the Packers provided separate figures for retail, the team generated $17 million in annual merchandise sales. Twenty years ago, the number was $350,000 before Hogan took the job. She oversees the stadium’s three retail destinations, including the year-round Packer Pro Shop inside the Lambeau Field Atrium, and the team’s online merchandise operation. In 2008, she oversaw the expansion of the Packers Pro Shop Game Day Store, the stadium’s secondary location. The main team store, under Hogan’s leadership, could also expand as part of overall stadium improvements.
Senior VP, ticketing, event management
Photo by:Houston Texans
The Texans have sold out every game since their first in 2002 despite making only one playoff appearance. Top team execs frequently get the credit, but behind the scenes, it’s Schriever who oversees all aspects of ticketing and event management as a senior director. He has been with the team 12 years, and overall has 26 years in the sports business under his belt, with stops that also have included the Texas Rangers, Atlanta Olympics and Texas Motor Speedway. The Texans estimate he has been involved in the sale of more than 33 million tickets to sporting events during his career. The Texans are all but certain to sell out again this year, adding to Schriever’s ticket tally.
NBC Sports & Olympics, NBCSports.com
NBC uses its ambitious NFL pregame show, “Football Night in America,” to set the programming tone for the rest of the night on the network. Gesue is the executive whom NBC insiders call the editorial conscience behind the show. As the executive editor of NBC Sports & Olympics and NBCSports.com, Gesue also shapes the messages during the network’s halftime and postgame reports, as well as NBCSports.com. Gesue has won nine Emmys for work on seven Olympic broadcasts and NBC’s Wimbledon coverage.
Senior coordinating producer, production
Photo by:Alex Menendez / ESPN
Thanks to last year’s blockbuster media rights deal with the NFL, ESPN has more studio programming devoted to the league than ever. In his role as ESPN’s senior coordinating producer of studio production, Markman oversees all of those shows, including “Sunday NFL Countdown,” “Monday Night Countdown,” “NFL Live,” “NFL PrimeTime,” “NFL32” and “Fantasy Football Now.” Promoted to this role in March 2011, Markman also oversees ESPN’s on-site coverage of the Super Bowl, NFL draft and Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He has won five Sports Emmy awards.
The NFL and NFLPA may have nine more years of labor peace by virtue of the collective-bargaining agreement the sides signed 13 months ago, but it is a bitter cold peace that’s left many initiatives dead on arrival.
Whether it’s HGH testing, extending the trade deadline by two weeks, requiring players to wear kneepads, or tweaking the injured reserve system, proposals die in the maw of the union-league strain.
Throw in the big-picture vitriol, from Bountygate to a union collusion claim demanding billions of dollars in compensation, and the picture is one of a league and union that will battle the big and the small for the foreseeable future.
“The NFLPA is constantly going to be an advocate for the players; to think it will be absolutely smooth sailing, that is not their role,” said player agent Drew Rosenhaus. “Their role is to constantly be vigilant on behalf of NFL players.”
Rosenhaus may be right, but insiders describe a league and union that fight each other at every turn.
The NFLPA’s DeMaurice Smith (top) and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell often find themselves on opposite sides of initiatives, big and small.
Photo by:Getty Images (2)
Few disagree there is a level of distrust between the two sides that did not exist when Paul Tagliabue and Gene Upshaw led the league and union, respectively. While there were lawsuits and battles in their era, there was also collegiality and respect. Tagliabue spoke at Upshaw’s funeral just over four years ago, eloquently describing the man he had considered a friend.
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith “is not Gene Upshaw, who could just pick up the phone and call Paul Tagliabue for lunch,” said Mark Levinstein, a lawyer who handles player issues at Williams & Connolly.
Jeff Pash, the league’s general counsel, answering reporters’ questions about the clashes with the union in May at an owners meeting, said, “We have an interest in each other’s success. We will get there, we will get there.”
When a reporter made light of his response given the poor state of affairs, Pash replied that the relationship was better than a year earlier, which at that time was the middle of the lockout. But when asked how the relationship compared to four years ago, Pash smiled and responded, “Well, that was a different time.”
The NFLPA did not return requests for comment, and the NFL declined to comment for this story.
Some adversaries of the union view its approach differently, not purely like Rosenhaus. David Cornwell, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, which the NFLPA is suing, said that because the owners won the CBA battle, the union has decided to create the appearance of fighting on behalf of players.
The owners received a substantial swing in financial benefits from the CBA, with the percentage of revenue going to the players dropping from the low 50 percent range to the mid-40 percent level. And some have criticized the union for giving the NFL commissioner power to handle player discipline. The commissioner, for example, has based his suspensions for the alleged bounties at the New Orleans Saints on the CBA provision that gives him authority for player discipline if it’s in the best interests of the game. That appears to be a wide-ranging power.
“Because the player association is weak and incompetent, it is committed to create the ruse and appearance of fighting on players’ behalf on collateral issues after caving on collective bargaining,” Cornwell said in explaining the level of tension between the two sides.
At the time the league and union signed the CBA, following a bitter 4 1/2-month lockout, Smith struck a conciliatory tone, saying as he stood next to Goodell in announcing the return of football, “If we don’t have a good relationship, it hurts the game and the business of football. I’m not sure any two people have ever come together in a more compressed, public, interesting time than Roger and I. I’m proud to say our relationship has grown.”
Smith, though, was an NFL outsider who won his job in 2009 by convincing players he would be different from Upshaw, who some panned for being too close to owners. At the 2011 Super Bowl press conference, weeks before the lockout, when asked how many owners he knew, Smith replied simply that he worked for the players. And indeed, player representatives voted him another term in March.
Boomer Esiason, the former NFL quarterback and current sports announcer, said there will always be some level of distrust between players and owners.
“When you are a player and you are a part of the union, there is already an antagonistic feeling dealing with the commissioner,” Esiason said. “Believe me, I know this because I lived this life,” he added, alluding to the 1987 player strike.
Phil Simms, another former quarterback turned broadcaster, views the back and forth with the league and union in more Machiavellian terms.
“Any time you want something, we will give it to you, but what are you going to give me?” he explained of the union’s thought process. “Are the players in the NFL doing HGH? Absolutely, we know that. I don’t know who they are. Is the union worried about those people or does the union want something bigger than the NFL is willing to give them?”
While the CBA called for HGH testing, it also left it up to the parties to develop the protocols, which has not occurred.
Jerry Jones, the Dallas Cowboys owner, agreed with the idea that tension is the name of the game in labor relations.
“It is just the very nature of things,” he said, speaking at that May owners meeting. “We do miss [Upshaw], he was a great leader and did an outstanding job, but I will say this: The leadership that is there now very much will get toe to toe on you on any matter; that is what you are seeing. I don’t think anything that materially affects our game is lacking with the present management of the players.”
At the same time, he added, “it is not always a good day.”
■ Replacement refs
Photo by:Getty Images
If replacement referees take the field this week and Sunday, everyone knows the media will be itching to document every blown call. But as of press time, the league was holding firm with its locked-out refs, who want more pay and to keep their pensions.
■ Player discipline
While Bountygate draws the attention, Commissioner Roger Goodell’s authority to punish players for off-field infractions could continue to rankle players.
■ Collusion case
This week, federal judge David Doty will hear arguments on whether the union should be allowed to bring a damages complaint against the NFL for allegedly conspiring to create a salary cap in 2010 when no cap was supposed to exist. The NFL contends that the collective-bargaining agreement and the end of the Brady litigation last year precluded the case. If the case moves forward, it could become a real headache for the league.
■ Concussions and courtrooms
Photo by:Getty Images
More than 3,000 retired players are now suing the NFL for concussions they say they received during their playing days. The league is trying to have the case thrown out of court. If the case moves forward, it could pose a massive liability to the league.
■ Los Angeles still waiting
Ever since the Rams and Raiders left in 1994, speculation has centered on when the NFL would return to the City of Angels. Two stadium proposals are now on the table, but will the league finally make a play for Los Angeles?
Will Tim Tebow continue to be a media darling even if his new team, the Jets, struggle? The team had scored no touchdowns through their first three preseason games, and that already had many fans howling.
■ A new lease on St. Louis
Photo by:Getty Images
Will the Rams reach a deal to extend their lease, which expires after the 2014 season? So far the team and the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission have gone back and forth over their visions for proposed improvements to the Edward Jones Dome.
■ California dreaming
Santa Clara may be getting a new stadium for the 49ers in 2014, but that still leaves the Raiders and Chargers looking for new homes, while the potential projects in Los Angeles look for possible tenants.
■ London calling
The NFL will play at least one regular-season game in London through 2016, and likely two beginning next year or in 2014. The only question is, how soon afterward does that become eight regular-season games a year for one team?
■ Different takes on Bountygate
Bountygate has dominated the offseason headlines. At first, in March when the NFL said it had uncovered a system at the New Orleans Saints for paying players to injure opponents, outrage reigned. But as more evidence came to light, opinions split on whether what the Saints deployed was any different than the informal systems at many other teams to pay players for good plays, albeit without courser language or naively written down. The NFL and players are now battling it out in court.
SportsBusiness Journal asked two former NFL quarterbacks and CBS Sports announcers their opinions, and their responses underscored the split this issue has engendered.