It was a theme laid out by Lifetime Achievement Award winner Paul Tagliabue: Sports is about more than entertainment and commerce, he said. It’s about accepting a responsibility to use influence to try to improve the world.
An ambitious goal, to be sure, but Tagliabue’s call clearly resonated with the audience, and Fox Sports’ Group Chairman David Hill carried that theme when he accepted his second trophy of the night in front of an event-record crowd of 800 people. In repeatedly praising Tagliabue for his achievements, Hill said that he and his peers have to keep more in mind than just who won, who lost and who made the most exciting highlight reel in sports.
“The finest athletes and the finest sports are the finest attributes of life,” he said. “And I believe it is our duty as broadcasters to focus on that, and not the negative. And if we do that … the world would be a better place.”
That message of responsibility was laid out by Tagliabue midway through the event, which was held at the Marriott Marquis at Times Square and revealed the winners among 77 nominees in 15 categories (see list).
“From simple roots in the early 20th century, our sports have now become multifaceted, hybrid and very complex,” Tagliabue said. “Now sport has become entertainment and television and Internet product. It has become for millions an all-consuming preoccupation … a mix of fantasy, advertising, marketing, licensing, commerce and big business. It’s become celebrity, increasingly with doses of politics and off-field controversy and sometimes hype.
“We can’t allow entertainment, commercial or celebrity interests to overrun sport at all levels. Believe me, I’m not against commerce. And I’m not against celebrity. But we can’t let it overrun everything at every level.”
Leaders in sports have to keep a sharp focus on instilling good values at every level, Tagliabue said, and he went so far as to specifically press for more benefits for intercollegiate athletes, though not necessarily in the form of the payments or stipends that are being considered by college leaders.
“If collegiate athletes deserve additional financial benefits beyond current scholarships, and schools can afford it, why not reward the athletes with multiyear education trust funds for the completion of academic degrees, not with signing bonuses and salaries?” he said. “In a nation where lack of education will consign millions of young people to menial jobs or no jobs, why should we reinforce the illusion that education doesn’t matter because you can always get paid — starting in college — for playing football or basketball?”
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem accepted the award for Sports Event of the Year for the 2012 Humana Challenge and reiterated that sports can, and should, be a force for good. Finchem noted the unique partnership between the PGA Tour, Humana Corp. and the Clinton Foundation for the event and said that the tournament was about “the idea that we could use the platform to raise awareness for a special concern in this country … and to look at the whole subject of wellness and health.”
The tournament was part of the beginning of a 10-year commitment to finding solutions for obesity and diabetes among young people, as well as for inactivity and increasing health problems among older people, Finchem said.
“We are losing an entire generation,” he declared. “We have to turn it around. Sports has to do its part.”
Near the end of the evening, Hill summed up the sentiments by saying, “If we look at the essence of what sport is … the world would be a better place.
“And wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing for us all to focus on: doing well by doing good.”
‘Let’s all give back’
Paul Tagliabue towered above the podium, scanning the crowd that filled the New York City ballroom. In each corner of the room, he saw someone he knew.
There was Don Garber, the former NFL marketer he assigned to NFL International all those years earlier. There was Donald Dell, a former attorney for tennis players he battled with as a young associate at Covington & Burling. There was Jerry Richardson, the former pro football player he awarded an NFL team in 1993.
|Paul Tagliabue accepts the Lifetime Achievement Award at Wednesday night's Sports Business Awards. |
After lengthy applause, Tagliabue raised his arms wide and repeatedly pressed his hands downward. He was grateful to receive the award because he felt it recognized the NFL’s growth as a business, but he had something else he wanted to tell people in attendance.
“As leaders in sport, now more than ever, we must keep a clear eye and sharp focus on the unique values of sport,” Tagliabue said. “We can’t allow entertainment, commercial or celebrity interests to overrun sport at all levels. Believe me, I’m not against commerce. And I’m not against celebrity. But we can’t let it overrun everything at every level. If we do so, we will fail to accomplish at each level what we are responsible for accomplishing.”
For those who know him best, this was vintage Tagliabue: a man of integrity and substance who has an ability to identify challenges and call others to action in a way that inspires them to follow. It was those very traits that defined his leadership of the NFL as it enjoyed 17 years of labor peace, developed more than 20 stadiums, launched its own TV network and pioneered diversity hiring practices among coaches.“My respect for what he stands for is what made me come,” said Richardson, who flew up from Charlotte with Carolina Panthers President Danny Morrison for the event. “He’s a no-nonsense person. His integrity is unparalleled.”
|U.S. Ambassador and Steelers Chairman Emeritus Dan Rooney introduces Tagliabue. |
Rooney agreed without hesitation. The 79-year-old introduced Tagliabue as someone he’d known for 40 years as an honest and trustworthy man, and the two shared an embrace as Tagliabue took the stage.
“One of the real things he did was create the diversity clause,” Rooney said, speaking of the committee Tagliabue formed and Rooney led that resulted in the “Rooney Rule,” an effort to bring greater racial diversity to the NFL coaching ranks. “We tried for some time to do something with diversity. Most things we tried didn’t catch on, [but] we got it through the membership. It’s proven very worthwhile.”
But it wasn’t only honesty and integrity that people admired in Tagliabue.
Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, who came to find Tagliabue after the event, said that one of the biggest gifts News Corp. gave him in recent years was assigning him to work on the National Geographic Channel. The project required regular trips to D.C., where Tagliabue lives, and Hill was able to meet the former commissioner for lunch and dinner.
“He has an incredibly muscular mind,” Hill said. “You’ll be with him talking about the impact of the Etruscans on the formation of the Roman Republic or what happened in China in 1493. You can say to Paul, ‘What do you think of Marcus Tullius Cicero?’ And he’ll say, ‘I think …’ Most people don’t have a clue. He’s a true renaissance man.”
|A standing ovation greeted Paul Tagliabue, joined by his wife, Chandler, as he accepted his SBJ/SBD Lifetime Achievement Award. |
“Following [NFL Commissioner] Pete Rozelle is no easy task,” said Casey Wasserman, CEO and chairman of Wasserman Media Group. “He followed the guy who was the first and only commissioner in the sport. He doesn’t get enough credit for what he did after that.”
Octagon President Rick Dudley, who was an NFL staffer when Tagliabue replaced Rozelle, described the transition as one of some uncertainty at the league.
Rozelle left big shoes to fill. He’d built the league and had a reputation for traveling with an entourage and commanding a room.
Tagliabue was well-known as the league’s longtime general counsel, but he was far from the consensus choice to succeed Rozelle in 1989. He was far more understated and it was unclear how he would lead. But he established himself as approachable and proved he had an understanding of both business and football.
“Before [Tagliabue], it was about the product and what went on on the field,” Dudley said. “It was all about football. Nothing else mattered. That’s the right thing, but Paul added in a tasteful and measured way a commercial aspect.”
Garber, now a commissioner himself with MLS, said Tagliabue had a keen sense for marketing and saw the true potential of the NFL brand, which resulted in astounding growth and its emergence as the pre-eminent brand in professional sports.
“When you think of the great brands in the world, from Disney to Nike to Adidas to Microsoft to Apple, the NFL is a member of that group, and the league’s ability to become an influential global brand is a result of Paul’s tenure as commissioner,” Garber said.
But Tagliabue understood more than just marketing. In 1999, he pushed ownership to set aside revenue in a special fund to assist with stadium construction. The G3 fund, as the initiative is known, assisted the renovation and construction of more than 20 stadiums.
|Tagliabue with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson |
|Tagliabue with Fox Sports Chairman David Hill, |
Hill said another thing Tagliabue understood was the NFL’s potential on TV. In 1997, he commissioned a survey to find out what Americans thought of the NFL. The survey showed that 98 percent of NFL fans had never attended a game in person.
“This was a revelation,” Hill said. “It changed the thinking with the NFL and television because they realized that television was more important than the stadium. It was an important mental shift to make.”
Tagliabue spent very little time during his 15-minute acceptance speech recounting moments from his career at the NFL — although he shared humorous anecdotes of notes he received from owners over his years in office. He devoted much of his time to thanking those who had helped him throughout his career, from his Italian-immigrant parents and supportive wife to choking up briefly when remembering others no longer alive — from his law firm mentor Ham Carothers to labor counterpart Gene Upshaw.
Then he called everyone to action. He urged the audience to support sports at all levels. He discouraged colleges from paying athletes and urged them to reward athletes with multiyear education trust funds.
“Let’s stay focused on the truly unique values of sports at each level so that our programs promote the long-term interests of millions of individuals and thousands of communities and not just the immediate interests of an exceptionally lucky financial elite,” Tagliabue said. “Let’s all give back.”
The crowd rose to its feet again and applauded as he left the podium and returned to his seat.
After the event ended, dozens of former colleagues, peers and students aspiring to enter the sports business gathered around Tagliabue and he spoke to them all, while taking pictures with several. He and his family were the final ones leaving the ballroom.
The last person to approach him was former Visa sponsorship executive Michael Lynch. The two stood at the front of the Marriott Marquis’ ballroom more than a half hour after the event ended.
As workers broke down tables, Lynch told Tagliabue how much his remarks had resonated with him. Lynch, who had worked in the Olympics for years, felt grassroots sports often got overlooked, and he thanked Tagliabue for promoting the idea of giving college athletes more time to earn degrees.
Tagliabue, who attended Georgetown in the late 1950s on a basketball scholarship, reiterated a point he had in his speech earlier: An education goes much further than a salary. He was living proof.
“ After the 9/11 attacks, he understood the symbolism of the relaunch of the NFL season and its ability to inspire the country while also helping us get back to normal. We had already canceled a week of games, and Paul wanted the NFL to honor our heroes by coming back strong and united.
“One of the many things we did was have Jon Bon Jovi perform ‘God Bless America’ from a firehouse in Manhattan right before the one o’clock games — live on the broadcasts and in all the stadiums. The firehouse was Engine 8, Ladder 2, Battalion 8 on 51st Street in Midtown. They had lost 10 firefighters, including the captain, on 9/11.
“Before the event, Roger [Goodell] and I looked to the back of the firehouse by the lockers and saw Paul there, sitting with the firefighters’ families and their kids. Tears were running down his face; he was hugging people. That was a side of him not many people got the chance to see.
“Paul embraced the impact the NFL had on American society, and he began to embrace his role not just as a corporate CEO, but the corporate CEO of an iconic brand.”
• JOHN COLLINS, who worked at the NFL in two stints from 1989 to 2004 and was president of the Cleveland Browns from 2004-06.
“My first introduction to Paul came when I was serving on the bargaining committee for the players. He was a young attorney representing the NFL, and we were on the opposite side. He was also a Redskins season-ticket holder, so we would talk about that. We established a friendship, and when I look back over my career, he’s taught me so much and has been a real mentor to me. He always took an interest in my career, and I’ll never forget that. Even when I was an athletic director at Colgate, he put me on a couple of NFL committees and he kept me connected to the NFL. I’m sure I’d never be in my position in the NFL today without Paul.”
• MARK MURPHY, Green Bay Packers president and CEO, whose relationship with Tagliabue dates back 30 years to when Murphy was a player and a member of the NFLPA bargaining committee.
“The one memory that will always stay with me about Paul actually occurred before he become commissioner. All the owners were in a room, and this was when the USFL had filed a suit against the league and it was close to going to trial [in 1986]. The case had been painted by the league’s outside counsel as Armageddon: This was going to be very, very disastrous if we lost this case.
“Someone in the room asked the league counsel, ‘If you were sitting in our chair, would you try this case or would you settle this?’ He shot back, ‘Without question, I would settle.’ There was so much at stake; the room filled with a hush. Then Tagliabue got up, and he was our outside general counsel from Covington, and he said matter-of-factly, ‘I wouldn’t settle. It’s winnable, and I think settling would send the wrong message, and the price of settling will compromise the integrity of the NFL brand.’ I sat there and was amazed — by a number of facts. First, his ability to analyze the case. Two, seeing the guts he had after the lead counsel’s comments to the owners, and third, his sense of dedication and leadership to the league. I knew at that time he would be a great commissioner.”
• CARMEN POLICY, who was president and CEO of the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns.
“Paul always projected that the league was under control, that there was leadership with honesty and no gimmicks in the process. He was very accessible to league business partners to discuss any issues.
“The toughest thing he or any commissioner has to do is lead a [board of directors] where they are almost all billionaires. You have to have a velvet hammer to contend with that, particularly in the case of the NFL, where the ownership has so much personal wealth involved. He was obviously a brilliant lawyer, but he also had a broad range of knowledge that served him well. He understood the arts and politics, and that balance was essential. He understood that he wasn’t the story; it was the teams, the players and what happened on the field.”
• TONY PONTURO, who ran Anheuser-Busch’s sports marketing during Tagliabue’s commissioner tenure.
“He really understood the need for the NFL to become more global. He was very supportive of the initial business plan. He used to love traveling abroad on trips representing the NFL. He’d ask for meetings with local leaders in Asia, Europe and Mexico, and he would hold court, leading thoughtful discussions on wide topics — not just the NFL and sport, but local politics. He thought that was important for him to understand so the NFL was properly engaged in markets around the world.”
• DON GARBER, who spent 16 years with the NFL before becoming MLS commissioner in 1999, concluding his tenure with the league as senior vice president and managing director of NFL International.
“Paul was a great commissioner, a better friend and an even better family man.”
• JERRY RICHARDSON, Carolina Panthers owner, who in 1993 was awarded the league’s 29th team under Tagliabue.
“I remember his first league meeting as commissioner in 1990 on the Big Island of Hawaii. The state of Arizona was to vote again on a law to recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. The NFL was quickly thrust into the political battle, as the 1993 Super Bowl was to be hosted in Phoenix. Paul had to immediately address the issue, and in a decisive move [would relocate] the game from Arizona if the law did not pass. I distinctly remember working through the steps and for the first time ever removing a Super Bowl from a site, which occurred with the failed vote in November. Within six months, we had replaced it with Pasadena. That showed instantly how decisive he was. It was a very difficult issue; everyone wanted to put the NFL in the middle of the story of the decision. The state ended up approving the holiday in 1992, and the NFL almost three years to the date (March 1993) ultimately voted to place the 1996 Super Bowl in Arizona.
“In addition, in the summer before the 1993 Super Bowl in Pasadena, the riots took place in south central Los Angeles. Paul decided early on that the NFL needed to establish a legacy project to help rebuild L.A., and he made a commitment of $1 million to develop a program that would benefit the city of L.A., and that became the Youth Education Town, a program that still flourishes today in each Super Bowl city. It was ironic that the first YET Center ended up in the boyhood town of his predecessor, Pete Rozelle.
“Both of those were strong reflections on his feelings toward the African-American community, and he showed that type of leadership and concern from the very, very beginning. He understood the power that the NFL had to effect cultural change.”
• JIM STEEG, who for 26 years was in charge of the Super Bowl and special events for the NFL.
|Friends and acquaintances talk about the life and career of Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Paul Tagliabue.|
During the Sports Business Awards, we talked with people who have known Paul Tagliabue for years, both personally and professionally, about what makes him deserving of the 2012 SportsBusiness Journal/Daily Lifetime Achievement Award.
Hear what they had to say in this short video produced and edited by Matt Draper.
The Breeders’ Cup has bought the rights to the classic song “The Best is Yet to Come,” made popular by the late Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and will use it as part of a branding campaign to help position The Breeders’ Cup Classic race as one of horse racing’s four major events.
The branding work calls for the unveiling this week of a 60-second spot featuring a recording of the song. Additional print, radio, digital and television elements are expected as well.
The effort leads up to the 29th annual Breeders’ Cup, Nov. 2-3, at Santa Anita Park in the Los Angeles area.
“We thought the brand needed some refreshment,” said Craig Fravel, Breeders’ Cup president and CEO.
Fravel would not discuss financial details on how much the Breeders’ Cup would spend on the campaign but he said he hopes “The Best is Yet to Come” will become associated with the horse racing championship the way music has been associated with the Olympics, the Masters and other notable sporting events. That includes horse racing’s Triple Crown races, where “My Old Kentucky Home” is played before The Kentucky Derby, “Maryland, My Maryland” is played before the Preakness, and Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” is played before the Belmont Stakes.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup, featuring 15 races with purses from $500,000 to $5 million, will air on NBC and NBC Sports Network across its two days, culminating in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on NBC. That mile-and-a-quarter race, which annually attracts the fastest and most famous horses in the world, is slated for prime time for the first time this year (Nov. 3, 8 p.m. ET).
“The Best is Yet to Come” is expected to be featured before the race.
The Breeders’ Cup was broadcast on NBC from its inception in 1984 until 2005, when ESPN took over its coverage. NBC signed a multiyear deal earlier this year to recapture the rights.
The 60-second spot being rolled out this week features Grammy Award winner Kurt Elling, with footage from past Breeders’ Cup races run at Santa Anita as well as celebrities who have attended the event. Breeders’ Cup officials worked with Boston-based CTP on the rebranding effort.
Although the Triple Crown races are much more well-known to general sports fans, the Breeders’ Cup races, held at the end of the year, often determine which horses win the industry’s Eclipse Awards. The Breeders’ Cup Classic typically determines Horse of the Year.
This year, both NBC and Breeders’ Cup officials see possible gains because of a Triple Crown candidate as well. California-based I’ll Have Another is going for the Triple Crown at this year’s Belmont, which will be run June 9 and air on NBC.
“The buzz that is going to be generated by I’ll Have Another’s run to the Belmont, especially if he wins, will help to raise the profile of the sport, no doubt,” said Jon Miller, president of programming for NBC Sports and NBC Sports Network. “And that can directly help the Breeders’ Cup.”