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Volume 22 No. 31
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100 people who grew the NFL's business

Sports Business Journal spoke with multiple people close to the NFL, its teams and the business of football to come up with our 100 people who greatly influenced the business of the league in the first 100 seasons. We are not saying these are the most important or listing them in order of importance. Rather, these are individuals who had a great impact on the business side of the league in various roles. 

 

Bud Adams

Adams may be an unconventional choice, but his ardent supporters cite his influence as co-founder of the AFL with Lamar Hunt in 1959. His signing of 1959 Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon gave the AFL instant credibility and was a slight against the NFL. His early teams set the bar for the AFL. Strong-minded and stubborn, Adams lost some credibility later in his ownership over his team’s move from Houston to Nashville. 

Roone Arledge

Commissioner Pete Rozelle approached Arledge about a Monday night game of the week and Arledge paid $25.5 million for a three-year package in 1969, one of his best career moves. From there, he put Howard Cosell with Don Meredith in the booth. Arledge remained the negotiating executive and creative genius behind this pop culture hit until his death 30 years later. 

Neil Austrian

Austrian was president and COO of the league from 1991-99. It was a new position at the time, created by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and Austrian emerged as a key voice on labor issues and media deals during that decade. He is credited with being the force behind the revolutionary deal with DirecTV on Sunday Ticket. 

Photo: Getty images

Sammy Baugh

Baugh played quarterback in the NFL from 1937-52, during which he normalized the forward pass as a staple of the game’s offenses. In 1943, the Redskins great led the NFL in passing, punting and defensive interceptions, one of the league’s single greatest statistical seasons ever. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s inaugural class in 1963. 

Bert Bell

The league’s first commissioner influcenced the NFL in multiple ways. He was founder-owner of the Eagles, shifted to own the Steelers, and then became commissioner. As commissioner, he had a tough anti-gambling policy, instilled home-game blackouts on television, oversaw the merger with the All-America Football Conference’s three teams, and originated the college draft. So close to the game his entire life, he died of a heart attack while watching an Eagles-Steelers game at Franklin Field in 1959.

Chris Berman

The host of ESPN’s most popular NFL highlights show for more than 30 years, Berman’s staccato delivery and catchy nicknames made him the face of the network and the voice of the NFL for millions of fans. Berman hosted “Sunday NFL Countdown” and the NFL draft from 1987-2016, and the popular “NFL Primetime” with Tom Jackson from 1987-2005. 

Richard Berthelsen

Berthelsen provided stability to the NFL Players Association through strikes, litigation, decertification and a long period of labor peace, as well as the unexpected death of Executive Director Gene Upshaw. He joined as a young lawyer in 1972, became the NFLPA’s longtime general counsel, served as interim executive director when Upshaw died, and retired in 2012, 40 years to the day of his hiring. 

Charles Bidwill

A well-connected Chicago attorney best known for his racing stable and his role as president of the city’s famed Chicago Stadium, Bidwill gave up shares in his beloved Bears to buy the Chicago Cardinals in 1933. Though founded first, the Cardinals never overcame their place as the second team in the Second City, relocating to St. Louis and then to Phoenix, both pivotal moves in the evolution of the league.

George Bodenheimer

The NFL can thank the well-respected Bodenheimer for the fact that it convinced ESPN to pay around $2 billion per year for NFL rights — far more than any other network. After all, it was Bodenheimer who, when he ran ESPN’s affiliate department, came up with the plan to get distributors to increase their payouts to the network by 20% per year. Today, distributors pay ESPN more than $9 per subscriber per month. 

Steve Bornstein

Bornstein helped popularize the NFL during his ESPN tenure from 1980-2002. But it’s his time as the NFL’s top media executive from 2002-14 that merits his inclusion on this list. Not only did he launch the successful TV channels NFL Network and NFL RedZone, he oversaw the league’s media rights negotiations during a time that brought huge rights fee increases to the NFL. 

Photo: Getty images

Pat Bowlen

A smart, successful owner of the Broncos for 35 years, Bowlen was an active voice on the league’s business matters since getting into the NFL in 1984, leading NFL Enterprises for years and taking the lead on media deals. He was a proponent of Fox entering the league in 1994 and worked hand-in-hand with NBC’s Dick Ebersol to create “Sunday Night Football” in 2006. 

 

Terry Bradshaw

In addition to his four Super Bowl wins as Steelers QB, Bradshaw helped modernize NFL broadcasts as a popular on-air talent, first for CBS, but more importantly, as the voice of Fox’s NFL coverage since 1994. He’s brought his down-home Louisiana flavor to “Fox NFL Sunday” but hasn’t shied away from criticizing players or teams. 

Tom Brady

Perhaps the most important NFL player of the last 20 years, Brady’s six Super Bowl wins and run of excellence have expanded the league’s reach and popularity. While he’s clearly one of the league’s most popular players, he — and the Patriots — are also among the most polarizing. But when he plays, people watch. He’s also emerged as one of the most influential players with his off-the-field business initiatives. 

Gil Brandt

The architect of “America’s Team,” which significantly popularized the game and league, Brandt is the godfather of scouting, which has fueled great interest in the NFL. In addition, the Cowboys executive was a historian, draft analyst and media host over the years, and the voice that kept the NFL front and center for many fans. 

Anita Brody

The U.S. District Court judge continues to oversee the landmark concussion settlement case in federal court in Philadelphia. The league has paid out more than $500 million to players and the settlement eliminated the possibility of lingering individual lawsuits, which would have negatively affected the league’s business for years if not decades. 

Jim Brown

A dominating presence on the field, Brown ran his way to the Pro Bowl in each of his nine seasons. That raised the stature of the league — and then Hollywood came calling to put some of that on-the-field toughness to work on the silver screen. Brown was also an early example of athlete activism, using his stage to push for improvements in African American communities and to reduce gang violence. 

Photo: Getty images

Paul Brown

Before Brown, professional football was treated more like a hobby than a career. Brown completely revolutionized the game as the first coach to hire a full-time, year-round staff, scout college players, and even to study film and use a playbook. He was the namesake of the Cleveland Browns and later co-founded the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Joe Browne

The sharp-witted Browne’s career spanned five decades at the NFL and he held several key posts as the longest-serving league employee in history. He was an influential voice with commissioners Pete Rozelle, Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell on all important league issues and his points of view held strong sway with owners. If anyone knew exactly what went on inside the offices of the NFL for 50 years, it’s Browne. 

Joel Bussert

For four decades, Bussert oversaw the NFL rule book and led the league’s competition committee. In consultation with teams, coaches, officials, league executives and doctors, Bussert drove the NFL’s continual reinvention of the on-the-field product. Giants owner John Mara once said Bussert “has had as much influence over the modern game of football as anyone.” 

Joe Carr

As president of the American Professional Football Association and then NFL from 1921-39, Carr is often called the “Father of Professional Football.” He established the standard player contract and believed the league needed to expand from small markets to the major cities, leading to teams in Washington, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Detroit. 

Tom Condon

A longtime right guard who became one of the most powerful agents in NFL history, Condon started representing players when he was still in uniform. A former president of the NFLPA, he was an ally of Executive Director Gene Upshaw and later led the football practices at IMG and CAA Sports, which put him in the mix of virtually every major business discussion in the league. 

Howard Cosell

Cosell made “Monday Night Football” a pop culture event because of his polarizing style and showmanship. He broadened the appeal and interest around the game, never taking it too seriously and mixing in cultural touchpoints. “Monday Night Football” was must-see TV for an entire generation, and Cosell was the marquee name. 

Photo: Getty images

Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

Cheerleaders had been around for years, but none had ever done what the Cowboys cheerleaders did in the 1972 season. Accomplished dancers brought new appeal with their skimpy attire and elaborate routines, and the squad quickly became pop culture icons. Other teams were quick to copy the approach, but none could capture the same magic. 

Al Davis

Some believe Davis did more to shape the modern NFL than anyone. He would never win most popular, as fellow owners never cared for his confrontational approach and litigious nature. But one can see Davis’ overwhelming influence throughout the league’s history, from the merger with the AFL, to building an organization and ownership micro-managing, to hiring diversity and even franchise relocations. 

Eddie Debartolo

With five Super Bowl titles, DeBartolo established the culture and business environment that was copied and modeled for years by new owners coming into the league. Known as the “players owner” and for creating one of the top dynasties in sports with the 49ers, DeBartolo was less involved in league affairs but served on the realignment and expansion committees. 

David Doty

Doty was the judge in Minnesota in the 1992 NFLPA case against the league that ultimately led to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw agreeing to the landmark CBA containing free agency and a salary cap, which provided labor peace that fueled the league’s growth. Doty continued as an arbiter of all labor issues and made major decisions pertaining to the CBA for 20-plus years. 

Tony Dungy

Dungy’s impact on the league and its growing diversity reaches far beyond what he did on the sidelines as a Super Bowl-winning coach. Yes, he had a number of coaching “firsts” in the league, but he’s also made a significant impact on the diversity of the coaching ranks and left a long coaching tree. He transitioned successfully into television and remained as a national spokesperson. 

Photo: Getty images

Dick Ebersol 

In 2005, when the league’s main prime-time broadcast package was struggling with declining ratings on ABC, Ebersol had a plan: Move the package from Monday night to Sunday night, add flexible scheduling and program the NFL’s biggest rivalries. The result is a TV-record eight consecutive seasons as prime-time’s top-rated show for NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” 

Thelma Elkjer

The longtime executive assistant to Commissioner Pete Rozelle, Elkjer had a front-row seat to the inner workings of the league’s business and had a role in the NFL’s realignment in 1970. As legend has it, she reached into a vase and pulled out a piece of paper with the winning plan on it. She first met Rozelle when the two worked for the Rams and she stayed with him until his death in 1996. 

Weeb Ewbank

Ewbank elevated the NFL’s reputation by coaching in two of the biggest games in league history. First he coached the Colts to the 1958 championship against the Giants, which was dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” Then he led Joe Willie and the underdog Jets to an upset win over the Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969. 

Joe Foss

The AFL’s first commissioner, he held the position from 1959-66. As a World War II fighter pilot who earned the Medal of Honor and a former governor of South Dakota, he gave the young league credibility and a personality during its early years. He also helped expand the league with significant TV contracts with both ABC and NBC. 

Ed Garvey

Garvey held the top post at the NFLPA for 12 years and led the players through two strikes, in 1974 and 1982. He was brought on to help improve the economics for players, and during his tenure he was a notorious thorn in the side of NFL management. But much of what Garvey fought for serves as the foundation for the players’ approach today. 

Fred Gehrke

Nothing is more original to the NFL than a team’s helmet design and it was Gehrke who designed and painted the Los Angeles Rams logo in 1948, marking the first time a logo adorned the helmet of an NFL team. His Rams horn logo is still worn today. 

Photo: Getty images

Phyllis George

The former Miss America co-hosted “The NFL Today” on CBS alongside Brent Musburger, Irv Cross and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, becoming one of the first women to have a nationally prominent role in TV sports coverage. She broadened the NFL’s audience, appealing to men and women, and paved the way for an entire generation of women on television. 

Frank Gifford

Another voice of the era during the NFL’s massive growth, Gifford was known for his smooth, low-key narration of the biggest moments in football as “Monday Night Football” became a pop culture sensation with Howard Cosell and Don Meredith. Colleague Al Michaels noted the influence Gifford had as a player in New York, in the booth and as a corporate pitchman by saying succinctly, “He was always the coolest guy in the room.” 

Roger Goodell

An NFL lifer, Goodell began his career as an intern in 1982 and worked his way up to become the face of the league as its fifth commissioner. While he has presided over an era of unprecedented prosperity, popularity and revenue growth, he’s also been mired in controversies on player health and safety and discipline. The next media and labor deals will help write the final chapters on Goodell’s nearly 40 years in the league when his contract expires after the 2023 season. 

Otto Graham

The hall of fame quarterback put the Browns franchise on the map from its beginning in 1946, leading them to nine straight championship games spanning both the old AAFC and the NFL. A flashy, big-play signal caller, Graham was a harbinger of future quarterback play across the league. He still holds the league record for career yards per passing attempt. 

Red Grange

The legendary college football star joined the Bears in 1925 and barnstormed around the country to raise the game’s profile. “The Galloping Ghost” became pro football’s first star, appearing in movies and a national vaudeville tour. The injuries he suffered during the barnstorming tour laid bare the emerging game’s violent nature and the need for time off between games. 

Photo: Getty images

Dennis Green

Fiery news conferences — “The Bears are who we thought they were!” — grabbed the headlines, but there was much more to Green, whose successful career included leading the Vikings to playoff appearances in eight out of nine seasons. Green was a leader among African American coaches and was only the second in the modern era to hold a head coaching job in the league. And that came before the NFL adopted the Rooney Rule to boost minority opportunities. 

George Halas

“Papa Bear” touched everything, literally. He was in the initial meeting in Canton that formed a football association and was an influential leader in the NFL over 50 years — from the inception of the Bears in 1920 until his death in 1983. His many “firsts” included daily practices, broadcasting games on radio, a club newspaper and revenue-sharing efforts. 

Eddy Hartenstein

The CEO of DirecTV when it launched Sunday Ticket in 1994, Hartenstein used the NFL’s out-of-market package to rack up the highest-quality subscribers in the business, ones who had the discretionary income to pay hundreds of dollars a year to access the package. Under Hartenstein’s leadership, Sunday Ticket became known for innovations from its whip-around channel to its ability to present games in high definition. 

Ralph Hay

An up-and-comer auto salesman who bought the Canton Bulldogs to help promote his dealerships, Hay was among the first to recognize the need for an organized league. He planned and hosted the now-famous owners meeting in September 1920 — at his own auto showroom in downtown Canton — that created the American Professional Football Association. 

David Hill

Yes, his boss Rupert Murdoch paid the bills, but this Fox executive was the creative genius responsible for NFL-related production and for hiring on-air talent. Over more than two decades, Hill’s game telecast production and ideas revolutionized the way the NFL was presented on TV by all the networks. 

Photo: Getty images

Lamar Hunt

There is very little Hunt didn’t influence when it comes to the modern NFL, as he was a part of the game for nearly 50 years. He was a humble idealist who dreamed big and put the league first. He founded the AFL and was key to the merger that started in 1966. He was an important voice on revenue sharing, helped shape the rules of the game, and, of course, coined the term Super Bowl. His legacy and vision runs through the league to this day. 

Jerry Jones

One could successfully argue that no one has advanced and elevated the league’s business more than Jones. Since he purchased the Cowboys for $140 million in 1989 from Bum Bright, he’s been relentless in driving revenue around his team and the league. He challenged the business model around NFL Properties, freeing up categories for teams to sell more lucratively, and was the bridge to bring Nike into the league. He’s been a big voice in the league’s labor and media deals, his vision for AT&T Stadium changed the facility game, and he was pivotal in crafting the league’s return to Los Angeles in Inglewood. 

Jim Kensil

A 10-year president of the Jets, Kensil was the first employee to be hired by Commissioner Pete Rozelle as NFL PR director in New York. Rozelle once dubbed him as “my offensive and defensive coordinator.” Within the league office during the 1960s and ‘70s, Kensil was called “Mr. Inside” because it allowed Rozelle to do business and be the face of the league as “Mr. Outside.” 

Jeffrey Kessler

The prominent sports attorney has been outside counsel to the NFLPA and played a role in some of the biggest legal issues facing the NFL. From McNeil v. NFL to Ray Rice, “Bountygate” and Tom Brady, Kessler has handled some of the biggest, most complex antitrust and sports law cases in the country. 

Phil Knight

Many will never forget the sight of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones bringing Phil Knight on the sidelines for a “Monday Night Football” game to trumpet the Cowboys’ maverick deal with Nike in 1995. That deal led to lawsuits and Nike eventually becoming a league partner, and since then, Knight has played a key role in growing the pie for the league around innovative products and licensed merchandise. He also can be a thorn in the side of the league as evidenced by his support of Colin Kaepernick.

Photo: Getty images

Robert Kraft

The ultimate insider, Kraft is one of the most successful owners in league history. Not only has his organization, the Patriots, been viewed as one of the most progressive and business-savvy operations, but Kraft has been a powerful and influential voice in league decision making. He’s been a fixture on the powerful broadcast committee, the management council and the compensation committee, and his broad network in media, entertainment and political circles has made him the ultimate connector for the league. 

Stan Kroenke

For years, Kroenke remained in the background on league issues, but in 2016 he emerged as the big winner in the NFL’s return to Los Angeles. He’s developing a $4 billion complex at Inglewood Park that will feature a stadium, NFL Network studios and commercial development. No one has more riding on the NFL’s return to L.A. 

Curly Lambeau

A co-founder, player and coach of the Packers, Lambeau’s legacy lives on as the long-lasting name on the team’s iconic stadium. He’s credited with bringing the forward pass to the NFL, flying to road games and executing the sponsorship deal with his employer, the Indian Packing Co., that created the name in the first place. 

Photo: Getty images

Willie Lanier

A member of the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, Lanier has been an outspoken advocate of player safety. With his playing days in jeopardy over an injury, Lanier dramatically changed his tackling style — going from a head-first approach to a style aimed more on body tackling, a technique that eventually was adopted by others. Post-career he’s continued to champion safety measures and cleaner tackling techniques. 

Sara Levinson

The NFL’s top marketer for nearly six years in the late 1990s, Levinson came from youth-inspired MTV to the tradition-based environment of the NFL and brought a different sensibility to the league’s marketing message, targeting women and children. She led NFL Properties while it was under assault by new owners including Jerry Jones, who fought to cut their own marketing deals. 

Gregg Levy

The NFL’s outside counsel for more than two decades from Covington & Burling, Levy has been instrumental in every legal issue facing the league, including the successful defense against Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett’s effort for early entry into the draft. The well-respected Levy was also runner-up to Roger Goodell in the 2006 vote for commissioner. 

Vince Lombardi

For an entire generation, Lombardi was symbolic of the NFL — seen as its greatest coach and leader, especially for winning the first two Super Bowls. He helped create the playbook for on-field success and personified the Packers, seen as one of the most popular and unique franchises in the league. He was also a pioneer in openness and supporting players of various backgrounds. 

Bill MacPhail

One of the first television executives to recognize the value of sports programming, MacPhail struck a unique deal with Commissioner Pete Rozelle in 1960 — paying the league, rather than individual teams — that led to the huge media rights deals we see today. The CBS executive hired top-flight talent including Pat Summerall and Frank Gifford. 

John Mackey

Mackey was the first president of the NFLPA in 1970 after the AFL-NFL merger was finalized. He was active in many league legal issues, and was named by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as the first president of the NFL Youth Football Fund. His later illness was the impetus for Tagliabue and NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw to agree to an 88 Plan, to help players with dementia, ALS or Parkinson’s disease. 

John Madden

He was a Super Bowl-winning coach and considered by many to be the best NFL broadcaster in history. But Madden is best known to NFL fans under 40 for the EA video game series “Madden NFL” that was first released in 1988. Nobody has been more effective at promoting the sport and the league than John Madden. 

Photo: Getty images

Manning family

Football is a family business, and that’s perhaps best exemplified by the Mannings. From Archie and Olivia, to Peyton and Eli, the Mannings have played an active role in promoting the game and fueling the league’s business, from advocacy to television to endorsements. 

Wellington Mara

Credit here should be shared with his father, Tim, who founded the Giants in 1925, but Wellington Mara would be on a Mount Rushmore of NFL business legends. Called the heart and soul of the league, he founded the tenet of revenue sharing, arguing as the owner from the largest market that the NFL was only as strong as its weakest link. Mara was behind every major business deal, from labor to leadership. 

Photo: Getty images

Virginia McCaskey

The eldest child of George Halas, she took over the Bears in 1983 and is the oldest owner in the league. While not deeply involved in the business aspects of the game, her voice holds sway for the team’s historical significance. She continues to tout the mantra of doing things the “right way” and is looked up to by the growing number of female NFL owners. 

Will McDonough

The legendary NFL reporter from the Boston Globe established the role of an NFL insider, both in print and on television. He was the most influential reporter of his generation and his style and substance paved the way for future reporters and specialists such as Peter King, Chris Mortensen, Adam Schefter and others. 

Don Meredith

Meredith played quarterback for the Cowboys for nine seasons, but he’s best known for his color commentary on “Monday Night Football.” He was one of the first broadcasters to bring an overwhelming personality to the booth, differentiating himself from his fellow play-by-play announcers and analysts. Most of all, fans remember Meredith’s singing of “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” during the final moments of blowout games. 

Creighton Miller

Miller founded the NFLPA at the urging of Cleveland Browns players in 1956 and served as general counsel, providing players a united front to push owners for improved pay and benefits. He would step away as the group became a full-fledged union, but by then players already knew there was strength in numbers. 

Art Modell

Known for being one the bigger personalities in the owners room, Modell leaves a controversial legacy but he played an important role in the league’s growth during the 1960s and ‘70s. One can’t overlook that for more than three decades he chaired the NFL’s television committee and was a key figure in launching “Monday Night Football,” and chaired the labor committee. But his legacy also is tarnished by his dramatic 1996 exit from Cleveland to Baltimore. 

Photo: Getty images

Joe Montana

The hall of fame quarterback was nicknamed “Joe Cool” and known for comeback wins in the ‘80s and ‘90s. An eight-time Pro Bowler, Montana piloted the 49ers’ West Coast offense, which was all about scoring, and scoring quickly. With Montana under center, the 49ers won four Super Bowls, and he became the face of the most successful team of a generation. 

Clint Murchison Jr.

As the Dallas Cowboys’ founding owner, Murchison brought several important innovations to the NFL and set the template for ideal modern ownership. Under his watch, Texas Stadium pioneered luxury boxes and the now-common public-private venue partnership concept. The Cowboys were also the first team to use computers in scouting. Meanwhile, his deep pockets, patience and hands-off style is credited for allowing the Cowboys to flourish on the field. 

Rupert Murdoch

At a time when consultants were warning the NFL that its rights fees might drop, Murdoch swooped in with an enormous $395 million-per-year deal for the NFC’s rights in 1993 — a full $100 million higher than what CBS bid. But Murdoch’s on this list also for the way his network has promoted the game in the ensuing 25 years — through a pregame show that has set the standard in the business.  

Photo: Getty images

Joe Namath

The man who made the NFL cool, “Broadway Joe” engineered one of the biggest wins in league history in Super Bowl III, which established him as a pop culture celebrity and corporate endorser who significantly increased the profile of the league. 

Dr. Bennet Omalu

The Pittsburgh-based physician was the first to publish findings of CTE in NFL players. While he was never welcomed by the league, his work and efforts forever changed the narrative around player health and safety.

Jeff Pash

Pash has been the NFL’s chief in-house legal counsel for more than 20 years. Sitting in an office next to Commissioner Roger Goodell, he has a direct and daily role on the commissioner’s legal thinking and point of view. He gets major credit from owners for negotiating and shaping the 2011 CBA and the concussion settlement, but he faced criticism from owners like Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones for the way he advised the league on recent Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott suspensions. 

Mike Pereira

When he entered Fox’s broadcast booth in 2010, Pereira changed the way fans view NFL games. The NFL’s former vice president of officiating, Pereira explained the NFL’s rules with an easy-to-understand manner. Other networks followed Fox’s lead and brought former officials into the booth, but none were as effective as Pereira. 

Val Pinchbeck

A close adviser to both commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue, Pinchbeck came to the NFL from the Denver Broncos and was best known for developing into the NFL’s scheduling guru for nearly 30 years. He used a diplomatic style that worked well with broadcasters who were eager to get their schedule requests met. 

Photo: AP Images

Fritz Pollard

Art Shell may have been the first African American coach in the modern NFL, but Pollard was the first one, period. After dominating the league as a player, Pollard returned to coach four teams throughout the 1920s, before founding and coaching one of the era’s most popular teams: the all-African American Chicago Black Hawks. 

Carmen Policy

The front-office genius who kept the 49ers dynasty rolling even after its original cast aged out, Policy then helped get the expansion Cleveland Browns off the ground in the late 1990s. Respected and charming, he’s been retired since 2004 but continues to be a trusted ally of owners and league executives. Earlier this year, Commissioner Roger Goodell asked him to manage the Broncos’ ownership dispute. 

Bill Radovich

The guard who played in the NFL in the 1930s and ‘40s was the first player ever to file a lawsuit against the league. Radovich v. NFL resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that professional football, unlike baseball, was subject to antitrust laws. It marked a major blow to the league, leading to multiple challenger leagues and franchise relocations. 

Bill Rasmussen

Dubbed “The Father of Cable Sports,” Rasmussen’s revolutionary launch of ESPN forever changed how fans consume sports. As the world’s first 24-hour TV sports network, ESPN became the first cable network to televise regular-season NFL games with “ESPN’s Sunday Night Football” in 1987, and went on to redefine pre- and postgame analysis with shows like “NFL Countdown” and “NFL Primetime.” 

Daniel Reeves

The owner brought a major pro team to the West Coast in 1946 when he moved the franchise from Cleveland, where it was losing vast amounts of money, to Los Angeles, where the team soon prospered. Prior to that, all major sports teams were in the Northeast and Midwest. But under Reeves, the progressive Rams were the first team to have a helmet logo and the first team to set up a comprehensive scouting system. He was also a mentor to one of his employees, Pete Rozelle, who later became commissioner. 

George Richards

A radio executive who was the original owner of the Detroit Lions, Richards bought and relocated the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans in 1934. Though he held on to the team for only six years, Richards merits mention in NFL annals for one monumental contribution — inviting the Bears to town to play on Thanksgiving in 1934, thus hatching a tradition of the Lions playing on the holiday that lives on. 

Jerry Richardson

The first former player turned owner, Richardson improbably beat out more prominent markets to bring the NFL to the Carolinas in 1995 and introduced the concept of personal seat licenses to the league. As owner of the Panthers for 23 years, he became one of the most influential leaders in the game. A trusted voice to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, he chaired the league’s influential stadium committee, which resulted in new or renovated facilities across the country. He was also a major player in labor negotiations, revenue sharing and the owners’ overall agenda. 

Eddie Robinson

The longtime Grambling coach may not have directly influenced the league’s business, but those close to the game point to the fact that the successful college coach provided a pipeline of hundreds of athletes to the sport who played at historically black colleges and universities. 

Photo: Getty images

Dan Rooney

Following in the footsteps of his father, Rooney was a key figure in league operations for 45 years. He became president of the Steelers in 1975 and, together with his dad, created the model franchise emulated by many. While the team had great success on the field, Rooney was a respected, effective, yet quiet leader within league circles. From the early 1970s until his death in 2017, he was a trusted adviser to three commissioners, served on every major committee, developed “The Rooney Rule” and played an especially influential role on labor issues. 

Pete Rozelle

No one had more of an impact on the business of the NFL than Rozelle, who served as Commissioner for nearly 30 years. Virtually every major business initiative started under his watch, from revenue sharing, to expansion, to the Super Bowl, as well as media deals and the development of “Monday Night Football.”  Put simply, he made the NFL what it is today and made the league the crown jewel of global sports.

Ed and Steve Sabol

The father-son duo changed the way football was presented through the creation and growth of NFL Films, capturing games on film and setting highlights to music. Their theatrical approach not only earned NFL Films more than 100 Emmys, it told the NFL’s story through a lens unlike any in sports. 

Photo: Getty images

Tex Schramm

Clint Murchison Jr. founded the Cowboys, but it was Schramm who called the shots as president and general manager. The building of Texas Stadium, the idea to make the Cowboys a Thanksgiving tradition, and introducing a new breed of cheerleaders were moves Schramm orchestrated in the making of “America’s Team.” 

Art Shell

On the short list of best offensive tackles ever, Shell became the first African American head coach in the NFL’s modern era when Al Davis promoted him in 1989. As coach of his old team, Shell oversaw four winning campaigns in five full seasons and cemented his place as an all-time favorite for the passionate Raiders fan base. 

Don Shula

Besides holding career wins for coaching, Shula’s influence on the game — and as a result the business of the game — comes from his 20 years on the league’s competition committee. His views helped shaped how the modern game is played. 

DeMaurice Smith

The former trial lawyer has led the NFLPA since 2009 with an aggressive approach and style. During his tenure, he has stressed player benefits, health and safety, and improved workplace conditions. His confrontational style has not endeared him to everyone, but Smith is unapologetic in advocating for his members. With the 2011 lockout on his watch, the next labor deal will clearly define his legacy. 

Roger Staubach

During the NFL’s explosive growth years of the 1970s, the guiding force of “America’s Team” was one of the biggest, most successful stars. With his low-key, get-it-done approach, he won two Super Bowls and popularized the term “Hail Mary,” describing his prayer as he completed a last-second touchdown pass in the 1975 playoffs. 

Leigh Steinberg

Steinberg became the face of the modern-day sports agent and the dynamic business around the draft, player contracts and corporate endorsements. He represented the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick a record eight times and his high-profile persona served as a role model for a number of young people who went on to become player agents. 

Pat Summerall

Outside of his success on the field, Summerall’s baritone voice provided the soundtrack for an entire generation of NFL fans, including for 16 Super Bowls. He was at NFL Films and also hired by CBS Sports in the early 1960s. His stature was amplified when he was the direct, play-by-play voice who countered the off-the-cuff style of his TV colleague, John Madden. 

Photo: Getty images

Paul Tagliabue

Tagliabue presided over astronomical growth during his 17-year tenure as league commissioner after representing the NFL at Covington & Burling. You can point to a number of major accomplishments during his tenure — stadium development, massive revenue deals, media development and creation of the NFL Network, and expansion into new markets. But those close to the game cite three key legacies of Tagliabue’s leadership — labor peace, free agency and a salary cap. Under Tagliabue’s long-view leadership, the NFL became the model that other leagues looked to and emulated. 

Gene Upshaw

The first African American labor leader in a major sport, Upshaw led the players union for 25 years and was a pivotal figure as the NFL became one of the most successful enterprises in sports. A powerful personality who fought hard for his players, Upshaw was also able to be a principled diplomat in working with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. His legacy is complicated by disgruntled retired players who felt Upshaw didn’t do enough for them or provide long-term benefits. 

Arch Ward

A former sports editor and sports promoter, Ward created the College All-Star Game, which was a preseason showcase from 1934-76 between the NFL champions and a team of college all-star seniors. The event was a high-profile presentation of talent that was both competitive and a box office hit until enthusiasm began to erode over fear of player injuries. 

Sonny Werblin

A successful sports and entertainment executive, Werblin owned the New York Titans of the AFL and changed the team’s name to the Jets. He spent heavily to get Joe Namath to pass on the NFL and sign with the Jets, giving instant credibility to the AFL. Later in his life, he built the Meadowlands Sports Complex, which he ran from 1971-77. 

Reggie White

White was a feared pass rusher during the 1980s and ‘90s, earning 13 All-Pro selections and two defensive player of the year nods. And he was one of the biggest names in a 1992 lawsuit that allowed players to ascertain their value on the open market, which led to free agency in the NFL. 

Ralph Wilson

One of the group of owners who founded the AFL and a force in the AFL-NFL merger, Wilson founded the Bills, brought pro sports to Buffalo in 1959 and owned the team for more than 50 years. Seen as an unselfish, modest owner loyal to Western New York, Wilson was a longtime advocate for small-market teams, revenue sharing and focusing on fans — never voting for one franchise relocation. Wilson was known for keeping his word, sticking up for tradition and believing in the alignment of ownership for the strength of the league.

Wilfred “Bill” Winkenbach

Winkenbach was a contractor and minority owner of the Oakland Raiders, but he is much more famous for something else. In 1962 Winkenbach and several cohorts launched what’s widely accepted as the first fantasy football league in history, the Greater Oakland Professional Pigskin Prognosticators League. 

Photo: Jake Dean

John Wooten

Best known during his playing days as the left guard who opened holes for Jim Brown, Wooten has made an even greater impact since retiring. He broke down barriers first as an African American front-office executive and, since 2003, as chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, an advocacy group focused on the development and advancement of minority football coaches and executives. 

Buddy Young

One of the shortest men (5-4) to play in the NFL, Young had a 10-year career as a halfback in the league. But his legacy was that he became the first African American to work in the league office — or any major sports league — when he became director of player relations in 1964.

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