Commissioner using Super Bowl as leverage

Updated: March 23, 2005, 7:44 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

What do you get when you combine "The Godfather" with "Field of Dreams"?

Paul Tagliabue.

Paraphrasing only slightly, the NFL commissioner, like fictitious Iowa farmer Ray Kinsella, keeps hearing a whispered mantra, Build it and we will come, rattling around in his cranium. When it comes to squeezing out financing for a new stadium project in his league, Tagliabue suddenly morphs into Vito Corleone, ready and willing to make an offer some allegedly cash-strapped metropolis simply can't refuse.

That offer, the promise of hosting a Super Bowl game in exchange for a state-of-the-art football facility, has become the ultimate element of leverage for the commissioner. On Tuesday in Maui, mixing pineapples with politics and mai tais with muscle, Tagliabue dangled the 24-karat carrot once again.

Paul Tagliabue
Paul Tagilabue was forced to finally give in to the demands of the players.

The eight members of the league's Super Bowl advisory committee voted unanimously Tuesday to conditionally award 2010's Super Bowl XLIV (that's No. 44 for the Roman numeral-challenged among us) to New York City. On Wednesday, the 32 owners, perhaps in yet another unanimous show of support, will endorse the motion. The condition, fittingly, since it's the Big Apple we're talking about here, is a rather hefty one.

Give the New York Jets, relegated to writing rent checks to cover their tenancy at Giants Stadium for the better part of two decades now, a new home of their own in Manhattan. Carry forward the dream of Jets owner Woody Johnson, a man desperate for a stadium he doesn't have to share, and who needs the Super Bowl as a bargaining chip to secure it.

A rather novel idea, right, restoring the New York component to a franchise that, like the city's other NFL team, plays its "home" games in the heart of the New Jersey swampland? More than merely novel, however, the gambit is also an acid test for just how the mighty clout of the NFL, with Tagliabue as the embodiment of the power base the league has expanded during his stewardship, measures up in what has become a fierce and politically charged environment.

The league, dangling the Super Bowl as its high-profile tease, has injected itself into local stadium debates before. And subtlety has rarely been the method of choice. Most times, the NFL has prevailed, as evidenced by new facilities either completed or currently under construction in Arizona, Detroit, Houston and Tampa, Fla., among others. All of those new arenas either have hosted or will soon host a Super Bowl game.

In fact, mention the term Super Bowl to city fathers agonizing over where they will scare up the requisite appropriations, and the next sound you characteristically hear is a convoy of bulldozers revving their engines. The Super Bowl promise, essentially, is the mechanical rabbit in front of the greyhounds. Just set it loose and everyone scurries madly to get a piece of it.

On occasion, as when owners awarded a Super Bowl to San Francisco contingent upon construction of a new stadium, the dicey roll turned up snake eyes. San Francisco is still waiting, and might be until either hell or the Bay freezes over, for the replacement to an aging 3Com (now Monster, nee Candlestick) Park to be erected. And, thus, still waiting for the right to host a Super Bowl.

Oh, sure, there was the game at nearby Stanford Stadium in 1985, Super Bowl XIX, but that was 20 years and too many memories ago.

It has been suggested that, in dangling the NFL's crown jewel and awarding the game to those cities that see fit to construct sparkling new football castles in which to house it, the commissioner has acted in a somewhat tawdry manner. We disagree. When Tagliabue succeeded legendary Pete Rozelle in 1989, there had been only one stadium built in the past decade. His legion critics, those who find him dismissive and aloof, might not like this, but Tagliabue deserves credit for his vision. He understood the importance of landing new playhouses for franchises whose stadiums were in disrepair.

Sixteen years later, it is still television rights fees that fill the NFL's coffers, for sure. But it is the increase in stadium-related revenues, most of those new monies generated by all the new facilities in the league, that have made the most notable difference.

The Jets still have hurdles before construction can start for their proposed stadium in Manhattan.

So we have no problem anymore with Tagliabue, who isn't as adept as his predecessor in crafting a consensus but who better comprehends the harsh realties of back-room politics, using the Super Bowl carrot as a means to an end. The selling of the Super Bowl? Sure, in some cases, that's precisely what it is. And, in many cases, that's exactly what it has taken to finish a stadium deal.

For all his button-down demeanor, Tagliabue knows how to get down to the basics, and isn't above doing so. In the pre-Patrick Ewing era, the commissioner left Georgetown as the career leader in rebounds. It's a grunt job, cleaning the boards when you don't play above the rim, and you've got to get a little nasty in the paint once in a while. Long after he put away his Converse All Stars, Tagliabue can still deliver a sharpened elbow to the solar plexus when need be.

But the deal in New York -- in which the Jets' ability to land a new stadium, and thus a Super Bowl, is a down and dirty exercise -- is one in which the NFL already is more than a little sullied. The Jets must first secure the 13-acre tract of land at the West End rail yards site, the sprawling plot adjacent to the Javits Convention Center, where they would build a 75,000-seat stadium complete with retractable roof.

The problem: There are a lot of people, principal among them the Dolan family, who oppose the move. A lot of the opponents are well-intentioned and have (or at least purport to have) real-life reasons why the stadium shouldn't go there and why the state should not invest funds that might be better spent on things such as schools and parks. The motive of the Dolan family, however, is notably more narrow.

The Dolans own Cablevision which, basically, owns legendary Madison Square Garden. The family views a new stadium as a threat, a fresh new entity that could host all of the circuses and concerts and, who knows, truck pulls, for which MSG currently provides a roof. Oh, yeah, we should also note that the Dolan family once bid (unsuccessfully) for the Cleveland Browns expansion franchise. More pertinent is the fact that the Dolans were the runners-up to Woody Johnson in the purchase of the Jets from the estate of the late Leon Hess.

A bit of an ax to grind with the NFL? Uh, one might say so. And so the Dolan family has done its best to scuttle the plans of the Jets and, thus, of the NFL. The stadium is also the centerpiece of New York's attempt to land the Olympics in 2012. No stadium and, likely, no chance of landing the Games.

But it is football, not fencing, that is at the heart of the stadium debate. A longtime New York friend acknowledged the other day that few citizens discuss the stadium in terms of the Olympics. All the talk is of the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets. And it is the Dolan family's problem with the Jets and the NFL, one can be sure, that motivates the Dolans to derail things.

The Super Bowl promise, essentially, is the mechanical rabbit in front of the greyhounds. Just set it loose and everyone scurries madly to get a piece of it.

When the Jets bid $100 million for the West End rail-yards tract currently owned by the Metropolitan Transit Authority, Cablevision raised the ante to $600 million. Earlier this week, on the deadline day for making bids, the Jets, with some help from developers who would add a residential component to the stadium blueprints, submitted a huge proposal of $720 million for the land. No word yet on the Cablevision bid, which is sealed, but it won't be surprising if it tops $1 billion.

There figures to be substantial hand-wringing, plenty of suspense -- and much politicking -- before the MTA announces the winning bid, which could be as early as March 31. The NFL and Tagliabue long ago weighed in on where they stand. A few weeks ago, the NFL moved the site of the draft from Madison Square Garden, the edifice managed by the Dolan family, to the Javits Center, next door to the stadium site. And a league spokesman readily acknowledged the NFL's political motivations.

It is compelling stuff, this parochial battle over land and usage being waged in a tense and high-profile environment. Heck no, it's not as riveting as a fourth-and-goal play from the 1-yard line. But for the Jets, the NFL and, yeah, for Tagliabue, it might be every bit as important. This is, after all, the ultimate political football. It is more about a squeeze play than a draw play, more about influence peddling than selling the play-fake well enough to freeze the linebackers.

Build the new stadium for the Jets and Super Bowl XLIV, as officially promised this week, will come. But whether Tagliabue's offer is too good to refuse remains to be seen.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

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