NORTHBROOK, Ill. — Roger Goodell on Tuesday was elected commissioner of the NFL, and will assume the formidable challenge of matching his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, one of the most successful sports executives in U.S. history.
Goodell, 47, most recently the NFL's chief operating officer, spent more than 20 years in the league's front office and he emerged in recent weeks as the clear front-runner for the job.
He prevailed on the fifth round of balloting by NFL owners. Sources said that Goodell, who needed 22 of 32 votes, got 23, topping four other finalists, including the league's chief outside lawyer, Gregg Levy.
Goodell will become only the fourth NFL commissioner since the end of World War II. Moments after his election was announced, Goodell said, "I'm very fortunate, and I know that. I've spent my life following my passion."
Throughout his career, Goodell said he's believed that "the game of football is the most important thing and we can't lose focus on that. That's why the fans love the NFL. We have to keep producing that and giving them that."
Although pro football is a game, it is also a big business and Goodell's selection reinforces the NFL's ongoing business strategies. Goodell's election validates "the last 17 years of leadership under Paul Tagliabue and the strength of the NFL as a business and a sports property," said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp, a leading Chicago-based consultant.
Tagliabue became NFL commissioner in 1989. During his tenure, the league's total revenue soared to $6.5 billion annually. Much of that was because of TV revenue skyrocketing, from less than $5 million in 1989 to $3.7 billion per year now, with a slew of TV deals in place through 2011. The NFL this year also struck a controversial new labor deal with players, through 2011; Goodell played a key role in negotiations.
Goodell and Tagliabue have not worked out a timetable to formally transfer authority to the new commissioner, but it will happen before the start of the regular season, both said. Goodell will have a five-year contract.
By selecting Goodell, owners get an executive who knows them -- a key factor in the relationship-driven NFL. "It's a great sense of continuity," New England owner Robert Kraft said.
Goodell's choice continues a league tradition; the NFL has never named a commissioner from the outside. Tagliabue called Goodell "extremely well prepared" and predicted he "should do very well."
NFL owners also picked a seasoned businessman in Goodell who has experience in one of the most persistent challenges facing the league -- how, if at all, to put a team back in the Los Angeles area. The nation's No. 2 television market has been without an NFL team since the Rams and Raiders left after the 1994 season.
Goodell has for years played a leading role in that effort. The league in May authorized spending of up to $10 million for design and engineering studies at the Coliseum and outside Angel Stadium in Anaheim, the two possible NFL sites now under consideration.
Each project is projected to cost about $800 million. That figure has given pause to some influential team owners.
Asked Tuesday about the next step for the NFL in Southern California, Goodell said with a smile: "I just got the job 10 minutes ago."
Tagliabue, long a proponent of the NFL returning to L.A., announced in March that he wanted to retire.
During the Tagliabue era, the league expanded to 32 teams and 11 won Super Bowls, a measure of competitive balance. About two dozen stadiums were built or renovated, a figure that includes facilities now in the planning stage, as in Dallas and Indianapolis.
Such successes have positioned the NFL to consider its next big-picture moves -- in particular, how to expand the game in Europe, Latin America and Asia, especially in China, and how to compete as the entertainment industry shifts to the digital age.
This year, Tagliabue observed that "the face of professional sports will probably change as much in the next 10 or 15 years as it's changed in the last 30 to 50 years, and I think a lot of that change is going to be driven by the digital media [and] the internationalization of sports."
Goodell, the son of a former U.S. congressman and senator, knows virtually every facet of league operations. Starting as a public relations intern in 1982, he worked his way up to become chief operating officer in 2001, and was the league's point man on expansion, stadium construction and labor issues.
His election Tuesday capped a process entirely unlike the one that saw Tagliabue take over in 1989 from Pete Rozelle, which involved 12 ballots over several months. (Rozelle was elected as a compromise choice in 1960 after an even more tortured 23 ballots.)
After Tagliabue announced his retirement plans, an eight-owner search committee was created that was led by Carolina owner Jerry Richardson and Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney.