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`Born, Bred' to Be the Commissioner

Working under Rozelle and Tagliabue has helped create a wide appeal for the new boss.

August 09, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Roger Goodell's rise from New York Jets intern to NFL commissioner -- from cutting out newspaper articles to carving out the future of America's most successful sports league -- was both methodical and meteoric.

Goodell, 47, who Tuesday became the league's fourth commissioner elected since World War II, spent more than 20 years climbing the ranks under the late Pete Rozelle, then Paul Tagliabue.

"We've had the two greatest sports commissioners in the history of professional sports, Paul Tagliabue and Pete Rozelle, and I was fortunate to work for both of them," Goodell told reporters after the announcement in Chicago. "I look forward to the challenge and thank them again for their confidence."

Goodell takes over an organization that had more than $6 billion in revenue last year -- the most of any sports league in the world -- and by far draws more television viewers in the U.S. than any other sport.

"The owners knew what was best for them, and ultimately they did the smart thing," said Carmen Policy, former president of the San Francisco 49ers and Cleveland Browns. "It was so obvious that Roger was the right person in the right place at the right time."

But while the league appears to be running in if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it mode, significant challenges are looming. Among them:

* Virtually all NFL owners believe that the new collective-bargaining agreement allows players too rich a share of the gross revenue. Unless the league and players find an agreeable solution, the NFL could be facing another potential labor meltdown within three years.

* The new revenue-sharing system among teams needs to be further refined in a way that promises less contention and resentment between the franchise haves and have nots.

* Not only is the league heading into the 12th season with no team in Los Angeles, the entire California stadium situation is grim. The state has three of the oldest venues in the league, and all three teams -- the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and San Diego Chargers -- are bottom-half earners on the NFL welfare system.

In recent years, Goodell, the league's chief operating officer, was influential in nearly all of the league's financial dealings, including licensing and marketing; labor and television negotiations; the financing of new stadiums; and the sporadic effort to return to the Los Angeles area.

"One of the strongest reasons for Roger's excellent pedigree is he functioned under two great commissioners, both of whom were extremely different," Policy said. "He's learned to operate in conjunction with all kinds of owners, the new guard and the old guard.... He's young enough but old enough."

Saying Goodell "knows every nut and bolt" of NFL deals, former Minnesota Vikings owner Red McCombs called Tuesday's vote among owners of the league's 32 teams a "no-brainer."

"What struck me immediately about Roger is his grasp of issues," McCombs said. "Usually, you find people in management who specialize in one area and don't generally have an overview of the whole picture. If you ever had any questions, you could call Roger."

Although many people believe the NFL has failed to invest the time, energy or resources to truly get to know L.A., Goodell has spent a great deal of time in Southern California since even before the Raiders and Rams left in early 1995. He has even spilled blood for the cause; he needed stitches to close a cut after a heavy model of a proposed Coliseum fell on his leg during a presentation.

"He understands the Los Angeles dilemma perhaps even better than Paul Tagliabue," Policy said. "As much as Paul was intellectually and strategically in favor of developing the L.A. market, Roger was there on a hands-on, day-to-day basis. In my opinion, he'll have that very high on his list of priorities."

Charlie Isgar, a Coliseum executive who has interacted with Goodell since the early 1990s, recalls the future commissioner hopping in a golf cart during a USC football game to tour the grounds and soak in the game-day atmosphere.

"He's not going to get sold a bunch of L.A. hype," Isgar said. "You're going to have to show him."

It was Goodell's thorough understanding of the league and of the L.A. market that won over then-Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley, who a decade ago had dreams of building an NFL stadium in Chavez Ravine. O'Malley, who gave up on the idea when then-mayor Richard Riordan threw his weight behind a Coliseum plan, had hoped to lure Goodell from Park Avenue to the West Coast.

"If we had been successful, the first guy I wanted to run it -- and the only guy on a short list -- was Roger," O'Malley said. "I was going to make a major attempt to get him. No one knows the league better. No one is more honest or bright than he is."

Tim Leiweke, president of AEG, which operates Staples Center and the Home Depot Center, sees the promotion of Goodell as positive news for the L.A. market. However, he cautioned it does not necessarily open the door for an NFL franchise to return.

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