King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Giants give Wellington Mara a 36-0 send-off, but is the NFL pioneer's greatest legacy in peril?

Published October 31, 2005 5:00PM (EST)

Wellington Mara, who reportedly attended Mass every day, believed that he was going to a better place when he died. The longtime owner of the New York Giants succumbed to cancer Tuesday at the age of 89.

If he was right, he must have spent Sunday watching his emotional and inspired team thump Washington 36-0 and thinking, "Why'd I wait so long?"

But maybe he should have waited a little longer. The greatest element of his legacy is in danger of being weakened by team owners who weren't even born when Mara's bookmaker father bought the team for $2,500 in 1925 -- that sounds like a pittance but accounting for inflation it's more than $27,000! -- and put his son to work as a ballboy.

A small group of owners led by Jerry Jones of Dallas and Daniel Snyder of Washington want to pull back from revenue sharing in the next collective bargaining agreement. Nobody's talking about backing away from sharing TV money equally, but the group of owners of high-revenue teams -- the others are the Houston Texans, New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles -- want to keep more of the fruits of their own marketing efforts.

To borrow a metaphor from another sport, these guys were born at first-and-goal, and they think they drove down the field.

The tributes to Mara in the last week have almost all mentioned his crucial role in the single most important decision in the history of the NFL, the agreement by owners in the 1960s to evenly split all revenues from a single, national television contract.

If you didn't know better you'd think, listening to the tributes, that Mara, the owner of a successful team in the largest market, with the biggest local TV contract, paradoxically came up with the idea of revenue sharing.

In fact, the owners fell into fairly predictable camps when Pete Rozzelle became commissioner in 1960 and began pushing hard for the idea, which was borrowed from maverick baseball men Bill Veeck and Branch Rickey.

Small-market owners wanted to share revenue, while owners of the big-market or more successful teams -- the Giants, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, along with the on-field powerhouse Baltimore Colts -- didn't want to lose the financial advantage they'd built up.

In his excellent history of the NFL rise, "America's Game," Michael MacCambridge writes that Mara had to be persuaded to support revenue sharing by his brother and co-owner, Jack, who had in turn been persuaded by Vince Lombardi, the Giants' former offensive coordinator who had become the coach of the team in the league's then-and-now smallest market, the Green Bay Packers.

What the Packers made in television revenue, the Giants could lose between the sofa cushions and not even know it.

"We should all share, I guess," Wellington Mara said at the owners' meeting in 1961. "Or we're going to lose some of the smaller teams down the line, and we've all stuck together."

Hardly a ringing endorsement, but the important thing was that it was an endorsement. There are a lot of reasons to explain why the NFL rocketed to the top of the American professional sports world starting in the 1960s, but none of them is more important than the revenue sharing that created competitive balance, on the field and off, and gave rise to the league's unofficial slogan, "On any given Sunday ...," the rest of which is that any NFL team can beat any other.

Mara had the vision and the integrity to become a tireless champion of this idea.

It wasn't entirely because of the revenue-sharing deal that the Giants' fortunes faded, but it was also no coincidence that they stopped being a league power shortly after it was made. They'd been a consistent winner for three decades, making something of a specialty of going to the NFL Championship Game and losing, though they did win three of them.

The Giants lost three title games in a row -- two of them to the Packers -- and five in six years through 1963, the second year of the contract with CBS that knocked them off their perch as the richest team because they played in the top TV market. Then they didn't make the playoffs again for 20 years.

Mara never wavered. He knew that in the long run, what was best for the league was best for his team, even if it cost him some money in the short term.

That's a lesson that Jones, who has been fighting the league over control of local revenue for more than a decade, would do well to learn. Yes, it's annoying to work so hard and so well -- Jones turned the franchise around after buying it in lean times 16 years ago -- and then have to turn some of the fruits over to bum teams like the Arizona Cardinals.

"If a team like ours works hard to find revenue sources, other teams can do it, too," Jones told the Associated Press at the owners' meetings last spring. "They just have to be given the incentives to go out and make more rather than get the money others have made."

But that's the cornerstone of the NFL's business model. The teams aren't separate businesses but parts of one big business, actually a cartel. It works. If there are some teams that aren't pulling their weight, there are ways to give them incentive to do so short of blowing up the model.

A question for Jones and Snyder: How's local interest around town when Sunday's opponent is the Packers? Uh-huh. And another: Are people just that excited when your local baseball team is playing the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or the Pittsburgh Pirates. Yeah. Didn't think so. Revenue sharing is the reason for that.

Newer NFL owners argue that they have massive debts from acquiring their teams or building new stadiums to house them, and they need to be able to keep more local revenue to service those debts. The NFL is a different business today than it was 45 years ago, they argue.

It's bigger, but it isn't different. It's still true that what's best for one of them is best for all of them, but only if it benefits all of them. The other sports have watched football rise to the top on that principle while refusing to embrace it themselves. It's a principle that the late Wellington Mara fought for against his own short-term interests.

As Jones and Snyder mourn their fellow owner, they ought to ask themselves: Where would this league be if he'd been more like me? - - - - - - - - - - - -

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