We present the 10 most influential people in the NFL, the ones who have made it the most successful pro league around

The powers that be: we present the 10 most influential people in the NFL, the ones who have made it the most successful pro league around

Vito Stellino

BY VIRTUALLY ANY MEASURE, the NFL is the nation’s most successful pro sports league. It gets the best TV ratings and the best TV contracts. It has turned the Super Bowl into a national holiday. It fills the majority of its stadiums. It has labor peace. It has revenue sharing and a salary cap.

In short, owning an NFL team is like having a license to print money.

Yet the NFL still faces challenges. After all, there’s no guarantee that the league Will sustain its success. Consider baseball’s plight. Fifty years ago, it was unchallenged as the national pastime, while the NFL was struggling to find an audience. Now, though, those roles have been somewhat reversed. In its 83rd season, the NFL has come a long way from the days when George Halas and his buddies founded the league in a Hupmobile showroom in Canton, Ohio.

Who are the men who have determined the NFL’s current popularity, and who will guide the league into the future? We have compiled a list of the NFL’s 10 most influential people. Here’s a look:


Upshaw, the head of the NFL players association, might be called the Real Commissioner. He showed his leadership qualities when he convened a conference call of the player reps two days after 9/11. Once they voted against playing the following Sunday, there wasn’t much doubt that Paul Tagliabue would have to bow to their wishes. Upshaw took a union that was on the verge of collapse, kept it together, and won free agency. He agreed to a salary cap to get free agency, but that has helped keep all the teams on an equal footing and given the league the labor peace that has enabled both the owners and players to prosper.

Upshaw quietly has helped the players on the bottom end of the pay scale by negotiating higher minimum salaries. Just as important, Upshaw poured money into benefits. He also agreed to testing for steroids, a move that leveled the playing field for those who didn’t use them. He understands the importance of being virtual partners with the league instead waging war. Without Upshaw, it’s unlikely the NFL would be the money machine it is today. Put it this way: Baseball’s union bosses could learn a thing or two from Upshaw.


When Jones bought the Dallas Cowboys in 1989 and fired Tom Landry, he said he was going to run everything from “socks to jocks.” Today, nobody can question how serious he was about doing just that. Jones is easily the best marketing man and the best salesman in the league. He has now taken over the marketing of the Cowboys instead of keeping that task under the league umbrella. He’s a member of two of the most important committees in the league–the management council executive committee and the broadcasting committee–and, along with New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft, was a major player in negotiating the last TV contract. The league’s newer owners go to him for advice on how to run their teams. Jones’ one weakness is that he won’t stick to his ownership duties. Instead, he insists on also running the football side of the operation.


The owner of the Patriots is a member of the powerful broadcasting committee. He had a big role in securing an eight-year TV contract back in 1998, when the economy was booming. The networks are now losing millions on the deal, but they’re locked in. If the NFL had received the usual four- or five-year deal, which would have expired this year or next year, it would have been negotiating in a soft economy. Now it has three more years, which should be enough time for the economy to turn around. Kraft also got a new stadium built for his Patriots after becoming frustrated and almost going to Hartford. His hiring of coach Bill Belichick, which looked like a shaky move at the time, wound up being a home run. The Patriots won the Super Bowl last season while doing a good job of handling the salary cap.


The NFL commissioner presides over an era of peace and prosperity. That makes the owners happy because he puts money in their pockets. He’d rank higher on the list, though, if he had more vision and was more of a leader. Tagliabue simply doesn’t compare to Pete Rozelle, the gold standard for league commissioners. On Tagliabue’s watch, the NFL wound up without a team in the nation’s second-largest market, Los Angeles. And after the tragedy of 9/11, he was slow in making the inevitable decision that the NFL couldn’t play the following week. Not until the players took matters into their own hands did he call off the games. Tagliabue is a master at running to the front of a parade and then acting as if he were leading it. He goes whichever way the wind is blowing and appears to have few strong convictions of his own. But like we said, the NFL is enjoying amazing success right now, and Tagliabue deserves at least a little of the credit for that.


Banner, the president of the Philadelphia Eagles, has put together a model for building a winning team while staying comfortably under the salary cap. He has coach Andy Reid identify the players who are going to be part of the team’s future and then locks them up before they become free agents. When a player such as Jeremiah Trotter balks at such an arrangement, the Eagles aren’t afraid to cut him. They just didn’t feel he was worth what he was asking, which is why they allowed him to sign with the Washington Redskins in the offseason. Determining the value of a player is one of the most important jobs in the league, and Banner does that better than any other executive. The Eagles never panic and overpay to secure any one player.


The head of Disney has been under fire because the company’s stock price has dropped in recent years. Still, as the owner of ABC-TV and ESPN, Disney controls “Monday Night Football” and “Sunday Night Football,” two prime-time properties that carry enormous importance for the league. When the current TV contract expires after the 2005 season, Eisner will have to decide how much money Disney is willing to pay to retain MNF and SNF. The league will be looking for an increase in revenue, and Eisner’s decision on the matter will have far-reaching ramifications.


At 70, Rooney is one of the most respected owners in the league. The long-time Pittsburgh Steelers owner has played a major role in labor negotiations over the years and helped break the deadlock in 1989 when the owners were split on the issue of selecting a new commissioner to replace Pete Rozelle. He recently was the driving force behind realigning the league into four eight-team divisions. He was able to come up with a plan that satisfied most of the owners, which was no small task. Besides his role in league matters, he helped the Steelers make a smooth transition into the salary cap era and set the stage for the building of a new stadium in Pittsburgh.


This ESPN mainstay is an unabashed cheerleader for the league, which doesn’t give him a lot of journalistic integrity. Still, he connects with the younger generation. For that younger audience the NFL craves, Berman is a household name. With Berman as the ringleader, ESPN’s Sunday morning pregame show is the industry standard, although critics call it an infomercial for the league. He’s no Howard Cosell, but the NFL prefers a less controversial type such as Berman at the broadcasting helm.


In his second year as the director of officials, Pereira is performing a critical function for the league, even if the average fan never has heard of him. The league obviously must make sure it’s officiating is topnotch, which is why Pereira’s job is so crucial. He’s trying to improve the morale of the officials, which eroded during the regime of nitpicking Jerry Seeman. Seeman caused the officials to become too tentative because he always was looking for the perfect game. Pereira, on the other hand, is more of a people person, as well as a better leader. In his first year, he handled the lockout well, managing not to alienate his troops. He also introduced such innovations as having the officials meet in training camp with the writers to give the scribes a better understanding of how a game is called.


Madden has become such a successful broadcaster that a whole generation has grown up not knowing he once was a Super Bowl-winning coach for the Oakland Raiders. This year he took on his toughest booth assignment yet, joining Al Michaels on “Monday Night Football.” The one thing Madden has going for him is that he’s not Dennis Miller, who was totally miscast in his role as an MNF analyst. The powers that be at ABC are expecting him to end the program’s seven-year slide in the ratings. However, the root of that ratings decline can’t be traced to the booth. The salary cap has delivered so much parity to the NFL that it doesn’t have the national attractions it did when teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, and San Francisco 49ers were at their zenith. Madden shouldn’t get the blame if he can’t single-handedly raise MNF’s ratings, but he’ll certainly receive a lot of the credit if they do go up.

Power Line

YOU HAVE THE LOW-DOWN on the current crop of NFL power brokers. This marks the third time since 1995 that we’ve listed the league’s most influential people. As you’ll see below, a lot of names have changed since we compiled our first list. However, there has been one constant: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has ranked at or near the top each time. Here’s a look at our compilation of the game’s most influential people from 1995 and then ’98:


1. Jerry Jones, Cowboys owner. A pivotal player in many of the most important issues of the day.

2. Rupert Murdoch, Fox chairman. Paid unprecedented money to bring the NFL to his network.

3. David Dory, federal judge. Helped bring about collective bargaining agreement in 1992.

4. Carmen Policy, San Francisco 49ers president. A savvy manipulator of the salary cap.

5. Don Shula, Miami Dolphins coach. As co-chairman of the competition committee, the game’s most powerful coach.

6. Jim Quinn, lawyer; John Upshaw, executive director of NFL players association. Two keys to maintaining labor peace.

7. Al Davis, Oakland Raiders owner. The NFL’s ultimate maverick.

8. Dan Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers owner. A voice of reason.

9. Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner. The head of the league, but not the strongest of leaders.

10. John Shaw, St. Louis Rams president. An innovator from a business standpoint.


1. Bob Kraft, New England Patriots owner, The power behind the NFL’s TV bonanza.

2. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL players association. Keeping the peace, as usual.

3. Jerry Jones, Cowboys owner. A marketing whiz.

4. Pat Bowlen, Denver Broncos owner. A winner with the Broncos, as well as a member of various important committees.

5. Dan Rooney, Steelers owner. Still the voice of reason.

6. Jerry Richardson, Carolina Panthers owner. Showed it’s possible to build a stadium with private funds.

7. Paul Tagliabue, NFL commissioner. In the right place at the right time.

8. Leigh Steinberg, NFL player agent. Represented the game’s top stars and devised contracts that circumvented the salary cap.

9. Ron Wolf, Green Bay Packers general manager. His eye for talent was second to none.

10. Jimmy Johnson, Dolphins coach. Had more control over the operation of a team than any other coach in the league.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Century Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group