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Tagliabue says his job is finished

Labor peace will go down as the greatest accomplishment of Paul Tagliabue's tenure as commissioner of the National Football League.

So it was entirely fitting and not at all surprising that the leader of America's most popular sport decided to ride off into the sunset Monday, just 12 days after striking a labor deal that averted the biggest potential crisis of his career.

Tagliabue, 65, announced his 17-year reign atop the NFL will end with his retirement in July.

"I'd have to say that turning around the relationship and building a strong relationship with the players association would be the thing I'm most proud of," Tagliabue said in a conference call Monday afternoon. "I think everyone involved in the NFL in the '80s saw that as a growing negative. . . . To make the players into partners with the collective bargaining agreement, I think that's a very positive thing."

The NFL signed a new six-year extension of its collective bargaining agreement with its players union two weeks ago. That deal averted a potential work stoppage and came after six months of hard negotiations, as Tagliabue worked not only to strike a compromise with the players but also to get the league's 32 owners to share more of their vast wealth.

With the short-term future stabilized -- the extension provides for labor peace through 2011 -- Tagliabue decided his job had ended.

"I believe that now is a positive time to make the transition to a new commissioner," Tagliabue said.

"We've got the best labor deal in sports," said Dan Rooney, owner of the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. "We've got the best league. He's been our leader. The whole way he's done this has been wonderful."

By every measure, the NFL has enhanced its standing as the nation's top sports entertainment enterprise since Tagliabue took over.

League-wide revenues were $975 million in 1989. This year they are expected to reach $5.7 billion. The National Basketball Association made about $3 billion in revenue in 2004. Major League Baseball made about $4.1 billion in 2004.
The value of the league's franchises also has soared. The average value of an NFL team is estimated at $820 million, according to Forbes Magazine, as opposed to about $100 million in '89. The average value of a major league baseball team is about $330 million.

While other sports have struggled to divide revenues with players and create a level playing field for teams, the NFL has enjoyed comparative tranquility. Labor problems caused baseball to cancel the World Series in 1994, the NBA to cut short its season in 1998-99 and the National Hockey League to wipe out all of last season. The NFL rolls along. The league had work stoppages in 1982 and 1987 under former Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Upon taking office, Tagliabue consolidated control of labor negotiations in his office and forged a close relationship with Gene Upshaw, head of the NFL Players Association. Those two, with the help of numerous owners, struck a landmark labor deal in 1993 that created free agency with a salary cap to allow for a relatively equal distribution of player costs league-wide. Putting a firm cap on player costs helped continue parity among teams and is the most significant thing he accomplished that benefited the Buffalo Bills franchise.

Then in 1994 came a financial windfall that wasn't Tagliabue's doing. With the league set to accept a new television deal with flat revenues, the Fox television network entered the bidding and the NFL got a 20 percent increase in TV revenues. Television deals have continued to climb, and television money now brings the league $3.7 billion a year.

While acknowledging Tagliabue's success at the labor table, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. has not been one of the commissioner's staunchest allies over the years.

"The commissioner's announcement today was a bit of a surprise in that it came so quickly following the new CBA deal," Wilson said in a statement released by the Bills. "He has worked hard over the years, and I want to wish Paul and his wife Chan all the best in his retirement."

Wilson and some other small-market owners in the NFL believe Tagliabue could have taken a more assertive approach over the years to influence the wealthiest teams to operate with the good of all clubs in mind. The wealthiest teams have roughly double the revenue of the lowest-revenue teams, and it's an issue that is not going away. Wilson voted against the latest CBA extension.

Wilson also is not a fan of what is called the NFL's "G-3" program, in which all teams contribute to a fund that helps support the construction of new stadiums around the league. They also take on large amounts of debt in the process.

That program, initiated by Tagliabue, has helped produce a mushrooming of new facilities. Twenty-three of the 32 teams are either playing in or building stadiums that didn't exist when he took over in 1989.

The struggle between large and small markets was Tagliabue's most difficult challenge the past year. It's one of the reasons he has referred to negotiating with the 32 owners as "herding cats."

Tagliabue came to power because he was Rozelle's chief legal aide for almost two decades.

"I think over the years we've accomplished a lot of things," Tagliabue said. "Certainly the expansion of the league to 32 teams, the growth in the popularity of the sport, and the quality of the game growing out of the CBA and the fact we didn't have any season interrupted by strikes or lockouts, all those things are very, very important."

There figures to be a battle over who will be Tagliabue's successor.

The top two candidates appear to be Roger Goodell, Tagliabue's right-hand man, and Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay.

Goodell, 47, holds the title of executive vice president and chief operating officer of the NFL. He is a native of Jamestown and has worked for the NFL since 1984. Goodell's father, the late Charles E. Goodell, was a U.S. senator from New York. Another candidate is Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass.

e-mail: mgaughan@buffnews.com

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