It’s hard to definitively say if there’s an NFL owner smarter than Seattle’s Paul Allen. There isn’t one wealthier, more successful or more well-known for his accomplishments.
His place in the NFL, then, can be instructive.
In the Seahawks’ 30 seasons before Allen bough the team, they won one division title and made the playoffs four times, making zero trips to the Super Bowl. Since Allen purchased the franchise for $200 million in 1996 (the franchise is worth a dozen times that now), the team has won nine divisions titles, reached three Super Bowls and won one. A new stadium opened in 2002, with a practice facility to follow in ’08. Both were the envy of the NFL.
Yet Allen—a great businessman and owner, by any measure—remains a non-entity at the league level, something he chooses to be.
Power in America’s most powerful sports league isn’t given. The members of one of the most exclusive clubs on the planet have to earn their stripes amongst their peers out on the course before they can swing a big stick in the clubhouse. And that starts with a very simple-to-see trait: Desire. Whether old guard or new, the owner has to want it—and there are owners in the NFL with the smarts and business acumen to wield a specific kind of pull, but simply choose not to.
“Number one, I’d agree, is desire and how active they want to be,” said one team president. “[Baltimore’s] Steve Bisciotti’s another good example. He could have clout, but he’s just not active.”
So how does a billionaire take it to the next level in the NFL? Sometimes legacy plays into making an owner an influencer—such is the case with Kansas City’s Clark Hunt, Pittsburgh’s Art Rooney and Giants’ John Mara. But where do the league’s newer owners start? Let’s break it down into five general areas.
Growing your influence in the NFL begins at the same place as in most industries—relationship-building. That starts with the senior staff at the NFL office and peers in franchise ownership, and it needs to grow into an ability to lobby others and access information that many can’t. Ancillary relationships matter too, especially those with bankers and sponsors and power brokers in broadcasting. You do that, and you become important to managing the league’s assets—New England’s Robert Kraft’s relationships in the television world, with people like CBS’s Les Moonves have been vital—which makes you essential to others.
The second piece is winning the respect of the room. One way to do that is through on-field success, and another is to show business acumen in turning a football also-ran into financial powerhouse—Washington’s Dan Snyder was there, until a few years ago.
The third step is becoming active in the room, which means finding your way on to committees, and then rising within them. The competition committee is considered the most prestigious, because of its mixed company and the smaller size. The CEC, which handles labor negotiations, holds similar prestige and probably leapfrogs the competition committee at CBA negotiation time when it comes to importance. The finance committee, covering a bread-and-butter area for many owners, is third.
The fourth level is local prominence. Some of this can be built through family, but you don’t have to be a Hunt or a Rooney or a Mara. It can come through brand prominence or revenue prominence locally, or it can be as a gatekeeper to important figures in other businesses. For example, San Francisco’s Jed York is the NFL’s face in a market piled high with people in tech who are ultimately important to the league’s future.
Finally owners need to have an area of expertise. Dallas’s Jerry Jones’ marketing expertise and instincts for taking risk turned him from maverick to mogul two decades ago. New England’s Jonathan Kraft is building up political capital now with his vision for the future of the league from a digital standpoint.
A handful of owners already occupy that first tier from a power and influence standpoint: Jones, Kraft, Mara, Rooney and Hunt. Behind them there are a number of owners knocking on the door—most notably, Atlanta’s Arthur Blank, who serves on a half-dozen committees (including finance) and chairs two (including compensation, which pays commissioner Roger Goodell), is already filling parts of the void that the outgoing—and very active—Panthers owner Jerry Richardson leaves.
Houston’s Bob McNair was climbing the ladder before health issues arose and he became more outspoken on the anthem issue. Denver’s Pat Bowlen was too, before he got sick. Conversely, Philadelphia’s Jeffrey Lurie’s profile has grown.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke lurks as influential-by-action owner—he took care of the NFL’s two-decade-old Los Angeles problem, and the league’s network will be housed on his grounds. Whether or not he winds up in the background like Allen or Bisciotti, where he seems more comfortable, remains to be seen. Jacksonville’s Shad Khan is someone to watch going forward, as well. His rise happened quickly—peers respect how he built his fortune. Khan remains hands-on in running his businesses, and he’s been given a lead role in how the NFL is doing its business in London, to the point to where some wonder if his franchise will wind up there.
Some envisioned a similar rise for well-liked Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam, but that’s been derailed, to some degree, due to his team’s struggles on the field. He, like Khan, wanted to be involved, but his rise has been slower than some envisioned. And that’s why the sixth piece in the process—longevity—matters. Owners’ credentials are built over time.
Carolina’s promising new owner David Tepper, who many fellow owners have high hopes for, will have to earn his voice in the room and his influence over the direction of the NFL—it won’t happen instantly.
That’s assuming, of course, he makes the choice to go through that process.