NFL Commish: After Tags, who's it?
The high-profile search for a new NFL commissioner is like the American Idol of the sports world.
By Matthew Boyle, FORTUNE writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- When the National Football League's 87th season kicks off on Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh, the league's erstwhile commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, will be packing for a much-deserved vacation to China.

The quest to replace him has turned into the wildest executive search of the summer.

Tagliabue announced in March that he would step down after an impressive 17-year tenure marked by soaring franchise values, peaceful labor relations, increasingly lucrative television deals, and the booming popularity of a game that might not be America's pastime but is certainly America's passion.

Star search

Since then, everyone from Bill Clinton to Sean "Diddy" Combs has been mentioned for the job. This is "the sports-business version of American Idol," says David Carter, head of the University of Southern California's Sports Business Institute.

The NFL's hiring of headhunter Korn/Ferry has helped fuel the fire. After besting Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles (Charts) for the prestige assignment (which pays roughly $1 million), Korn/Ferry interviewed all 32 team owners who will ultimatly vote on who gets the job, compiling a wish list with over 100 names.

Florida Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made that list, as did more plausible boldface names such as former FCC head Michael Powell, Atlanta Falcons General Manager Rich McKay, and CBS (Charts) honcho Sean McManus.

Despite the hype, the NFL expects to land a serious exec. The league has a remarkable tradition of management stability - since 1946, it's had only three leaders, compared with the seven that General Electric (Charts) has had.

With revenues of $5.8 billion last year, the NFL would easily crack the FORTUNE 500, were it a public entity. But challenges loom: The players and owners can opt out of their current labor agreement in 2008, and the NFL has still not figured out how to re-enter the Los Angeles market.

Today in Detroit, the eight-man search committee, headed by Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, will present a list of between eight and 10 semi-finalists to all of the team owners. That will be whittled down to four contenders.

If all goes smoothly - which is unlikely considering that we're talking about 32 wealthy, opinionated owners - the next commissioner will be crowned in Chicago on Aug. 9, after the four finalists get grilled by the owners during a three-day selection meeting. A two-thirds vote is needed to win.

The favorites

The smart money right now is on COO Roger Goodell, Tagliabue's longtime consigliere, who began working for the league right out of college in 1982. (The owner of one big-market team told FORTUNE that Goodell will get his vote.)

Another strong contender could be the NFL's finance whiz, Eric Grubman, a whip-smart former partner at Goldman Sachs (Charts), who worked on the sale of the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets for the bank before joining the league in 2004. Jeffrey Pash, the NFL's top lawyer, is also in the running.

But if history is any guide, the favorite will not be the winner. "It could be someone we haven't got a clue about," says Ken Shropshire, the director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative who has close ties to the league. Tagliabue was a dark horse back in 1989. And his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, slipped in only after a seven day, 23-ballot showdown.

Whoever emerges, today's vast NFL operations require a commissioner with knowledge of everything from labor relations to broadcast and cable networks, real estate, emerging technologies, and international marketing.

But more than anything else, the eventual successor will have to be a deft communicator and world-class consensus builder if he hopes to survive in such a fractious environment. Longtime NFL owner Art Modell once equated the commissioner's role to that of "a mother hen," and the comparison still holds.

"The biggest thing that Tagliabue and Rozelle had was an ability to get a group of wealthy, largely big-ego individuals to agree on things and move forward," says Shropshire. That requires someone who is "part diplomat and part monarch," adds Dean Bonham, president of Denver-based sports marketing consultancy The Bonham Group.

Tagliabue's diplomatic skills were evident during the most recent labor agreement, which passed in March with only two "no" votes. Despite that, some small-market teams reportedly felt they got the short end of the stick, so assuaging those concerns going forward will be crucial.

"The rift between the teams at different ends of the economic spectrum has been growing wider," says analyst David Haber of MZ Sports, a sports-focused investment boutique.

As with any CEO - or football team, for that matter - another important task is finding the best players to fill key positions. Tagliabue's success is due in no small part to the sharp minds around him, like Goodell, Pash, Grubman, chief labor negotiator Harold Henderson, and Steve Bornstein, the former president of ESPN and ABC who's running the fledgling NFL Network.

If an outsider is elected, it's a safe bet that Goodell, and maybe some others, will not hang around, requiring the new commish to assemble a cabinet while learning the business on the fly.

Whether it's Goodell, Grubman, or a player to be named later, the first few months in office will be critical. Both Rozelle and Tagliabue were able to silence doubters early on with bold moves and strong leadership.

"The overall challenge is to keep the boat afloat and in a straight line," says longtime IMG uber-agent Barry Frank. "In other words, don't f--- it up." Top of page