The NFL, Post-Tagliabue
By Matthew Boyle

(Fortune Magazine) -- When the National Football League's 87th season kicks off Sept. 7 in Pittsburgh, the league's erstwhile commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, will be packing for a much-deserved vacation in China. The quest to replace him has turned into the wildest executive search of the summer.

Since Tagliabue announced in March that he would step down after an impressive 17-year tenure marked by soaring franchise values, peaceful labor relations, and increasingly lucrative television deals, 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 USC's Sports Business Institute.

The NFL's hiring of headhunter firm Korn/Ferry hasn't quelled the blather. After besting Spencer Stuart and Heidrick & Struggles for the prestige assignment (which pays roughly $1 million), Korn/Ferry interviewed all 32 team owners, compiling a wish list with more than 100 names. Jeb Bush and Condoleezza Rice have been discussed, as have more plausible boldfacers such as former FCC head Michael Powell, Atlanta Falcons GM Rich McKay, and CBS 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, vs. GE's seven). With revenues of $5.8 billion last year, it would easily crack the FORTUNE 500, were it a public entity.

And challenges loom: The players and owners can choose to opt out of their labor agreement in 2008. If all goes smoothly - unlikely, with 32 opinionated owners - the next commissioner will be crowned in Chicago on Aug. 9, after four finalists get grilled by the owners during a three-day selection meeting. A two-thirds vote is needed to win.

The smart money right now is on COO Roger Goodell, Tagliabue's longtime consigliere. (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 former partner at Goldman Sachs, 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. Tagliabue was a dark horse back in 1989. And his predecessor, Pete Rozelle, slipped in only after a seven-day, 23-ballot showdown.  Top of page