By Ernie Palladino
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I hope that everyone enjoyed watching the Cowboys-Giants game on Wednesday night.
And perhaps when you’re watching the games this weekend, you’ll give a little nod to the man who made possible virtually every NFL telecast we see today.
His name was Art Modell, and he died on Thursday at age 87 after battling with the aftermath of a stroke for several years. Though Modell couldn’t claim credit for all the gadgets and gizmos of today’s television — and maybe he doesn’t want credit for networks like ESPN running every esoteric stat imaginable — he certainly gets credit for the electronic popularity that has garnered the league’s multi-billion dollar contracts for TV rights.
Modell was known to most of us for his moves outside the back rooms of league meetings. He was the owner of the Cleveland Browns, and then he moved the Browns to Baltimore. He was satanized in Cleveland and thus sainted in his new city.
But inside the smoke-filled rooms, Modell was a true mover and shaker. He was a visionary who knew back in the early 1960s that bounce TV received from the 1958 overtime championship game between the Baltimore Colts and Giants could turn into a huge national wave, and that the NFL needed to get a piece of it.
So he and Pete Rozelle set to work to convince owners that not only should the NFL go after national television contracts, but that every team should share the wealth. And profit sharing is the exact reason that today, we see Aaron Rodgers flinging footballs around Lambeau Field in the smallest market in professional sports.
Not all owners were enthralled about sharing the dough, though. The Mara family, co-owners Wellington and brother Jack, weren’t so thrilled with the concept. But Modell and Rozelle worked on Jack, convinced him that this was how the league could prosper and grow, and Jack convinced Wellington to vote yes.
And then in 1970, Modell negotiated a deal to bring football to Monday night.
His final deal with four networks in 1990 brought $3.6 billion into the NFL coffers over four years. That sounds cheap by today’s standards, as the newest nine-year network contract brings in more than $4 billion per year — and that doesn’t include revenues from DirecTV. But back then, as it is now, it was the richest deal ever.
Modell had one other connection to the Giants. Besides twisting the Mara’s arms, he introduced Wellington to Bob Tisch, the multi-billionaire who was looking for a team. The two hit it off, and Tisch bought the half of the team formerly owned by Jack’s son, Tim. Just like that, the Giants went corporate.
Revenues soared, and now the Giants rank as the NFL’s fourth-richest franchise at $1.47 billion.
The Mara‘s became great friends with Modell. After Modell suffered a stroke, Wellington was seen outside his hospital room, praying the rosary.
“Art Modell was a visionary, a dealmaker and a friend,” co-owner Steve Tisch said in a statement. “Our league, my father and our family benefited from his great qualities and foresight. It was Art who formally introduced my father to Wellington Mara, which ultimately led to my father purchasing 50 percent of the Giants franchise. For that, and for Art’s good nature, we will always be grateful.”
Were he alive, Mara would certainly second that statement; not just for the friendship he and Modell shared, but because Modell helped make him — and all the other league owners — far richer men than they already were.
And fans can thank him for laying the groundwork for the extensive, multi-platform coverage they see today. Without those first network contracts, none of it would have happened.
What do you think Modell’s legacy will be in the years to come? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…