Winning isn't everything Some NFL teams' success is only in making money

July 15, 1992|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,Staff Writer

The numbers caught virtually everyone by surprise.

When the NFL was forced to release more than 600 pages of financial information stamped "highly confidential" last week at the antitrust trial in Minneapolis, most of the focus was on the salaries some of the owners paid themselves in 1990.

At the top of the list were Norman Braman of the Philadelphia Eagles at $7.5 million, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills at $3.486 million and William V. Bidwill of the Phoenix Cardinals at $1.186 million.

What got obscured, though, were two facts that didn't surprise anyone in pro football: Edward DeBartolo Jr. wins Super Bowls, and Robert Irsay makes money.

The numbers proved that DeBartolo has lived up to his free-spending reputation as the owner of the San Francisco 49ers, four-time Super Bowl winners in the 1980s. His was one of the eight teams that lost money every year between 1986 and 1989, topping the league in losses with a total of $31.2 million.

By contrast, Irsay's Indianapolis Colts were one of the nine teams that made money every one of those years. Irsay's Colts didn't win a playoff game in that span, but were the sixth most profitable team from 1986 to 1989 with earnings of $14.2 million.

The difference illustrates a strength and a weakness in the way NFL teams do business.

By sharing network television revenue equally, teams are given a chance to be on sound financial footing, regardless of the size of their markets.

But that means there's no particular financial incentive to win. Winning can even cost a team revenue.

Of the Super Bowl winners in the 1980s, only the Chicago Bears made money every year from 1986 to 1989. They earned $15.3 million, the fifth-best mark.

The way the NFL works now, the revenues of most teams are about the same. Profits depend on keeping down costs.

In 1990, the seven least-profitable teams averaged $44 million in revenue and lost an average of $5.2 million. The seven most-profitable teams averaged $46.5 million in revenue and made an average of $6.8 million.

The most profitable teams had an average player payroll of $20.9 million. The seven worst money losers had an average payroll of $26 million.

Stan White, the Baltimore lawyer who's a former player and represents one of the eight players (Frank Minnifield of the Cleveland Browns) challenging the league's restrictive free-agency rules in the Minneapolis trial, remembers that in the 1982 contract talks, the players' union recommended that some of the television money be set aside as a bonus for the winning teams.

The owners rejected that idea, and George Young, general manager of the New York Giants, noted that the players didn't recommend the same concept for themselves. They negotiated a deal in which the winning and losing players in each playoff game get the same amount of money except in the Super Bowl.

Young also said the agents representing players for playoff teams have more leverage because their teams are successful.

The Giants were one of the eight teams that lost money every year between 1986 and 1989, finishing with $7.1 million in losses.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were the seventh most profitable team during the period, earning $13.9 million, made a similar argument from a different direction.

They said their low payroll is tied to having a young team. Young teams tend to be losing teams.

There's also a different philosophy even among winning teams.

When coach Bill Walsh won his first Super Bowl in San Francisco in 1981, he made $180,000. By the time he won his third one in 1988, he was making $1.2 million.

By contrast, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll made $275,000 in 1983 after winning four Super Bowls in the 1970s and 1980. By 1990, the year before he retired, he was up to $717,000 -- almost $500,000 less than Walsh.

Sam Wyche, the former Cincinnati Bengals coach who took over as Tampa Bay coach this year, said that teams can make money and win. The Bengals were the third-most profitable team from 1986 to 1989, making $20 million, and played in a Super Bowl.

"If making a profit correlated to not winning, I'd have a problem. I think they're two different things. If you make a profit, it doesn't mean you have to lose. I know. I coached at Cincinnati, and we won," Wyche said.

The numbers presented a rare look at the way teams pay their front-office staffs. The players wanted to make the numbers public to blunt the focus on players' salaries. The owners are trying to make the case in court that the players aren't being damaged by the league's restrictions on free agency because they're making so much money.

"The constant harping and obsession on player salaries by the NFL is only part of the picture," said agent Leigh Steinberg, who represents one of the players in the lawsuit, Tim McDonald of the Phoenix Cardinals. "There's a tremendous amount of money being paid to non-players in pro football."

Ultimately, though, it doesn't matter what the players, owners or even the fans think about the numbers -- it's up to the eight-woman jury in Minneapolis.

The trial is in recess, but it resumes July 27 and is expected to be finished in late August or early September.

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