NFL grew with Giants owner

TV revenue-sharing plan in '60s ensured all franchises could compete

Wellington Mara 1916-2005

Pro Football

October 26, 2005|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

In a business known more for avarice than a commitment to the common good, Wellington T. Mara's decision more than 40 years ago on how the NFL should distribute its spoils remains not merely an anomaly in professional sports, but also continues to be the legacy that allows the league to flourish.

Mara, the co-owner of the New York Giants, who agreed in the early 1960s that the league should equally divide money from the sale of television rights, died yesterday from cancer at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 89.

Mara's decision helped ensure that all NFL franchises, including ones from small markets, such as Green Bay, would have an opportunity to compete with teams from much larger markets, such as New York, on an even footing. Making the Mara family's decision all the more remarkable was that it came at the expense of its own franchise, whose worth would have soared if it had sold exclusive broadcast rights to what was then the league's flagship team.

"The NFL can never be the same," Ernie Accorsi, the Giants general manager, who also held that job with the Baltimore Colts and Cleveland Browns, said in a statement.

"He saw the first game ever played by [the Giants] in 1925. He shaped nearly every rule and philosophy we have in our league today. And most of all, he was the moral conscience of the National Football League."

The comprehensive revenue-sharing approach by the NFL allowed pro football to flourish and overtake baseball - whose own economic model allows the rich to get richer and dampens competition - as America's favorite sports pastime.

Mara, whose father, Tim, bought the franchise in 1925 for $500, served in some capacity with the Giants from the team's first season, starting as a ballboy and eventually leading the team's football operations. During the club's successful years in the 1950s and '60s, Mara - who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 - helped draft and trade for some of the most storied players in the team's history, including Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford and Andy Robustelli.

Many consider the high point of that era and, indeed, one of the catalysts for the NFL's popularity, the 1958 championship game between Mara's Giants and the Colts, which Baltimore won, 23-17, in overtime. During Mara's eight decades with the club, the Giants won six NFL titles, including Super Bowls in January 1987 and January 1991.

"Wellington Mara represented the heart and soul of the National Football League," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "He was a man of deep conviction who stood as a beacon of integrity."

When former Ravens owner Art Modell considered moving the Cleveland franchise from that city to Baltimore, he said he sought the blessing of two longtime friends, Mara and Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"I turned to Well Mara and said, `I will move only if you tell me to move,' " Modell recalled yesterday. "He said, `I don't like the idea, but I'll say yes.' "

In the early '60s, the Browns and Giants were archrivals, often playing the last game of the season against each other.

"He was like a brother to me. It was a relationship built on trust, fairness and respect. Those were all his buzzwords. He was a man of extraordinary integrity and character," Modell said.

"He was just a league man, through and through," Modell added. "He was a man's man."

Mara and his brother, Jack, received ownership interest in the Giants from their father in 1930. At the time, Wellington was just 14 and his brother 22.

Over the decades, the three assumed distinct roles.

"It wasn't much of a structure; it was a just a way we did things that evolved," Wellington Mara once said. "Jack was the business manager, and I was the personnel director. ... We each ran our particular part of the business, and then our father ran us."

Tim Mara died in 1959 and Jack in 1965. Jack's son, also named Tim, inherited his father's share of the team, but Wellington Mara and his nephew began a feud that coincided with some of the team's most dismal seasons. The hiring of George Young, a Baltimore native who attended Calvert Hall and coached at City College, helped resurrect the Giants and paved the way for the Super Bowl triumphs.

Tim Mara and his family sold their share of the Giants to Robert Tisch in 1991, but Wellington Mara remained the hallmark ownership figure of the franchise.

Over the years, Mara formed strong attachments to his players. Gifford, for instance, remained a close friend, and two years ago organized a party in the owner's honor at Tavern on the Green in Central Park. More than 85 former players showed up to pay tribute to Mara, including Tittle, Sam Huff and Lawrence Taylor.

Among the shower of praise for the Giants patriarch were humorous tales as well, such as the one told by Huff. The Hall of Fame middle linebacker said that after his rookie season, when the Giants won the 1956 title, he went to Mara hoping for a raise. At the time, Huff said, he was making $7,500.

Mara agreed to give Huff a raise - of $500.

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