When NFL owners get together, pigskins don’t fly, but dollars (and stories) sure do.
Illustrated by Deanna Staffo
ATLANTA FALCONS OWNER Arthur Blank can forget, for a moment, about exchanging letters with his former starting quarterback Michael Vick, who is in a federal prison and washing pots and pans for 12 cents an hour. Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder can be distracted from thinking about the exact phrasing of the toast he will give in a few evenings to honor slain safety Sean Taylor on what would have been Taylor’s 25th birthday. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft can concentrate on something other than the impassioned speech he will make in a final attempt to move past what is known as Spygate.
Those are things for billionaires to forget at a time like this while at the Breakers, a ritzy hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. a welcome party for NFL team owners, their significant others, and their eventual heirs is being held outside on this breezy evening. a huge transparent sphere, floating in the swimming pool, contains a woman who is performing ballet. To ensure she doesn’t drift off to a corner, two attendants flank the oversize ball.
Kraft is tapped on his right shoulder by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who points and says, “I have one of those in the pool at home.”
Both laugh like only the truly mega-wealthy can. Jones is lying, of course. He does not have a home; rather, he has an estate on Turtle Creek in Dallas, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in that area.
Perhaps nobody has come further, metaphorically speaking, to be at this function than Kraft: Kraft’s children overheard their mother scolding him years before he purchased the entire franchise for buying Patriots season tickets that she believed the family could not afford.
Jones had a similar, though probably more humiliating, experience while traveling once on family business shortly after finishing college. The man who would one day pay $140 million for the league’s most visible team (and the chance to focus the spotlight on himself ) was rendered momentarily speechless when the agent behind the rental-car counter confiscated his credit card and cut it into useless pieces.
Kraft and Jones are among the most successful members of the professional football league, which has revenues of more than $8 billion. They have celebrated three Super Bowl victories each and, in the aftermath, have become enormously wealthy and as instantly recognizable as their respective quarterbacks, Tom Brady (who in this season’s first game suffered what was likely a season-ending injury) and Tony Romo.
That is why the morning after the welcome party, both Kraft and Jones are in the hotel’s main lobby, standing beneath a gilded, hand-painted high ceiling, complying with autograph requests from two young boys. Jones notices Snyder across the room and shouts for him to sign the boys’ football, saying: “Hey, Dan, come over here and add some value to this ball!”
IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT this so-called Billionaire Boys Club convenes in a place that is older and richer than those converging on it from corporate jets. But the turn-of-the-century Breakers is a venerable establishment of grandeur more in the tradition of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilt’s than that of the Bill Bidwills and Zygi Wilfs of the NFL.
The Breakers was built in 1896, making it slightly more modern than Oakland Raiders managing general partner Al Davis. The oceanfront hotel is home to Florida’s first 18-hole golf course, a tennis complex, five swimming pools, four spas, 20 bungalows, and 10 cabanas equipped with wet bars, daybeds, outdoor showers, and flat-screen TVs -- any of which can be rented for a mere $500 per day, as Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney can testify. The Sunday buffet brunch is $90 (plus tax and service charge). That’s hardly the price of a decent seat at any stadium in the league.
Even millionaire football coaches are unaccustomed to such luxury. “I don’t belong in a place like this,” says Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Jon Gruden. Gruden, mind you, has won a Super Bowl. Imagine how a rookie who has yet to coach his first game must feel. “My wife and I were hanging around the lobby here the other night, and we thought we were going to get kicked out,” says first-year Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh.
“I had a $25 cheeseburger the other night -- got it on sale,” laughs Carolina Panthers head coach John Fox. “This is how [owners] live. We get to stay here a week, and then it’s back to real life.”
The hotel has such incredible standing that it can peer condescendingly at even this collection of guests. That was made clear four years ago, when one diminutive franchise owner became so belligerent to hotel staff that a Breakers executive approached then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue with the ultimatum: “Straighten this out or I will personally remind him that he’s not too rich, or too small, for us to throw him out of here.”
The Breakers realizes close to $2 million in revenue over the four days the NFL owners are there to decide how best to improve professional football. The hotel has a goal of generating $1,600 each day from every room. And that goal is partly achieved in the hotel’s Tapestry Bar, where a Cuba libre and a Bailey’s on the rocks costs $39 (before the tip) and the alcohol in each is more carefully measured than anything the loose-lipped patron might say while enjoying one.
One late evening at the Tapestry Bar finds Jones at a table with family members and select employees, including head coach Wade Phillips. Grinning in a way that he describes as making him appear as though he has a coat hanger lodged in his mouth, Jones explains that by being both the Cowboys owner and general manager, he’s free to accept the risky proposition otherwise known as Adam Jones. Dallas acquired Jones in a trade with the Tennessee Titans; it was the first time a player in NFL history was traded while under suspension, the penalty for being arrested six times in three years.
Jerry Jones says he can make decisions with impunity because he does not answer to a higher authority and therefore is not risking his job if the whole thing ends badly, as most others in his position might fear. “That’s right,” Jones says. “The owner and the general manager of the Cowboys have gone over this real good. Real good! We have both decided that this can be a real positive for the Cowboys.” At this point, Jones breaks into that wide, midnight smile. Looking directly at Phillips, he says: “And if not, then we’ve both already decided to fire the head coach.”
ALL OF THIS MERELY PROVES that NFL owners are often just like everyone else -- only richer and therefore presumably happier. Their business meetings are the same as those of big corporations, which means that snide remarks are routinely whispered.
During a meeting that commissioner Roger Goodell is presiding over, while owners and NFL officials discuss the player-conduct policy under which Adam Jones, Terry “Tank” Johnson, and Chris Henry were suspended in 2007, Snyder leans over to Jones and gets in a good-natured dig, saying, “You listening to this, Jerry?” (The Cowboys have issued uniforms to two of the three miscreants, and the third, Henry, has proclaimed that he’d like to wear the star on his helmet too.)
Amid it all, nobody seems to recognize the man who paid $550 million for the guest pass that dangles from the lanyard around his neck. That is what billionaire developer Stephen Ross paid for half of the Miami Dolphins, which won just one game last season. Imagine the cost had they not posted the most dismal season in franchise history.
Ross waits nervously outside the boardroom as the other owners formally approve his inclusion among their ranks. “It’s a sense of excitement,” he says. “As a kid, I always dreamed about owning a team.”
Taking on a partner might allow Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga more opportunity to play at an exclusive golf club he developed nearby. How exclusive is the Floridian? Huizenga and his wife are the only actual members. Everyone else plays there at the couple’s invitation. Those who please Huizenga to his satisfaction are granted annual memberships in the form of a letter sent out each year.
Needless to say, Huizenga does not lose nearly so often at golf as he does at football. “It is understood that you are not allowed to beat him at his club,” one colleague says. “You go to the final green with a chance to win, look at your partner, and he’s shaking his head at you. Sometimes that leads to some strange 12 putts on the final green.”
In addition to giving the NFL owners a chance to show off their collections of linen and silk, the meetings provide them with the opportunity to demonstrate gratitude to their coaches -- which, when done properly, often seems to put the invited aboard the owner’s private yacht.
Tuesday night is usually when that happens. New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, whose 122-foot luxury yacht, Lady Gayle Marie, is docked nearby, had members of the team’s staff gather for a dinner cruise. And yes, Benson had New Orleans seafood flown in for the occasion.
“Everyone felt at home eating crawfish; it was real nice,” says Saints coach Sean Payton. “These were nicely peeled, neatly on a tray, with shrimp and clams, all the appetizers and hot dishes. There was plenty to eat. I ate too much. Tom and his wife were great hosts. They’ve got a real nice boat.”
It was apparently much nicer than the Cajun pirogue Beth Payton gave her husband for Christmas in 2006.
“Much bigger,” he says.
RAVENS OWNER STEVE BISCIOTTI -- whose youthful appearance is bolstered by having the kind of tan that comes with mooring your yacht in Bimini -- is the type of guy who demonstrates his respect for football history by doing such things as buying a Baltimore Colts helmet worn by Johnny Unitas for $54,050, not to mention that Hall of Famer’s first contract for $29,900. Tonight, he again shows his respect by inviting predecessor Art Modell to dinner at a Palm Beach steak house. Modell, an old-guard member of the league, bypassed the traffic on I-95 by flying his Gulfstream GIV jet from Vero Beach -- a flight that might have lasted 14 minutes.
But nobody seems to enjoy being rich more than the cigar-smoking, sunglasses-wearing Snyder, who was merely 34 years old when he bought the Redskins franchise for $800 million in 1999. He has fired most of his coaches, brought Joe Gibbs out of retirement, overspent badly on former star players, and made the postseason only three times. “There are a bunch of things I wish I would have done differently,” Snyder says. “I’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I’ve learned from my mistakes as a good entrepreneur, a good CEO, would do. I’ve matured. I wasn’t patient enough in certain areas early on. I didn’t understand the game the way I do now. I didn’t understand the agents, the contractual relationship with the salary cap, the importance of the age of players. Now, it’s easy for me.”
Billions, of course, won’t necessarily buy NFL serenity, as is evidenced by some acrimony among the owners. The small-market owners feel they cannot compete fairly with big-money teams like the Redskins, the Cowboys, and the Patriots, whose starting quarterbacks are more profitable than whole teams in Buffalo and Minnesota.
But right here, in an offseason retreat at the Breakers, everything and everyone is simply fabulous.
“I’m sure there is some antipathy,” Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie says. “But we conceal it pretty well most of the time.” Even though egos are competing to make the most money and win the big trophy, Lurie insists that he likes almost every other team owner in the NFC East, the division his team shares with Dallas, Washington, and the New York Giants. Even Snyder? Lurie smiles. “Well,” he says, “I said ‘almost,’ didn’t I?”
When NFL owners get together, pigskins don’t fly, but dollars (and stories) sure do.