By KEVIN CLARK
NFL teams are worth around a billion dollars each. That’s the highest average franchise value in professional sports.
But every year, the people who own these teams, many of whom are brilliant entrepreneurs and executives, are routinely blasted all over the airwaves as the embodiment of hapless management. And if they’re not winning, it doesn’t even matter whether they’re making a profit. “We’re supposed to be a private company,” said Baltimore Ravens president Dick Cass. “But in reality, we’re a public company and we issue a report every week.”
Tom Coughlin has led the New York Giants to two Super Bowl titles in the last five seasons.
Clearly, buying an NFL franchise doesn’t immediately transform a person into a blithering idiot. The gentler conclusion is that maybe identifying future Pro Bowl running backs and winning division titles is harder than it seems. And maybe NFL owners succeed or fail on the strength of the same thing other businesses rely on: the strength of their business practices.
Over the decades, a handful of NFL teams have managed to thrive under different coaches, quarterbacks and equipment managers. Conversations with owners and executives of these teams suggest that they share a few common traits, all rooted in the front office. So how, exactly, does one go about building a successful NFL team?
The win-loss record of utterly absent owners can be atrocious. No need to name names here: That’s what talk radio is for. But it’s equally bumpy for the owner who mistakes himself for the coach—or worse yet—the star player. (Rest in peace, Al Davis.)
Inside the best NFL teams, owners are present for big decisions. But ultimately they don’t make them. Jonathan Kraft, president of the New England Patriots, says that he and his father, team chairman Robert Kraft, have one role: “We ask questions just as any manager would, to spur the thinking.”
Aside from that, Kraft said, every decision is made by coach Bill Belichick and personnel head Nick Caserio. Mark Murphy, the CEO of the Green Bay Packers, said that his coach and general manager “bounce things off me.” But otherwise he is not involved in any football decisions. Cass of the Ravens said that owner Steve Bisciotti is a “powerful force in the building. We don’t make any important decisions without his approval, but he very much believes in letting people do their jobs.”
LIMIT OUTSIDE HIRES
Only one Super Bowl champion since 2000 had a top executive who hadn’t worked in the organization beforehand.
Successful teams follow a general rule against hiring from outside the organization except for entry-level jobs. And entry-level employees tend to undergo a type of boot camp – or as Philadelphia general manager Howie Roseman puts it, “almost sort of a pledging phenomenon.” Long-term employees tend to earn more confidence from top executives. “The more that you can know about the people around you the better decisions you can make,” Roseman said.
Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers celebrates after winning Super Bowl XLV.
It helps if entry-level hires already harbor a love of the city, the market and the team, especially in places as remote as Green Bay. Murphy of the Packers, the team’s highest ranking executive since the team is owned by stockholders, has to ask a question every time he hires someone: “Are you sure you really want to live in Green Bay?”
Steelers president Art Rooney II said he values internal promotions because veteran employees “tend to reinforce the culture you have, the success you have, and building on past successes is easier if you have people that have been along for the ride.”
STOP FIRING PEOPLE
NFL owners love to fire people. In fact, 12 of the NFL’s 32 teams have hired a new coach since the beginning of 2011. The Miami Dolphins have had seven since 2000. But there are exceptions. The Steelers have had three coaches since 1969. Rooney said the Steelers’ philosophy provides some management and coaching continuity amid a constantly evolving player roster.
After New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin failed to win a playoff game in his first three seasons, management ignored media and fan calls for his firing. Since, he has won two Super Bowls.
Following ownership changes, “the accepted model was the new owner comes in and gets rid of everyone,” said Cass, a former sports lawyer who had represented NFL owners in ownership transactions.
But when Steve Bisciotti bought the Ravens in 2004, he hired only Cass (to fill a vacancy) and kept everyone else in place—and had a general philosophy of maintaining front-office stability.
DON’T HIRE NORMALLY
Exactly 67% of people who ever dreamed of playing in the NFL later decide to seek a front-office job. We just made up that percentage, but owners say it’s probably higher than that. In fact, they don’t advertise many openings because “we’d be flooded. It would be crazy,” Cass said.
Overwhelming demand forces teams to get creative. Rooney said the Steelers interview candidates when there are no openings. The Eagle’s Roseman considers people who keep bugging him. “We’ll see how persistent they really are when they get a rejection letter or nobody responds to their email,” Roseman said, noting that there’s a necessary tenacity required in football management. “If someone sends one email or one resume, for me, they are probably not going to get a job interview.”
FORGET YOUR BUSINESS TRAINING
Green Bay’s Murphy points out that professional football is the rare industry that involves no competition for customers. A Redskins win over the Cowboys doesn’t start Dallas residents rooting for Washington. So sharing business practices with other teams is commonplace.
Beyond that, avoid any executive whose obsession is the usual capitalist passion for greater and greater profit. “It’s not the type of business where you’d hire someone from Harvard Business School to come in and say ‘help us figure out this organization,'” Rooney said, describing the win-loss column as no less important than any business’s profit-loss column. “There’s a relationship between our two bottom lines.”