Super Bowl hinges on whether owners like Irsay or Jones

May 14, 2007

Bringing a Super Bowl to Indianapolis might have little to do with weather, hotel rooms or posh practice facilities.

The biggest factor is likely to be Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, and how other National Football League owners feel about him and the contributions he has made to their tight-knit club.

Most observers think Dallas and Indianapolis are runaway front-runners to host the 2011 Super Bowl, with Glendale, Ariz., a distant third.

Owners will absolutely want the $25 million lined up by the host city to run the Super Bowl and thousands of top-tier hotel rooms within an easy limo ride of a spiffy stadium, but once league officials assure them those elements are in place, the decision will come down to Irsay vs. Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Jones is no tackling-dummy opponent. Sure, he initially rankled some feathers by brokering his own marketing and sales deals and pushing the envelope to keep more money out of the league till and in his own pocket.

But he also raised the tide for all ships, showing teams how to maximize corporate and fan revenue in ways other owners had never considered. Since becoming an NFL owner in 1989, Jones has amassed considerable political clout, while fielding three Super Bowl champions.

Irsay, 47, has been amassing his lobbying arsenal far longer. Irsay's dad, Robert, entered the league in 1972, and Jim became a big part of the franchise after it moved to Indianapolis in 1984. He served as general manager and chief operating officer before taking over full ownership in 1997.

While Jones has gained attention with bold moves and a flashy--some say obnoxious--panache, Irsay has been more apt to shun the league's brightest spotlights, and he rarely makes moves that show up fellow owners.

Irsay serves on the Executive Committee of the league's Management Council, one of the NFL's most prestigious working groups. He also serves on the Super Bowl Policy Committee.

Irsay gets high marks from many owners--particularly those in small and midsize markets--for his work on the collective bargaining agreement with players and revenue sharing among owners.

Irsay also has the respect of longtime owners such as the New York Giants' Mara family, Pittsburgh's Rooney family and the Halas-McCaskey bunch in Chicago.

"These days, when Jim Irsay talks, people listen," said Marv Levy, former Buffalo Bills coach and now the team's vice president of football operations. "He has a strong presence among league owners and executives."

The value of that can't be underestimated say those inside the NFL's inner circle. What isn't known and is seldom talked about is the intensity of lobbying among owners for the Super Bowl site.

"If you start at the very beginning, it's about the owner ... those relationships first," said Susan Scherer, who ran Detroit's 2006 Super Bowl host committee. "There are 32 decision makers."

Irsay plays down the notion of a personal battle between him and Jones, but makes no bones about his lobbying efforts.

"A lot of these [owners] I've known for 35 years, and I have a track record with them," Irsay said. "Some of these owners are close personal friends, but it goes beyond that. When I've supported them, I've said, 'Hey, don't forget us.' Now, I'll be reminding them of that. Sometimes the heart strings come into play, and it can be a very emotional decision."

Back-room deals?

Irsay and Jones, sources said, have already chatted up every team owner individually to try to sway votes. And it's likely there will be more arm-twisting before the 2011 Super Bowl site selection vote on May 22 at the owners' meetings in Nashville, Tenn.

After the city delegations are asked to leave the room, the potential host owners get one last chance to make an impassioned pitch before the other owners.

Team owners are tight-lipped about the matter. Most won't talk about the subject. Those that will, won't attach their name to a quote.

"There isn't an owner in the league who's about to say publicly they're for or against Jim Irsay or Jerry Jones," said one West Coast NFL team owner. "Both men have made their mark on this league. But I have to tell you, if it comes down to a popularity contest, I like Jim Irsay's chances. But this can get pretty complicated. There's a lot of, 'I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine,' mentality here on a number of levels. Back-room deals and under-the-table handshakes? You bet."

Many owners will voice support to both parties.

"A lot of [owners] will give us encouraging words, but I know that's not a commitment," Irsay said. "The stomach will be churning when the secret ballots go into the hat."

Others on Indianapolis' and Dallas' Super Bowl bid teams also will be involved, most notably Indianapolis Motor Speedway President Tony George for Indianapolis and former Cowboys quarterback and Hall of Famer Roger Staubach for Dallas. But the highest-level lobbying is not the sort of task an owner can delegate.

"This is an elite club, and there are a lot of small-group dynamics at play," said Mark Rosentraub, a sports economist and author of "Major League Losers," a book about professional sports operations. "Jim and Jerry won't leave this task to underlings."

Owners want to assure the Super Bowl maximizes its revenue and benefit to the league, but the decision goes much deeper.

"Some of this comes down to politics. ... How much do NFL owners want Jerry Jones to have a Super Bowl? And the same thing with [Jim Irsay]--how much do they feel they owe the Colts owner? That's the unfortunate part about it. Forget about how well the city would do at hosting the event. It could come down to politics and how the votes line up," said Lee A. Esckilsen, president of Rhode Island-based Entertainment & Sports Consulting.

The host city's NFL team gets no extra financial benefit. All ticket, suite, concession and other ancillary revenue goes to the league. But there is real cache among owners for landing such a prized possession, and it also helps them land new publicly financed stadiums, as the Super Bowl is dangled as a carrot before city and state officials.

The payoff to the host city comes in the form of a $300 million economic impact, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers, about five times that of an NCAA Final Four.

"We're a part of the fabric of this community," Irsay said. "I feel a great obligation to this city and state. We want to see it grow and succeed."

Birth of a political process

In the league's first 15 years, there was a short list of Super Bowl sites. Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans hosted all but one Super Bowl. Houston hosted the other.

But as the game grew in stature and economic impact, more cities clamored for it. During years 16 through 25, four new hosts were introduced. As years passed, cities like Detroit, Minnesota and Atlanta found themselves in the mix.

Then Jacksonville Jaguars owner Wayne Weaver showed it really is about the owner in the prospective host city, when the Florida city became one of the most unlikely Super Bowl hosts in 2005.

Weaver, like Irsay, is well-liked among fellow owners. So when Weaver called his fellow owners to passionately and shamelessly lobby them in 2000, they listened.

"Forget that the market was too small, the downtown lacked a vibrant entertainment district, the airport didn't have enough flights, and the lack of hotel rooms meant they had to use cruise ships on the St. Johns River as floating hotels," said Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd., which works closely as a consultancy for several NFL teams. "That shows that the owner in the [potential] host city is critically important."

Others take it a step further.

"If you tell me Jacksonville got the Super Bowl predicated on their bid, I'm telling you you're nuts," Jim Steeg, the former longtime NFL senior vice president of special events and Super Bowl caretaker told the St. Petersburg Times. "Wayne Weaver was 95 percent of what it took to get that done."

The Ford family, owners of the Detroit Lions, were the first to gain backing from the owners for a northern Super Bowl back in 1982, but they also had the Ford Motor Co.--one of the NFL's largest sponsors and advertisers--behind the effort.

Irsay, of course, doesn't have that kind of leverage.

NCAA Final Four becomes factor

"The one piece of leverage that Jim Irsay does have is the NCAA," said Sportscorp.'s Ganis, who has attended every owners' meeting for a decade.

"A lot of NFL owners want to bring a Final Four to their venue, and getting [NCAA President] Myles Brand or [NCAA Senior Vice President for Basketball and Business Strategies] Greg Shaheen involved could be a very big factor."

NCAA officials did not return calls seeking comment.

While Indianapolis has proved it can host big sporting events, Ganis said without Irsay, Indianapolis isn't a part of the 2011 Super Bowl discussion.

"I think Indianapolis is going to surprise some people," said Eddie White, who, as Reebok's vice president of team operations, deals with all 32 NFL teams. "With everything I hear, from the national media and team executives, they're a lot more excited about Indianapolis than cities like Detroit and Jacksonville.

"And I think Jim will be enough to push the effort over the goal line."

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