The following excerpt comes from Matthew Futterman’s Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution, released yesterday by Simon & Schuster. This excerpt tells the little-known story of NFL executives Frank Vuono and Mike Ornstein, who attempted to thwart the NFL Players Association’s strategy of financing antitrust litigation with revenue from jersey sales by convincing top quarterbacks to instead sign their marketing rights over to the league.
As the 1980s drew to a close and Gene Upshaw, Jim Quinn, and Jeffrey Kessler plotted the players’ next moves, over at the NFL offices on Park Avenue, Frank Vuono was noticing a clear pattern in the league’s licensing business, in particular the jersey sales, which served as the bread and butter for the business. Most of the jerseys fans wanted to buy were worn by a very small number of players. The vast majority of those players played one position: quarterback. In theory, that didn’t surprise Vuono, but the level of dominance was a little startling. People bought the jerseys of Joe Montana, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Jim McMahon, Dan Marino, and John Elway—and that was about it. A running back or a wide receiver might get hot for a season or two. There were a couple of big-time defensive guys. Lawrence Taylor. Mike Singletary. But the numbers made it clear that if you controlled the quarterbacks, you controlled something like 80 percent of the licensing business. Quarterbacks had always been popular, but this level of domination was startling. It didn’t take a Princeton diploma to figure out exactly what was happening. All those rules Tex Schramm pushed through a little more than a decade before had transformed the NFL into a quarterbacks’ league in every way. To an executive helping to shape the league’s financial strategy, it meant one thing: whoever controlled the quarterbacks would control the football licensing business.
For Vuono and the NFL, that concept quickly became urgent. Following Kessler and Quinn’s advice, Upshaw and the NFL Players Association had indeed decertified as a union for collective bargaining purposes in 1989 and registered as a trade organization that would represent NFL players in litigation and group marketing rights. Remember that $1-per-jersey deal that Vuono cut with the NFLPA? The primary purpose of the new decertified NFLPA would be to collect that money, as well as revenues from a few other group licensing deals made on behalf of NFL players. It would then use that money to finance antitrust litigation. If there was any money left over, it would be divided among the players and distributed to them. Given the expense of the legal case, which was going to take several years, there wasn’t going to be much money left over. As Vuono looked at the monthly reports on the top-selling jerseys, he hatched a plan to make sure there wouldn’t be much money at all.
Every great athlete is, in part, a greedy egomaniac. It’s what makes some of them want to take on the responsibility of playing quarterback in the first place, and it allows them to perform heroically under intense pressure and scrutiny. Vuono’s strategy was to tap into the greedy egomaniac in the best quarterbacks and channel those qualities in a direction that could serve the purposes of the league. Instead of treating all the players as equals, Vuono proposed creating a separate entity called “the Quarterback Club.” To do that, he had to convince all those top jersey-sellers that they would be better off if they stopped assigning their group licensing rights to the Players Association. Instead they would enter into a partnership with the league to market the league’s most popular players, the ones responsible for selling nearly every NFL jersey.
Vuono’s plan was star driven for a simple reason: that was the direction the entire sports business had shifted to. By 1990 the NBA was threatening the NFL for supremacy, largely because the NBA had created massive promotional campaigns around stars like Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. In contrast, through the 1980s, the NFL continued to promote its fabled shield and its franchises. It treated its mostly anonymous players like a marketing afterthought.
The problem was NFL players wore helmets and they didn’t really register with the public. Joe Montana barely made top-ten lists of the country’s most popular sports stars. Athletes from other sports were much better known. To an extent, that’s how the NFL owners wanted it. The league wanted to promote the teams. If it promoted the athletes, they might get big heads and demand the salaries of Hollywood stars or even baseball players. To Vuono, that thinking was backward. If the league could get big companies to sign sponsorship deals with the league’s biggest stars, those companies would use those players to promote their products in commercials, which would serve as free advertising for the league. It also might leave the NFLPA without any money to fight its antitrust litigation.
When Vuono presented the plan to the owners, he received only lukewarm support. Several thought he was heading down a slippery slope of player promotion that was eventually going to cost them a lot of money. But he had one important figure in his corner: the new commissioner, Paul Tagliabue.
Tagliabue succeeded Rozelle as commissioner in 1989. A former Defense Department lawyer, Tagliabue was a partner at the law firm Covington & Burling and had spent the previous decade overseeing the NFL’s legal strategy as its outside counsel. Tagliabue had taken over at a time of great turmoil. The ongoing labor problems were beginning to take a financial toll on the league. The litigation was expensive and the television networks were using the uncertainty as leverage in negotiations for their broadcast packages. The payments to the league actually dropped in the broadcast deals Rozelle had cut with the networks in 1986, to an average of about $340 million per year over the next three years, compared with $420 million in the previous deals. To make the owners whole, Rozelle had sold a new Sunday night package to ESPN for $135 million.
Tagliabue brought to the job the idea that lingering legal problems, such as labor strife, could often be solved with business opportunities. In the 1980s he sued countless small-time bar owners on behalf of the NFL because they had purchased early-generation satellite dishes and were using them to pick up the signals of every NFL game, not just the games in their home markets. The bars would televise the games to attract the most rabid NFL fans. The endless litigation was an inefficient strategy. The better solution to that problem was “Sunday Ticket,” which DirecTV now pays the NFL $1.5 billion a year to distribute and gives anyone willing to part with $250 access to all NFL games.
To Tagliabue, a “quarterback club” represented another business opportunity that could solve a problem. The labor litigation looked like an albatross that would hang around the league’s neck for years. He also sensed the league’s case might be a loser. The league did operate as a cartel that thwarted competition between clubs and didn’t have an antitrust exemption. The sooner the players could be convinced to agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, the better off the league would be. Creating a business that might make some money for the owners while cutting the legs out from under the antitrust litigation looked like the ultimate win-win.
Tagliabue sent Vuono on the road with a proposal that guaranteed the top quarterbacks anywhere from $20,000 to $100,000 in additional annual income. That was real money at a time when the average NFL salary was still only about $300,000. Starting quarterbacks averaged about $1 million per season—a nice living indeed, but not enough to eschew what might amount to a 5 to 10 percent raise.
His main targets were agents Marvin Demoff and Leigh Steinberg. He knew he had Steinberg’s support. His quarterback corps included Warren Moon, Steve Young, Tony Eason, Ken O’Brien, Wade Wilson, Eric Hipple, and Neil Lomax. Steinberg, who claims to be the basis for the Jerry Maguire character in the 1996 movie, had little taste for the labor wars. An antiestablishment law student at Berkeley in the 1970s, he had evolved into a true friend of NFL management by the late 1980s. The idea of a “quarterback club” was music to Steinberg’s ears. Because he represented all those quarterbacks, he knew a disproportionate amount of the endorsements went to them and they were the star attractions of any group licensing deals. Mixing their rights with the other 1,500 or so players in the Players Association inevitably diluted their value. Steinberg saw Vuono as an ally.
Demoff was the key, though. He represented Dan Marino and John Elway, who were the biggest stars aside from Montana. Marino had been an officer in the Players Association. Yet here was a chance to gain equity in an invitation-only company whose only partners were the elite of the elite of the National Football League. He bit.
“Once we had Marino and Elway, everyone else fell into place,” Vuono said. At the end of 1990, the NFL announced that John Elway, Warren Moon, Bernie Kosar, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Randall Cunningham, Phil Simms, Jim Everett, Boomer Esiason, Bubby Brister, and Dan Marino had assigned most of their group licensing rights to the new entity now officially known as the Quarterback Club. (Vuono didn’t actually want Brister, but he had the same agent as Randall Cunningham, so Brister got in on the Eagles star’s coattails.) Soon, Jim Harbaugh and Steve Young would join, too. Montana never signed on, but not because of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the rank and file. Montana thought he deserved a bigger cut than the rest of the members of the club, since he was the league’s biggest star.
There were quarterly meetings, golf outings, sportswear lines, and, of course, millions in sales of the league’s most popular jerseys, which was the best advertising the Quarterback Club and its members could receive.
“They set it up so that you could do whatever you wanted on your own but if there were three or more players involved from the club all the money would go to the Quarterback Club and then it would be divided among the group,” Demoff said. “The Players Association had nothing that was competitive.”
No one mentioned the other part of the equation: that creating a separate licensing division for the league’s biggest stars was going to bleed the union dry. Steinberg certainly wasn’t bothered by it. “Football was built with the quarterback as the leading man,” Steinberg said unapologetically. He believed a franchise quarterback was the vital part that the teams could build around for ten to twelve years.
Predictably, the Players Association, or what was left of it, was livid. The quarterback was supposed to be the leader of the team. For thirty years the best athletes had come together to demand to be paid their fair share. That unity had produced unimagined riches for both the players and the owners because it had forced sports to start acting like real businesses that deal with labor as a partner. The Quarterback Club showed that the modern athlete’s greatest strength—his understanding of how special and valuable his talents are—could be turned into his greatest weakness. Under the right circumstances, he would cross a picket line and he would cut a deal that would jeopardize the future of his teammates and fellow athletes. He would act like a jerk. And that was before most of them had any idea who Mike Ornstein was.
Mike Ornstein grew up in a largely Italian section of the Bronx near Fordham Road and Jerome Avenue. Nearly every day some kid called him a “kike” or a “Jew boy.” Ornstein rarely turned the other cheek, even when he was outnumbered. He took his share of lumps. The beatings taught him that saying what he had to say wasn’t all that scary. He could deal with the consequences. Ornstein speaks in the “dese” and “dose” vernacular of a New York street tough. It gives the distinct impression that Ornstein has done some very bad things in his life, some of them criminal. In fact, he has. In 2006, he went to prison on charges related to selling scalped Super Bowl tickets and fraudulent NFL jerseys.
Ornstein got his start in the NFL with the Oakland Raiders in 1975 just as the franchise was becoming one of the NFL’s best. He began as John Madden’s administrative assistant and morphed into a jack-of-all-trades, helping out with scouting and film work. He then became the team’s director of marketing when it moved to Los Angeles in 1982.
Ornstein idolized Al Davis, the combative owner who was willing to do whatever it took to win, and Ron Wolf, the team’s main player personnel executive. Wolf researched every player’s personality and took risks on the ones other teams shied away from. The Raiders took on unstable types who weren’t known to be good citizens—players like John Matuszak, a former first round draft choice released by the Washington Redskins after the 1975 season. In that era, the Raiders had Gene Upshaw functioning as the locker room sheriff. He kept everyone in line. But Wolf also spent significant time on the road scouting and getting to know players before he brought them in. From Wolf, Ornstein learned the value of travel, of seeing players in person and getting to know them.
In 1989, Ornstein moved to the NFL offices to serve as a marketing cop for the league. His main responsibility was to make sure that teams weren’t signing deals with local companies to give away space on NFL sidelines that national sponsors had already paid for. Then the league came up with another job for him. A year after the NFL started the Quarterback Club, the Players Association was still pushing ahead with its litigation. Settlement talks were going nowhere. A dozen quarterbacks had been persuaded to turn over their marketing rights to the league. League executives wondered whether there was a price at which the rest of the players would flip. Surely that would bankrupt the Players Association. It was going to require confrontational work—nasty, union-busting stuff at camps and in locker rooms, the sort of roadwork a fiery, confrontational guy like Ornstein would be perfect for.
Ornstein hit the road armed with a virtually open checkbook. Initially, Vuono went along with him, but Vuono was more of a wine-and-dine, play-eighteen-holes-and-make-a-deal type. This was trench warfare that required getting up in front of the team with the head coach as Players Association loyalists screamed to toss him from the locker room. Ornstein’s approach wasn’t complicated. He would explain to the players they were making maybe $1,000 for their marketing rights through the Players Association. Then he’d offer $10,000, promising to write a check on the spot. That got the players’ attention. It was instant gratification.
Ornstein’s first stop was the Denver Broncos. Mike Shanahan was the coach, and John Elway, who had already signed on with the Quarterback Club, was the team’s leader. As a result, Denver did not prove particularly hostile. But then he went to the Arizona Cardinals. “That was bad because they knew we were coming and they were prepared for us,” he said. “They had this big defensive lineman who was the player representative. Their general manager was so nervous he was smoking one cigarette and had another one in his hand ready to light. The guys were screaming at me. It was brutal.”
By the time he left, however, roughly the same number of Cardinals and Broncos had signed on, about twenty-five guys from each team. Soon word got around to the other camps that Ornstein was on his way with an open checkbook. He said the San Diego players came out to meet him in the parking lot. Hall of Fame caliber players like Marcus Allen and James Lofton knew Ornstein’s arrival would mean an extra $50,000, while linemen and kickers figured out how to be happy with $10,000.
Not everyone took the cash. Ornstein offered Barry Sanders $200,000 a year for two years for his group licensing rights. He passed. Ornstein had never seen a guy walk away from $400,000. Reggie White, who was becoming a leader in the Players Association and was a lead plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, held out, too. Other Players Association figures proved far more malleable. By the time Ornstein’s spending spree was over, he had signed 1,100 players, spending $36 million over two years. The spigot funding the Players Association’s antitrust lawsuit hadn’t run dry yet, but at the rate Ornstein was signing players, it was going to before too long.
Matthew Futterman is a senior special writer for sports with The Wall Street Journal. He has previously worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Star-Ledger of New Jersey, where he was a part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2005. He lives in New York with his wife and children.