- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 12, 2003

The Arizona Cardinals, who don’t win much of anything else, have the inside track to win the right to play host to the 2008 Super Bowl.

That piece of information is not at all surprising. Many NFL owners and their corporate sponsors have grown quite accustomed to playing Super Bowls in beautiful, warm weather. The Cardinals have an elaborate new stadium due to open in 2006, and having the NFL’s showcase back in Arizona presents the league with virtually no real risks of any kind.

But NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue still wants to see a Super Bowl played in Washington, New York, or both. A Super Bowl at FedEx Field or Giants Stadium would be the first to be played outdoors in a cold weather city. And in an owners vote slated for Oct.30 in Chicago, the tally could come down to two important words:

Wellington Mara.

The New York Giants’ president, even among the Rooney, Hunt, Wilson and Modell families, is perhaps the NFL’s true elder statesman. And numerous NFL insiders say if the Giants’ Super Bowl bid becomes at all attached to the long legacy of the 87-year-old Mara, New York easily could overcome Arizona, Washington and Tampa, Fla., and land the game.

“It’s rather easy to see this vote becoming a tribute to Wellington Mara,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports industry consultant who works with numerous NFL teams. “There’s no one in the NFL more beloved. This would be a powerful way to recognize his contributions to the league.”

Said Bob Harlan, Green Bay Packers president, “I’m very close to the Mara family, and a New York Super Bowl would be appealing. Obviously, we know a lot about playing in cold weather. But nobody needs partners in this league more than Green Bay. We rely on our partners, and we want to be good partners. We’re going to go [to the Chicago meeting], hear the presentations and seek to do what’s in the best interest of the league.”

Despite all that praise, one should not start printing New York Super Bowl tickets just yet. A handshake deal between the Giants and the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority to rework the Giants Stadium lease and conduct a $290million renovation has yet to be ratified.

It is uncertain whether that formal vote will happen before the Chicago meeting. Either way, NFL owners must be sufficiently convinced that the framework to turn 27-year-old Giants Stadium into a Super Bowl-ready facility indeed will become reality.

Assuming that all goes to plan, those same owners will have the backdrop of a Mara career that dates to 1925, when he was just 9 years old. His father, Tim, purchased the Giants franchise that year, and five years later turned over ownership to Wellington and his 22-year-old brother after the stock market collapse.

With that privileged future in pro sports laid out for him, Wellington rose through the ranks from ballboy to game operations, club secretary, scouting and ultimately to president and co-chief executive officer. Mara has been president of the NFC, and has led virtually every major NFL committee, including the competition, executive and Hall of Fame panels. Mara is part of one of two father-and-son tandems in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Perhaps the critical moment of Mara’s long career came in 1961, when he agreed to go along with a plan advocated by then-commissioner Pete Rozelle and Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell to pool and equally share national TV revenues. This was a radical concept in the early 1960s, and each team owner had grown quite comfortable operating in his own local fiefdom.

Mara was not the leading advocate of the new TV plan, and the Giants have always ensured their local market dominance over the rival Jets. But his willingness to share the New York market with the rest of the league was the catalyst that made the TV deal happen and ultimately grow into the multi-billion dollar colossus it now is. Mara has been so league-first in his thinking that the Giants were for years relative underachievers in team revenue and franchise value.

“Wellington Mara is a living symbol of the tradition and heritage of the league,” said Steve Sabol, NFL Films president. “There are very few true sportsmen around anymore, and he’s one of them. He’s stood for common sense and decency, and has acted as a sort of conscience for the league.

“I think a Super Bowl in New York would be great. This league’s most memorable game is still the Ice Bowl in 1967. Weather like that is a central part of football. It would be a real nostalgic trip for us to shoot a game like that.”

The Giants, for their part, are not really looking to make Mara a front-and-center part of their Super Bowl bid. Like the other three cities, New York’s bid must be backed with an extensive written document that outlines specific plans for security, transportation, lodging, hospitality and myriad other areas — each connected with stringent NFL guidelines.

But in a race where none of the four bidders is truly out of it, any advantage is heartily welcomed.

“They’re all pretty close right now,” said Jim Steeg, NFL senior vice president of special events. “We’ll get the written bids [this week], and then it comes time to get very serious and really evaluate them. We’re into the final stretch.”

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