New York Giants Get First Home Meadowlands game, So What?
By Evan Weiner
March 16, 2010
(New York, N. Y.) -- The owner of the East Rutherford, New Jersey-based New York Jets is unhappy that his team will not host the first “regular” season National Football League game at the new Meadowlands Stadium. Robert Wood Johnson IV, better known as Woody, unloaded on the way the National Football League handled the coin toss which decided the team that would get the first game honor without any representatives from Johnson’s Jets or the stadium’s other tenant and half owner, the Mara-Tisch families’ owned New York Giants. The Mara-Tisch Giants “won” the toss and got the first regular season game on Sunday, September 12th while Johnson’s Jets get the first Monday night game at the place on the following day.
Both teams are scheduled to play pre-season games in the new building including one against each other. The Mara-Tisch Giants practice outside the facility. The stadium opens April 10th with a college lacrosse tournament, there is a three day music festival at the end of April, the first “football” game will be a match between Mexico and Ecuador on May 7, Bon Jovi is performing for three nights there in May followed by the Eagles, not the ones from Philadelphia, in June and U2 is in for a July concert. NFL pre-season games come four months into the stadium’s existence.
The stadium, built for football, is featuring other events which should help pay some of the bills at the place. The stadium is also available for weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Johnson put up half the cash for the new place and the surrounding real estate which will be turned into a New York-area football hall of fame and other businesses, the Mara-Tisch families put up the other 50 percent with the state of New Jersey kicking in hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure and East Rutherford gets only a slice of what should be a multimillion check for property taxes through a mechanism called “Payments in Lieu of Taxes” or PILOT.
Johnson released a statement which condemned the league and probably the one-time Jets employee, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“An NFL coin toss has a few fundamental elements that are missing here, most notably the presence of the teams involved,” said Johnson. “That's how it's always done in the League, whether it’s determining the order of the draft or deciding who’s going to kick off the game. When the issue of which team would be hosting the first regular season game could not be resolved on the merits, I suggested a coin toss as the fairest way to resolve this issue. The League rejected that idea. Then, I was told on Friday that a coin toss had taken place at the League office and that the Jets had lost. We rejected a process in which neither team was present. The League departed from our time-honored tradition and declined the opportunity to set the matter straight with a transparent process. “
And with that Mara-Tisch get to “open” the stadium and Johnson gets what New York Rangers forward Sean Avery might call “sloppy seconds”
Perhaps the National Football League was the wrong party to hold the coin flip. The truth of the matter is that the coin flip should have been held in the Trenton office of the Governor of the State of New Jersey, and Governor Chris Christie should have conducted the flip. Governor Christie was not in office in 2005 when the Mara/Tisch-Johnson stadium/real estate deal was signed and when New Jersey committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the project and signed off on giving East Rutherford a slice of the property tax assessment on the land. New Jersey is a partner in the stadium venture and should have been included in the process.
There will be all sorts of conspiracy theories about even whether there was a coin flip but the Maras have seemingly gotten their way virtually every time in the New York area since the one time bookie and bootlegger Tim Mara invested $500 to get an NFL franchise in 1925 for Manhattan. Mara’s Giants franchise was a financial disaster throughout the 1925 season and the team was saved from financial ruin by George Halas quite by accident. The Chicago Bears owner Halas signed Red Grange right after Grange’s college football season with Illinois was done and immediately went on tour with the “Galloping Ghost.”
One of the stops was the Polo Grounds in Manhattan with the Giants hosting the Bears and New Yorkers came to see not the Giants, but the legendary Grange. That game paid the bills and established Mara’s team, at least for the 1926 season. But the Grange game also caused Mara some problems.
Grange and his agent C. C. (Cash and Carry) Pyle applied to get an NFL franchise for Yankee Stadium for the 1926 season based on the Polo Grounds game. The NFL, protecting Mara’s franchise, said no. Grange and Pyle started the first American Football League in 1926. The league folded after just one season but the NFL took Grange and the Yankees franchise in 1927 to replace the Brooklyn Lions. Grange was injured in 1927 and his team folded after the 1928 season.
The New York territory has been in the Mara family since 1925 and as Bill Parcells said in 1991 when he quit as Giants coach, “it is the flagship franchise of the league.” Parcells spoke an awful lot of truth with that statement although there is little evidence that the Mara family was all that influential in the league and that whatever influence the Mara family may have had stemmed from being in the biggest city in America and their ability to withstand challenges from other owners trying to make it in New York in football.
The Mara family outlasted the Staten Island Stapletons (1929-32), the Newark Tornadoes (1930), the Brooklyn Dodgers (1930-43), and the Brooklyn Tigers (1944). In 1945, Dan Topping’s Dodgers merged forces with the Boston Yanks. Topping owned Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees owner was part owner of the Yanks-Dodgers combination. Topping decided to move his portion of the Tigers from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field to Yankee Stadium, but Tim Mara refused to allow Topping to invade his territory as the Polo Grounds as across the Harlem River from Yankee Stadium. Topping took holdings out of the NFL and joined the rival All American Football Conference in 1946 playing as the Brooklyn Dodgers and eventually as the second New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium. That team folded when the National Football League absorbed three AAFC teams, Baltimore, Cleveland and San Francisco in 1950.
That was not the last time Mara had to face competition from another Yankee Stadium-based team. The Boston Yanks moved to New York and the Polo Grounds in 1949 and the owners, the singer Kate Smith and her agent Ted Collins renamed the team the New York Bulldogs. In 1950, Collins and Smith moved across the river to Yankee Stadium and called the team the New York Yankees. That NFL franchise folded after 1951 and ended up in Dallas.
The Mara family would not have any New York City rivals between 1952 and 1959. In 1960, the fourth American Football League put a team in the Polo Grounds, Mara moved to Topping’s Yankee Stadium in 1956 from the Polo Grounds. Harry Wismer’s New York Titans franchise was a financial shipwreck but the AFL was able to get new owners for the team in 1963 with a group led by David (Sonny) Werblin.
Sonny Werblin gave the Mara family a lot of trouble. Werblin was well connected in show business and worked for a company that provided programming for David Sarnoff’s National Broadcasting Company. Sarnoff’s NBC lost the bid to gain control over NFL television rights in 1964 to William Paley’s Columbia Broadcasting System. Sarnoff decided to get even through Werblin and discussed how NBC would fund the AFL giving the league a multimillion dollar, multiyear TV deal.
NBC landed the AFL beginning with the 1965 season which gave AFL owners more money to compete for players after their college careers were done. That raised salaries and old line NFL owners and AFL owners needed to solve their money problem. Ironically it was Mara’s Giants that poured fuel on the AFL-NFL rivalry by signing Buffalo kicker Pete Gogolak. It was the first time the NFL went after an AFL star and the AFL’s new commissioner, Al Davis, took notice and as a league, the AFL went after the NFL’s two of the top quarterbacks, Roman Gabriel and John Brodie.
Werblin understood football was entertainment, something old line NFL owners like Mara’s son Jack and Wellington did not. Werblin used some of NBC’s money and a new home field, Shea Stadium, to land players like Joe Namath. Werblin, who believed in the star system, had his star, Namath and his new home field, Shea Stadium and his Jets became a credible rival to the Mara family’s Giants.
The two leagues, the NFL and AFL, merged on June 8, 1966. Apparently neither the NFL nor the Maras wanted a second New York team and one of the merger plans on the table was to move Werblin’s Jets out of New York so that the Maras would continue to have an NFL monopoly in New York. The league also wanted to maintain the San Francisco 49ers one team market in the Bay Area. Werblin’s Jets would have been relocated to Los Angeles, LA Rams owner Daniel Reeves would have taken his team south to San Diego, Barron Hilton would have moved his Chargers from San Diego to fill a hole in New Orleans, the two leagues needed support from Louisiana Senator Russell Long and House member Hale Boggs to pass the merger through Congress, and the Oakland Raiders would exit the Bay Area and end up in the Pacific Northwest in either Seattle or Portland.
That plan died in a House of Representatives merger hearings when NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle assured Brooklyn Congressman Emanuel Cellar, who has a very large place in NFL history despite never having played, coached or being an owner in the NFL, that all 24 teams, 15 NFL teams and nine AFL teams would not be relocated. Werblin and his partners, including Leon Hess, would pay Wellington and Jack Mara $10 million for invading the Giants New York territory and the Raiders ownership provide eight million dollars to the 49ers ownership to share the Bay Area marketplace.
Neither Werblin nor the Raiders ownership wanted a merger.
Wellington Mara became enough of an NFL visionary by 1971 that he accepted New Jersey’s new stadium offer which was presented to him by, of all people, Werblin who left the Jets partnership in 1968. Werblin headed up the New Jersey Sports Authority. Mara’s Giants moved into Giants Stadium in 1976 and played the venue’s first NFL regular season game on October 10th of that year losing to Dallas. Werblin’s former team, the Jets, moved into the Meadowlands in 1984. In 2005, Wellington Mara and Woody Johnson agreed to fund a new Meadowlands Stadium.
The Mara-Tisch guys beat Johnson this time around but the Giants and Jets franchises have been linked for decades and at the end of the day, Woody will get over not hosting the first NFL game in the new place, there is too much money at stake for him to continue having a fit and besides, the Mara-Tisch-Johnson troika will be bidding for a huge prize, the 2014 Super Bowl and NFL policy lately has been to reward owners who get municipal funding or build their own stadiums with a Super Bowl.