How NFL Quarterback Jersey Sales Nearly Destroyed The Union

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.