The First Family of Football
by finn-olaf jones
What a great time to be a Mara.
The mythical New York family that has owned the New York Giants football team for three generations is riding high. Along with last February’s Super Bowl victory—the fourth in the team’s history—the family has opened a new chapter in yet another ultracompetitive field, this time in Hollywood, with sisters Kate and Rooney Mara taking a (literal) starring role: Kate appeared in the feature film 10 Years and will soon be seen in the new Netflix series House of Cards, while Rooney took an Academy Award– nominated star turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Now Forbes has come out and valued the Giants at $1.3 billion—not bad given that the family still owns the team that great-grandfather Tim Mara originally bought back in the 1920s for $500 (or so the legend goes).
How can one family be so fortunate?
“Who knows? They’re extremely religious—and I mean the going-to-mass every day kind,” says sports journalist Gerald Eskenazi, who wrote There Were Giants in Those Days, a book on the team’s successes in the 1950s and ’60s. “Of all the teams I’ve ever been around, no franchise is as defined by a family as the Giants. They set a moral standard that filtered down to the coaches and players.”
Another longtime observer of the family, the legendary New York Times sports journalist Frank Litsky, agrees. “Unlike a lot of other team owners, the Maras have managed things personally for three generations,” he says. “They make the decisions. They set the salaries. They even write the contracts. They’ve always been innovative and have set the standards for the entire industry.”
Yet they’re a very secretive bunch. Despite owning the fourth most valuable team in the NFL, and despite having two daughters seeking new heights in Hollywood, the Maras are not the type to be seen in New York City society pages or at high-profile gatherings in the Hamptons. Indeed, for all their political and charitable activities, their strong Irish Catholic faith, and the inevitable whiff of glamour that comes from inhabiting an NFL owner’s box for three generations, there’s remarkably little written or known about the family. Indeed, given their Irish propensity to seek multigenerational influence coupled with their un-Irish desire to completely avoid the limelight, the Maras could be considered the anti-Kennedys.
When Pat Hanlon, who directs public relations for the Giants was e-mailed to ask how one might contact his clients, he responded with a one-word answer: “Punt.” When contacted for this story Rooney Mara’s publicist sniffed, “A feature focused on her family is of interest to many, understandably, but not to Rooney.”
David Patrick Columbia, who now deconstructs the daily rituals of the upper crust at newyorksocialdiary.com, remembers, “Some of the family members used to come in regularly when I had a clothing store in Greenwich, and I had little idea of what a big deal they were. The Kennedys crave attention, and then get destroyed by it. Whereas the Maras, with their background, have had a lot of chances to observe how being besieged by the public can be a pain. They’re not secretive, but they don’t want unnecessary attention, either.”
It may seem contradictory for a family that has so assiduously sought success in the sports business for eight decades to simultaneously shun publicity, but aren’t the best poker players those who keep their cards closest to their chests?
Gambling was something well known to Tim Mara, the founder of the family fortunes. Born into relative poverty, the young Mara started as a runner for bookies. By the time he turned 18, he had established his own betting business. In 1925, he was offered the New York franchise for the then five-year-old league for an alleged $500. Despite hiring legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe to toss the pigskin around the old Polo Grounds, Mara was on his way to losing $40,000 on his investment in the first season before setting up a much-ballyhooed game against what was to become the Giants’ long-term adversary, the Chicago Bears. Thanks to that one game, Mara regained his losses, and the two teams and the Bears’ star Red Grange split almost $150,000 in profits.
Mara was a quick learner. By focusing on star players and guaranteeing longer and more lucrative contracts, he built up the franchise and in 1963 was elected a charter member to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. By that time, the management of the Giants had been taken over by Tim’s two sons, Wellington and Jack. The two brothers were revolutionary in selling broadcast rights, including making a sweet pie-is-bigger-for-everyone deal to package national broadcasting rights on a league-wide basis, creating a revenue-sharing program that became hugely important for the growth and continued success of the league. Television perhaps more than anything is what has grown this franchise into a billion-dollar business. “Wellington was a great innovator,” recalls Eskenazi. “When instant cameras came around in the ’50s, he used to take photos of the opposition team’s formations from the stands when they were lining up and throw the photos down to his coaches in a weighted sock.”
Despite monetary success, the scores didn’t always fare as well. Poor drafts and a revolving door of coaches had resulted in a string of disappointments, including the infamous 1958 championship loss to the Colts, in a bout nicknamed “The Greatest Game Ever Played”—an epic struggle that went into overtime on one of the league’s first nationwide television broadcasts. After the patriarch Mara died in 1963, Jack died young in 1965, leaving his son, also named Tim, to manage his half of the business. And thus started, what has been called, “The Feud That Won Super Bowls.” While Wellington was a sober, devout family man who had started with the Giants as a ball boy, young Tim was of another generation. Despite working in the same office, the two were not even on speaking terms. Indeed, the team’s 1965 title in Wellington and Tim’s first season was their only win in the two decades following the senior Tim Mara’s death.
“Wellington knew that they were making bad decisions because of the family situation,” remembers Eskenazi. “He even had to sneak in potential replacement coaches from other teams for interviews without his nephew knowing.” Relations between uncle and nephew eventually became so dysfunctional that finally NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle stepped into the breech and mediated the hiring of general manager, George Young.
Young proved to be the glue that got the team to stick together and run smoothly again, making good hires like Bill Parcells as head coach and drafting elite players like Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor. Once again, the Giants became an elite franchise, winning Super Bowls in 1987 and 1991. The second Super Bowl win also ended the family feud with Tim selling his stake in the business for $75 million to Preston Robert Tisch, billionaire owner of the Loews Corporation. “Wellington knew Tisch,” says Eskenazi. “He was a season ticket holder, so he was happy with the partnership.”
Seven years ago, the Giants leadership passed on to a new generation when both Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch died within weeks of each other in October and November 2005. John Mara, Wellington’s son, became the third Mara to run the franchise, with Bob Tisch’s son, Steve, serving as chairman of the board. It’s apparently been a marriage made in heaven. Forbes ranks the new generation as the “best owners in the NFL,” with the estimated value up 33 percent in the past six years. And while John Mara is the undisputed boss of MetLife Stadium, Tisch—who doubles as a producer for blockbusters like Forrest Gump and Risky Business—was probably able to make a few introductions when John’s two nieces decided to go to Hollywood.
“I had a normal childhood,” Rooney Mara told the Associated Press in an interview promoting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. “I wasn’t like some spoiled little football brat.” While she and her sister, Kate, could probably have chosen from any number of private schools, they instead were sent to their local public high school, Fox Lane in Bedford, an upscale but not over-the-top suburb in the leafy northern reaches of Westchester County, close to many of their relatives and the old Wellington homestead in Rye.
But let’s get real: It would be hard to imagine the Mara sisters not making a splash anywhere they go. Not only are they blessed with divine bone structure and powerful connections, but they are also pigskin princesses twice over; their maternal great-grandfather, Art Rooney Sr., founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to family lore, on money made from a large bet on a horse race. The bookie who is said to have placed the bet for Rooney? None other than Tim Mara, the girls’ other great-grandfather.
Kate, who has sung the “Star-Spangled Banner” at a few Giants games, dove into the West Coast first, landing plum roles in the film Random Hearts, and then as the troubled daughter to Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain. Regular television work followed, notably recurring roles in 24 and Entourage. When little sister, Rooney, began her acting career, she shot to the top of the Hollywood heap quicker than a Lawrence Tynes field goal, landing roles in the reboot of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and then The Social Network, whose director, David Fincher, made her the star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
So what’s next for the magnificent Maras? As for Rooney, if she didn’t clinch the Oscar first time around with her nomination, she’s got two more films left in the franchise. After all, who else but a Mara would know that good things come to those who patiently wait for the next season? “No one from the next generation is currently working for the team,” says Peter John-Baptiste, the Giants’ vice president of communications. “But there’s no question that they want this to stay in the family.”
photography by NY Daily News via Getty Images (tim mara); Harry How/getty images (john k. mara);
Robert Riger/getty images (training); Jamie McCarthy/wireimage (rooney mara)
Cover shoot: May/June 2014 issue of Gotham magazine.