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The Little Bighorn had to happen precisely as it did, with the ensuing loss of life, for America to grow into the place that it is today. Think of it this way: for Americans in 1876, the massacre at the Little Bighorn was the very visceral twin of the attack on 9/11.

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Philadelphia on the Sports Marketing Map

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When a young businessman, Jerry Wolman, bought the Philadelphia Eagles in 1963, professional football was in approximately the same shape as tough-man boxing was a few years ago. That is to say: it had an impressive cult following; major advertisers and TV networks were still exceedingly nervous about it; celebrities wouldn’t even think about bothering to show up at the big games, and the really entrenched sports, like baseball, horse racing, big-time college football and heavyweight boxing were still supremely arrogant and condescending – as they whistled all the way past the graveyards of American leisure-time dollars.

But Jerry Wolman read the rune stones early; dreamed the vision and was one of a handful of people who were centrally responsible for putting Philadelphia on the marketing map for big league sports. Just in case you think Wolman’s big picture was limited to the Eagles, ponder this: without Wolman there would have been no sports complex in South Philadelphia, no Spectrum, no NHL hockey team, and no sense that the city could be something much more than the bad old days of the Phillies at their worst.

Now, almost 50 years later, let’s list the ways that pro football has evolved:

  • The worst teams in the league are billion-dollar assets and their value keeps increasing.
  • Network TV would have almost no chance of creating enough profitable content to keep operating without the annual boost from pro football.
  • The NFL saved Fox-TV from oblivion.
  • Competing leagues keep coming and going and failing, and the NFL just keeps rolling along.
  • Horse racing is a memory; heavyweight boxing has sold what was left of its besmirched soul to Europe and Russia, college football is still struggling to get it right with the dysfunctional BCS bowl set-up, and baseball, for all its innate greatness, is holding its collective breath that the next national scandal won’t be its last.
  • The NFL has muscled its way in as one of the iconic foundations of American pop culture and entertainment marketing around the globe.
  • Pro football – in all of its diverse manifestations and profit streams – is bigger than General Motors was at the height of that corporation’s power and glory. And no franchise is more deeply entrenched in its demographic target zone than the Philadelphia Eagles.

When did this seminal transformation begin? Right around the time that sharp young entrepreneurs like Jerry Wolman decided to make their move into pro football.

Wolman, a native of Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, worked his way out of coal country and into big business as an investor and real estate developer.

It would be hard to dream up a Hollywood script with any more twists, turns, and cliff-hangers than the Jerry Wolman story. He was a guy whose heart was bigger and deeper than the anthracite deposits that reach all the way to the center of the earth. It still is.

Think of it this way: Imagine Eagle Vince Papale as a brash young businessman, instead of a player – Wolman — intent on breaking into the old boy’s network of sports owners. It’s a little bit of Rocky, a dash of Wall Street and enough of the Blind Side to keep you rooting for the kid from Shenandoah.

I spoke with Wolman quite a few times over the winter and almost connected with him at Tommy Brookshier’s funeral. He’ll be in Philadelphia soon to re-introduce the public to his riveting story and to announce the publication of his book, Jerry Wolman: The World’s Richest Man.

Just in case you aren’t a sports fan and find yourself turning midnight green with envy every time you think about how much the NFL takes in each season – not to mention the networks and the makers of games like Madden, 2010 – Wolman’s record as a selfless philanthropist and friend of the under-dog could probably bring tears to Donald Trump’s eyes.

Try to see Wolman when he’s in town, think back fondly to the time when the Eagles played at Franklin Field, and make sure you check out his book (it will be available through Amazon, independent booksellers and at Wolman’s website, JerryWolman.com.

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