Scion of the gridiron

Enthusiasm trumps family legacy as Johnson's Jets take off

NJBIZ STAFF//May 30, 2011//

Scion of the gridiron

Enthusiasm trumps family legacy as Johnson's Jets take off

NJBIZ STAFF//May 30, 2011//

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While Woody Johnson hails from one of New Jersey’s most legendary business families, his approach to both the New York Jets and the state he has made their full-time home more closely reflects the all-out approach of an entrepreneur cultivating his first startup.

Since he bought the Jets for $635 million in 2000, the organization has improved on the field and as a business, including two straight playoff appearances and a new home, in New Meadowlands Stadium.

While Johnson sees a bright future for his team — and for the chances of a 2011 season — he has a much darker view of the business climate in a state where his great-grandfather, Robert Wood Johnson I, helped start Johnson & Johnson. The state’s business climate, including regulations and taxes, are particularly vexing.
“It’s been a disaster,” Johnson said. “There’s four things that you need to know as a kid: reading, writing, arithmetic and pension management. OK? And you should learn that, because it’s behind the door, nobody looks at it, these deferred expenses.”

Johnson said growth in state government since the days of Gov. Thomas Kean, as well as open-ended commitments to fund public pensions, have put the state in a bind, but its sophomore governor gives him some hope.
“We’re not competitive with other states: South Carolina, Texas, Florida,” Johnson said. “We may be on a competition level with California, but we’ve got this weather, and they’ve got that weather, so they have a little edge there, too. I think Governor (Chris) Christie — and the Legislature — really has the potential of turning this state around and making it competitive.”

The ties between Johnson and business advocacy transcend his name’s legacy, as the stadium’s suite holders are representative of the top people in the business world. Those suite holders, who shell out thousands of dollars a year for their boxes, “are part owners,” Johnson said. “They come in, it’s their space, it’s very productive from a business standpoint — and it’s extremely productive from a family standpoint, too, if you have that luxury. But they are offered virtually everything that we do that they want to participate in.”

One connection the stadium hasn’t made with business is that of a naming sponsor, but Johnson said he’s unconcerned, as such a sponsorship opportunity is “a dynamic way to … enhance the image of your firm to your clients and to your customers in a way that’s unparalleled.”
Fans have given the stadium mixed reviews, but Johnson described it as a “masterpiece.”
“It’s a hard thing, designing something for two teams. We really come from two different cultures. People complain about it being gray, but gray is really a combination of all those colors. We think that’s a good neutral color — and then, on Jets day, that stadium is bleeding green, so when a Jets fan comes in, he says, ‘OK, I’m home,'” Johnson said.

But besides a sponsor and the gray seats, the biggest challenge for the stadium might be its neighbors. Sparring over the Meadowlands Racetrack seems to have ended happily, with a new owner installed, but the future of the Izod Center remains unknown, and while progress is being made at American Dream Meadowlands — formerly Xanadu — the project’s checkered history invites skepticism.

“Obviously, it would be great for the state if it could go, create a lot of jobs and opportunity for people,” Johnson said in an interview before new plans for American Dream were announced. “It’s our neighbor, so we’d like it to be something or nothing. Just to sit there doesn’t help us.” Izod, meanwhile, should be addressed by the private sector, without additional state spending, he said.

The team, along with the Giants with whom the Jets share New Meadowlands Stadium, hopes the megamall and entertainment complex is completed before the 2014 Super Bowl, which the stadium will host — an idea stadium CEO Mark Lamping credited to Johnson, though the Jets chief himself credits NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
“This will be the largest event in the history of New York and New Jersey,” with benefits extending to other states, Johnson said. “The businesses in New Jersey can start being creative about how they can participate. The leadership of the Super Bowl will be all ears listening to people in both states in terms of how we can most efficiently, most effectively, run this absolutely unusual Super Bowl.”
He hopes part of what makes it unusual will be snow, making for a grittier game. He also hopes the game opens the door to future Super Bowls.

“We can’t make any mistakes — we really have to think of everything, and leave two states with a good feeling both in the amount of money that they’ve made and the experiences they’ve had, and some sort of legacy, which we’re looking at now: What are we going to leave behind?” Johnson said.

Landing a big bid like the Super Bowl — or even the approval for the stadium construction — has meant working closely with Giants ownership, a decidedly unique experience in professional sports. But Giants co-owner John Mara said the arrangement “has been very good.”

“As partners, we have had to make hundreds of decisions in connection with this project, and we have agreed on nearly every one of them,” Mara said. “We both want the same thing — to create the best possible stadium experience for our fans.”
Lamping said he’s seen that collaboration up close. “We have the facility that we have today because of their commitment,” he said. “Woody aggressively lobbied his fellow owners, along with John Mara and (co-owner) Steve Tisch to deliver the votes” for the Super Bowl.

That passion is what stands out for George Zoffinger, former chairman of the New Jersey Sports & Exposition Authority and a Jets fan since the team was called the Titans and played at New York’s Polo Grounds.
“He has a passion to see the team do well and he basically has his heart and his head in the right place,” Zoffinger said. “He’s doing the things he needs to do to try to build a winner, and at the same time, it ends up being a good thing for New Jersey.”

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