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New York Football's Odd Couple

Mr. P

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At the new football stadium in the Meadowlands, the tinted signs that delineate seating areas have been wired to glow green when the Jets play and blue when the Giants do.


The locker rooms are identical in size—down to the square inch. The ushers and concessions sales staff will wear different uniforms depending on which team is playing and the 82,500 seats in the stadium's bowl are fashioned in a neutral gray.


As New York's NFL franchises prepare to open their new $1.7 billion stadium this fall, there's no such thing as a picayune detail. After several years of trying to get a divorce, the Giants and Jets have been forced back into an old partnership that has become as tense and uncomfortable as it is unique to the NFL. The Jets, who were co-tenants at the old Giants Stadium since 1984, spent five years and tens of millions starting in 2000 trying to build their own digs on Manhattan's West Side—but the effort failed in 2005, forcing them to cast their lot with the Giants in the Meadowlands.


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While an aura of polite respect carries the day in public, behind the scenes the Jets, with their modern outlook, and the conservative Giants, who bear the weight of 85 years of history, have squabbled over everything from modern architecture to who should hire the ticket-takers. Sometimes the feud erupts in small—some would say petty—acts of pique. A few seasons ago, after the Giants refused to help pay for portable toilets for tailgaters, the Jets began locking them up so Giants fans couldn't use them.


The feud reached a peak this winter over the issue of which team would be granted the first home game in the new stadium. John Mara, whose family co-owns the Giants with the family of Steve Tisch, says he told NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that his team's unwavering commitment to the Meadowlands made them a more worthy choice than the Jets, who had only entered the partnership by default.


New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, left, and New York Giants co-owner John Mara at a tour of the new stadium, which their two NFL teams share.


Meanwhile, Jets owner Woody Johnson made his case by describing the Giants as yesterday's news—Mr. Johnson says he reminded Mr. Goodell that the Jets had become the toast of New York during last season's surprising run to the AFC Championship game. (Mr. Goodell pronounced the Giants the winner after a private coin flip at league headquarters.)


"These teams have dramatically different personalities," said Mark Lamping, the chief executive of the New Meadowlands Stadium, who has served as a neutral arbiter on the project for two years. "We do everything we can to be Switzerland."


The relationship began on friendly terms. John Mara's father, the late Wellington Mara, and former Jets owner Leon Hess, were close friends who spent afternoons at the racetrack together. During an exhibition game against the Giants at the Meadowlands in 1981, Mr. Hess asked Robert Mulcahy, then the chief executive of the Meadowlands, if moving in could be an option. Thirty months later, after easily gaining Wellington Mara's approval, they drafted the framework of a deal over a lunch in a back room at La Caravelle. "It wasn't cutthroat," Mr. Mulcahy said. "If anything came up, they were just little nips. We always figured it out."


After Mr. Hess died and Mr. Johnson bought the Jets from his estate in 2000 for $635 million, things began to change. Mr. Johnson began a push for the Jets to build their own stadium in Manhattan. He also began pressing for more equal treatment at the Meadowlands—forcing the Giants to play defense.


In 2002, after New Jersey's sports authority spent thousands upgrading the Giants offices at the stadium, Mr. Johnson demanded the agency spend an equal amount upgrading the Jets locker room. The next year, the Jets asked if they could keep a massive green banner hanging on the side of the stadium between back-to-back home games. The Giants declined.


When the Giants demanded access to the high-end portable toilets the Jets had brought in for tailgaters, the Jets demanded they help cover the costs. The Giants responded, as the leaseholder, by ordering the Jets to remove the toilets immediately. Ultimately, state officials had to intervene.


Even when they're pursuing the same goal, the teams sometimes find ways to trip over each other. In 2008, as the teams looked for ways to fund the new stadium, Jets officials say they seized on the concept of selling personal seat licenses, which would require fans to pay between $1,000 and $27,500 for the right to buy season tickets in coveted locations. For months, the Giants resisted the idea before telling the Jets they were on board. In June 2008, however, the Giants scheduled a conference call without telling the Jets. During the call, Mr. Mara announced that the team would sell the licenses—but added that the Giants regretted the move and were even remorseful about the effect it might have on their fans.


The call left the Jets steaming. Team officials say the team had planned a marketing campaign spinning the sale as a positive thing: an opportunity for their fans to join an exclusive club and own an asset that could appreciate over time.


"All 32 teams in the league have different approaches," Mr. Mara said of the disagreement. "Some of our business elements are different from the Jets. They have a different way of doing some things."


Mr. Johnson said apologizing for the licenses was a bad idea—especially because the teams had to invest so much of their own money. Licenses, he says, are "an opportunity" for fans in an era where public stadium financing is hard to come by.


The new stadium's overall look represents a win for the Jets. The Giants had pushed for a traditional brick structure with luxury suites stacked on one side that would cost about $800 million. Mr. Johnson's design team preferred a sleek, modern $1 billion structure with luxury boxes circling the stadium and exclusive restaurants and clubs on every side.


To Mr. Johnson, the stadium is the building of his dreams, one that echoes his earlier plans for a stadium in Manhattan with giant video boards in each corner and luxury in spades. He says it is a symbol of his franchise's ascendancy and signals the end of the era of being the poor sister in New York's football psyche.


"We're on equal footing with anybody," Mr. Johnson said. "It's the evolution of where we've been coming for 10 years."



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