When James D. Norris became president of Madison Square Garden in 1955 he covered his ruggedly handsome head with sports promotion's most splendiferous crown. In all the world there is no indoor sports arena of greater prestige than the Garden, though it is neither the largest of arenas nor the best. But to athletes and sports fans its marquee lights Eighth Avenue with a special aura, as the lights of the old Palace once glowed for vaudevillians.
Last week Jim Norris reluctantly took off the Garden's gaudy crown. He sold his interest in it to an investment company which knows a good property when it sees one. In the opinion of the new owners the Garden has "much greater earning power than has been the case." So, by the force of self-made circumstance and the law, Norris this week stood stripped of his proudest possession.
Though Norris is most prominently associated in the public mind with prizefighting, despite heavy interests in both hockey and horse racing, and though some of ring history's most spectacular fights have been presented at the Garden, the Eighth Avenue arena always has been much more than a fight club. Just about every sport that can be housed indoors has been shown there. The finest of track, basketball, hockey, horse shows and dog shows, not to mention circuses, rodeos, ice shows and professional wrestling, have kept the Garden profitably busy through the years and often have filled it to capacity. But ever since television began piping the fights into the nation's living rooms without fee, boxing has become a minor sport at the Garden gate, attracting the scantiest of crowds. On fight nights the world's greatest sports arena has been so embarrassingly empty that its operators eventually stopped announcing how many (actually, how few) had paid to get in. To be sure, there was always a hard core of regulars present and an occasional attractive match drew a fair crowd. But as far as most boxing was concerned, the Garden became a TV studio.
It was boxing, nonetheless, that drove Norris out of the Garden. His monopoly grip on the sport, established through his International Boxing Club, eventually did him in. The grip was outlawed last month by the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld the 1957 decision of Federal Judge Sylvester J. Ryan that Norris must dissolve the IBC immediately and sell his Garden stock within five years. Aware that a losing hand is best abandoned quickly, Norris sold the stock within three weeks.
Together with his generally silent partner, Arthur M. Wirtz, Norris controlled 40% of the Garden stock, quite enough to give him effective control. Last Friday he announced that his stock and Wirtz's had been sold for $4 million to Graham-Paige Corporation, which used to make automobiles but now makes investments. Graham-Paige has no special corporate interest in sport but its two principal officers, Chairman of the Board Admiral John J. Bergen, USNR and President Irving Mitchell Felt, are all-round fans. Admiral Bergen is a founder and chairman of the board of the New York Yankees Stadium Club, a pleasant rendezvous where members may sip and lunch before a baseball game. He is also a governor and secretary-treasurer of Long Island's Deepdale Golf Club. Graham-Paige holdings include investments in Botany Mills, Inc. and Hotel Corporation of America, as well as gas and oil properties. The investment company also bought the holdings of some other Garden investors and now holds more than 50%.
THE TV FIGHTS
The forced sale, and other provisions of Judge Ryan's decree, left Norris in control only of Chicago Stadium, as far as boxing is concerned. The Stadium in turn controls promotion of the Wednesday night fights on TV. But as this week began even that control had taken on a shaky aspect, because the Stadium, by court order, can promote only two championship fights a year for the next five years. The impression is abroad that such a limitation is satisfactory neither to the two fight-broadcasting networks, ABC and NBC, nor to the sponsors of the fights they televise.
"Continuity" is a big word in television. One of IBC's greatest sales arguments had been that, because of its monopoly—which gave it a very special hold on fight managers—it could guarantee a "continuity" of fights throughout the year. No other promoter could make such a guarantee. But with all its power, the continuity the IBC provided was mainly an uneven flow of mediocre fighters facing ill-matched opponents.
Aside from a continuity of dullness the IBC was able to guarantee the networks a reasonable number of championship fights in the course of a year because it controlled most of the champions. These championship bouts were highly important to the television industry. As Tom Gallery, NBC sports director, testified during the antitrust suit, an ordinary fight draws perhaps 19 million viewers whereas a big title fight can attract 40 million or more. The networks are willing to support the ordinary fights in order to get the title fights. Because of theater network competition they did not get them all—and they missed some of the best—but enough championship events were televised into the home to keep the sponsors moderately happy, or at least resigned to the fact that the IBC was the only store in town.
Now competition is beginning to set in.