A number of franchises are shaky. Oakland, with a losing team, has to play across the bay in San Francisco; so far the Raiders have dropped seven owners, one coach, one general manager and two publicity men. Boston newspapers give more space to the New York Giants than to their own Boston Patriots, who may find themselves without a playing field after 1962. The Dallas Texans must compete with the Dallas Cowboys, and neither can make money in a setup like that. New York's problem is Harry Wismer. Ed Blaine, a Missouri tackle drafted by both the Green Bay Packers of the NFL and Wismer's New York Titans, explained that he had seriously considered signing with the Titans. Then he talked to Wismer. "After spending 10 minutes in the same room with that man," said Blaine, "there was no doubt about what I was going to do. I went straight back to my hotel and signed with the Packers."
Still, the AFL has managed to sign the first draft choice of the Detroit Lions for the last two years. And although the new league has been far less successful this season than last in signing top college players, it has forced the NFL into a costly bidding race. The Philadelphia Eagles had to come up with a $5,000 bonus and a $15,000 contract to win a Georgia tackle named Pete Case away from the Houston Oilers; this is approximately twice the amount the NFL used to pay for rookie tackles. Ray Jacobs, a 270-pounder from Howard Payne, got in on the gold rush by signing with both the Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys, then didn't know which bonus check he was legally entitled to cash. Said his wife, Jo Ann: "I've got a check in one hand for $3,000 and a check in the other for $2,500—and $1.50 in my purse for groceries. I still don't know what that big, dumb tackle is going to do." With luck Jacobs will collect a potful of cash at the expense of one league or the other, and neither can stand this sort of thing very long. "Sure, the AFL is hurting us," says Buddy Parker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "The NFL is 25% weaker this year."
If the AFL owners—most of them men of wealth—can afford to hang on for another three or four years, the league will be established. Pay television probably will arrive sometime during that period and almost automatically convert each franchise into a solid moneymaker. Maybe five or six of the eight cities now in the league will survive long enough to cash in. But if too many franchises fold, the remaining teams—the strong ones—probably will be integrated with the NFL. That is what men like Hunt and Adams wanted in the first place. But what a price to pay for the privilege!
The American Football League does have one thing going for it: it is attempting to gain acceptance in a sport that already has proved profitable. But the American Basketball League is trying to pass off its own inferior product as big league in a sport where the established big league is still crawling out of the bushes. Why anyone should want to follow in the National Basketball Association's footsteps is difficult to see. The NBA is a pitifully unbalanced league, with the Boston Celtics dominating the Eastern Division, and the Los Angeles Lakers now dominating the West. The schedule is a cruel series of overnight hops from town to town over a murderous six-month period. The playoff system, in which a full season of competition eliminates only one team in each division, is a farce. The result is that attendance is down 30% this year. The NBA stays alive because of its network TV contract.
Despite all this, Abe Saperstein, the promotional genius of the Harlem Globetrotters, has coveted an NBA franchise for years. Denied admittance, he decided to form a new league, with his own team in Chicago. Thus the ABL—conceived in pique and dedicated to revenge. The league's Los Angeles Jets, playing in the shadow of Elgin Baylor and the Lakers, can't even attract fans with free passes. Kansas City, the best team in the new league, has won 18 of 23 games because (unlike most of the other teams) the Steers managed to sign legitimate local college stars like Larry Comley of Kansas State, Bill Bridges of Kansas and Charles Enke of Missouri. Yet the Steers, who need 3,000 spectators a game to break even, have averaged only 1,500, and are even dropping off that pace. The San Francisco Saints' are averaging 3,500, according to the management, and this relative success may make them eligible for the NBA when the ABL folds, if the figures are accurate. It has become almost standard practice to inflate attendance figures in the new leagues, adding a whole colony of "ghost spectators" to the announced gate. One team fired its press agent for the cardinal sin of understating the attendance at a game.
Desperately looking for some glimmer of light in the bleak picture, Saperstein is quick to note that "our league is giving employment to the little men in basketball—which is something the pro sport hasn't done before." It might be pointed out that the WPA provided employment, too, but nobody made money off it in the long run. Saperstein's league is so incredibly underfinanced that it has to save every piece of string merely to endure through this first season. The Los Angeles Jets, for example, use airplanes for their long hauls, but when they arrive in the Midwest they discreetly switch to private automobiles to cut costs. Awarding a franchise to Honolulu was a romantic idea, but not a very practical one, since private cars cannot make that jaunt. ABL teams fly to Hawaii, but to keep from having to make the expensive trip too often they hang around the island long enough each time to play the Honolulu Chiefs five straight games. Watching two great pro basketball teams five nights in a row would tax even the most rabid fan, but watching Honolulu against the Chicago Majors over the same grueling stretch is clearly above and beyond the call of spectating duty.
Surprisingly, there is one new league that is in even worse shape than the cut-and-patch ABL, and that one is the National Bowling League, an out-and-out promotional venture created on the premise that millions of bowlers would assure the success of the game as a spectator sport. Well, bowling is not a spectator sport, and already the NBL is going under. Curtis Sanford of Dallas, the big mover and shaker of the new league, will not admit defeat, but Sanford is an energetic, driving promoter who never gives up until he is going down for the third time. Already the waters have closed over his head twice. At first, crowds turned out more from curiosity than anything else; the curiosity satisfied, they returned no more. Omaha folded, and so did San Antonio. Who knows who will be next? The Kansas City Stars drew 187 one night. Los Angeles drew 350 and blamed it on 1) the rain, 2) the Lakers' playing in town, 3) Bob Hope. They should have blamed it on bowling. Detroit is doing better than any of the other cities, with Dallas not too far behind. Yet Dallas drew only 300 for a recent match with Fort Worth. "This is the way I figure it," says one midwestern sports editor. "I like to bowl; I also like to fish, but I don't want to pay to see someone else fish. Now you take football or baseball. I can't possibly run 50 yards for a touchdown against the Giants or hit a home run off Whitey Ford, so I'll pay money to watch someone else do these things. But occasionally I can bowl just about as well as any of these guys in the league; sometimes I can bowl better."
Originally the NBL expected national network television support, but it failed to materialize. The league runs at night, during prime TV time, and sponsors figure they'll stick with Garry Moore and Dr. Popenoe. "Unless this league has the backing of national TV time, it isn't going to go," says Harold Weber, who owned the original Chicago franchise but dropped it like a rattlesnake when he found out there was to be no television. "We don't need TV," says Sanford. We'll see.
The shameful part of all this misguided sporting creativity is that a few men with integrity and energy and municipal pride are going to be hurt before expansion is completed. Sport, like everything else, must have its pioneers, and if everyone sat back and waited nothing would ever happen. But it is regrettable that so many of the new leagues and teams and franchises were poorly planned and ineptly organized. Too many entrepreneurs tried to fill vacuums that were not vacuums and wound up expanding for expansion's sake alone. For the sports promoter of the future the lesson should be clear. The American fan wants quality. Let the seller beware.