Hello, sports fans. To fill you in on the results of some of last week's pro games, the Steers trampled the Rens 109-102, the Gladiators stabbed the Toros 35-8, the Oilers drilled the Raiders 47-16, the Jets blasted the Chiefs 90-89 and the Stars dazzled the Skippers 19-10. As soon as you recover from the shock of those scores, we'll tell you more.
Honestly, there are new pro teams named the Steers, Gladiators, Jets, Chiefs and Stars; also the Pipers, Patriots, Panthers, Bombers, Bills and a few dozen others you may not have caught up with. Along with the Cavaliers, Saints, Chiefs, Broncos, Packers, Titans and Tapers, they are entrants in the three newest "major" leagues to grace professional sport: the American Basketball League, the National Bowling League and the American Football League., otherwise known as the ABL, the NBL and the AFL. Not to be confused with these (and if you're not confused by now, you're not paying attention) are other new teams called the Twins, Angels, Mets, Cowboys, Vikings and Packers in the AL, the NL, the NFL and the NBA, leagues established, more or less, for a number of years.
All of this alphabet soup has splattered sport into a new era: the era of befuddlement. Only a certified public accountant with a good pair of trifocals can follow the sports pages, and not the least puzzled of the citizenry are the sportswriters themselves. The
San Francisco Chronicle
listed every team and every team nickname on its bulletin board and underscored them in heavy red pencil to keep the poor headline writers from racing en masse to the nearest mental hospital. There are so many box scores, statistics, standings and schedules that The Kansas City Star
decided to change its tiny agate typeface to a blacker, more legible one to keep its readers' optometry bills down.
Actually, only a little practice is needed to keep all the teams straightened out. Perhaps the best system is to do it by towns. Take Los Angeles. Although the NFL, the AL, the NL, the NBA, the NBL and the ABL have franchises there, the AFL has moved to San Diego. With that in mind, just keep telling yourself that the Dodgers of the National League are named in posthumous honor of pedestrians who have tried to cross the Hollywood Freeway, and the Lakers of the NBA are so called because Los Angeles has even more lakes than Death Valley. The National Football League's Los Angeles Rams, of course, came from Cleveland, and the American League's Los Angeles Angels are owned by Gene Autry, who rides a horse almost all the time now, since his driver's license has been suspended.
Now consider the other coast. The Giants of the NFL play in Yankee Stadium; the Mets of the NL will play in the Polo Grounds and be managed by that famous National League figure, Casey Stengel; and the New York Gladiators of the NBL compete in Totowa Borough, N.J. Once having seen the Knicks of the NBA, who could forget them? And you all know Harry Wismer.
If, after all this, you are still perplexed, get in line. The new teams, the new leagues, the franchise shifts, the flux and the puzzlement are all part of a frantic scramble for the entertainment buck that makes the Oklahoma land rush look like a Sunday stroll through Central Park. Perhaps avarice and greed are words too strong to describe the primary motivational factor; on the other hand, so are civic pride and altruism.
The lamentable fact is that whether the new owners and promoters climbed on the bus simply to make money or for less interested purposes, most of them turned out to be bubbleheads. The public has proved to be more sophisticated and knowledgeable than anyone had figured. Although generally in favor of expansion, fans refused to pay for inferior products, particularly with television at their fingertips. As a result, only a very few of the clubs in the new leagues now find themselves on sound financial ground—the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers of the AFL and perhaps the San Francisco Saints of the ABL, to name the only three that come immediately to mind. With franchises such as Omaha and San Antonio of the National Bowling League rigor mortis already has set in.
Expansion, properly conceived and executed, is an admirable goal for all sports. With a population that has grown to 180 million, and with more leisure hours available today than anyone dreamed possible, who can deny that a demand for good new sports events exists, at least in certain areas? Houston, for example, with a population of almost a million, the largest city in the South, deserves big league baseball, professional football and basketball. The same is true of Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, Dallas, Kansas City. But the trouble with the expansion now rampant is the haste with which it came about.
The American and National leagues are cases in point. The big-league baseball owners killed the proposed Continental League; then, fearing congressional action, they took immediate steps to fill the void. The American League moved to 10 teams in 1961 and discovered that this was an unwieldy, inefficient number to begin with, whether you happen to favor 61 home runs or not. Now the National League is prepared to dilute and suffer, too. Because big league baseball remains the best loved of all sports, it will survive and continue to grow. Eventually Toronto and Dallas and Denver and Atlanta will go big league, too, perhaps in expanded 12-team leagues. In the meantime, baseball must struggle, and so must baseball players. Jetting back and forth across the country, switching time zones week by week, the bleary-eyed ballplayer spends a lot of his time resetting his watch and the rest of the time trying to figure out what ball park he's playing in at the moment. "One night in L.A. I wondered why I was so tired," said Vic Wertz, last season with Boston, now with Detroit. "But then I realized although it was only 10 o'clock it was one a.m. back in Boston." Complained another player: "Just about the time I get straightened out, it's time to leave."
But baseball's expansion problems, nettling though they may be, are as nothing next to those of professional football and basketball. The National Football League is flourishing and has been for 10 years, but some of the franchises are hardly as sound as the public is led to believe. Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Washington are all hurting at the gate. So what chance does the American Football League have? This is a league that was formed out of frustration. When the NFL stubbornly slammed the door in the face of several deserving cities, Lamar Hunt of Dallas and Bud Adams of Houston decided to take matters into their own hands. Now, in its second year of operation, the AFL is losing less money than it lost in 1960, but its television sponsors are beginning to back out and the resulting blow to each team amounts to about $100,000.