In the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, on a hot humid night last month, some 70,000 people paid from $3 to $6 for the privilege of watching the St. Louis Cardinals whomp the Green Bay Packers in a preseason football game. It was not a particularly good game, but the spectators howled as though they were seeing a championship playoff.
"Does that crowd and that noise prove anything to you?" asked Dave Dixon, the promoter of the game, when it was over. "If it hadn't rained all day, we would have filled the stadium. We would have had 82,000. We need a pro club here."
As pro football enters its 69th year, the keynote of the most rapidly growing spectator sport in history is expansion. And pro football, in this year of change, problems and prosperity, is overflowing its stadiums.
The two biggest worries of the established National Football League are what to do about expansion and how to cope with the stepchild of its own prosperity, the American Football League. Probably the most eagerly awaited game in American sports is the playoff between the National and American champions, but this still seems years away.
"We have no plans for such a game," repeated NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle recently. "The welfare of our players is one of our prime concerns. Their efforts in the championship game produce $900,000 annually in pension benefits, and a playoff with the AFL could only dilute this, certainly not increase it.
"Besides that, I would like to point out again that for three years we were publicly vilified by the owners in the AFL, and we were sued by them for $10 million, a suit which cost the NFL a great deal of time and money to win. It was less than a year ago—only last December—that this suit was finally resolved."
Rozelle is not too eager to move into new cities, either, despite the indicated interest and obvious ability of New Orleans and Atlanta to support a professional football team.
"I doubt that we will expand the league in the immediate future," he says. "If and when we do, then certainly Atlanta and New Orleans deserve the strongest consideration. But one of the difficulties is personnel. It takes years to acquire the depth of material necessary to be a contender in the NFL. Dallas and Minnesota are good examples of that."
If and when the NFL does expand, the Tex Schramm plan is the one most favored by the owners. Schramm, the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, envisions two conferences, each split into two four-team divisions. The division champions would play for the conference championship, and then the conference winner would play for the league championship, thus stretching the season into January.
But to utilize this plan, the NFL would have to add two teams, and it is doubtful that promoters in Atlanta and New Orleans will sit waiting for their NFL bid when the AFL is eager to move in and might soon do so.