It has come to be ritual, has it not? Sunday, U.S.A. Church services done and noon dinner, too (mashed potatoes out of a box, but perhaps the gravy is from real sauces of roast beef). The men-folks' belts go slack, Sunday suit coats are slung across the backs of the dining-room chairs. It is the appointed hour, and there, sleek and ready in the parlor with its glass eye polished extra clear for Sunday, sits the Zenith, the RCA, the Motorola, the Admiral. Yes, it is Sunday, for hear the thunder of drums, the stir of martial music issuing from the glowing innards; and look, the screen is floating full of the padded bodies of professional football players. There is anticipation, the breath of violence, the spark of carnival in the parlor...The National Football League Is on the Air!...The American Football League in Action! For three, five, maybe even eight hours Sunday is consumed. Night falls with Unitas, Namath, Kapp, Lamonica...and oh how the money rolls in.
The professional football leagues of the United States collect $34.7 million from the NBC and CBS networks for the privilege of telecasting their games. This figure will increase in the 1970 season to $40 million or so, which is 20 times more money than the NFL got for selling the same thing only 10 years ago. Averaged out, it will come to $1.5 million a year for each of the 26 teams in professional football. It is with this money that the newlywed leagues intend to propagate and perpetuate the environment that has made their game America's premier athletic industry and the most popular national spectator recreation of the century.
It is television, nothing else, that has brought this ultimate gift of riches to pro football. The AFL leaped all but full-blown from the coffers of network television. The increase in franchises, the structure of the leagues, the dramatics of the playoffs and the creation of that celestial spectacle, the Super Bowl, have all been brought to us courtesy of the TV Establishment of America. Pro football, as we know it today, is plainly the son of Super Spectator.
Much has happened to pro football in the last 10 years; most of it is good, and nearly all of it has involved stupendous growth. "When I became NFL commissioner in 1960," says Alvin (Pete) Rozelle, "the office operation was two guys and an 80-year-old Kelly Girl in Philadelphia. Now we've got a whole new structure, a full-fledged administrative organization to keep up with expansion...." The 1969 offices of professional football now take up the 12th and 13th floors of a lofty glass skyscraper along one of the loveliest sections of Park Avenue in New York. The suite is thickly carpeted in red and green, there are paintings on the walls, the desk tops are broad and burnished walnut, the furniture is cool, leathery and plentiful. "Two guys and a Kelly Girl" have become 40 employees.
Pro football's opulence and ultraorganization does not imply a deficiency in the reign of Pete Rozelle's late and beloved NFL predecessor, Bertram DeBenneville Bell of Philadelphia. Bell was a brilliant pioneer who spanned the ages of the game. He knew the humiliation of seeing his Eagles play before a paying crowd that contained fewer people than the press box. But before he died in 1959, he also saw his game prosper mightily. Much of the credit for that prosperity goes to Bell, for it was he who perceived a quintessential truth about TV and sport.
Bell ruled flatly that there would be blackouts of all home-game telecasts, and he did this back in TV's dim ages when the DuMont Network and local stations had just barely patched together the first primitive hookups to put the game out on the tube. Thus, unlike baseball's TV-triggered brush with box-office catastrophe, the NFL's attendance climbed steadily in the '50s and '60s, and it now has reached 90% of stadium capacities. To put that in its proper perspective, one must keep in mind that professional football (again unlike baseball) was a weak and dubious sport for most of the 20th century. In the first 34 seasons of its existence, 40 franchises appeared, struggled briefly and failed.
A corollary truth perceived immediately by Rozelle was that the league could disintegrate in a morass of inequities unless the TV dollar was divided equally among all teams. What this did was insure that the have-not clubs with a tiny television potential (notably the Packers) could thrive along with the stout metropolitan haves, such as the Giants, Rams and Bears.
The course of pro football through those formative, fragile years of the '50s was piloted deftly by Bell, a plain, rugged man who used to transact much of his business sitting in his kitchen wearing only his underwear. Now there is Rozelle, an outwardly different breed of genius who wheels the fortunes of pro football from his Park Avenue offices, or perhaps from his Sutton Place apartment, or maybe from his 72-foot Chris-Craft yacht moored in the Hudson River. He is tanned year round, manicured, well barbered, finely tailored, articulate and still only 43 years old. But most important of all—among television pros he is considered a rare fellow.
"Pete is the most talented amateur I've ever seen," says Jack Dolph, until recently the director of CBS Sports. When particularly sticky negotiations are underway—such as last spring when owners were haggling over makeup of the newly merged leagues—TV executives feel free to stay out of it. "Pete will represent our interests as well as we could ourselves," says Chet Simmons, director of NBC Sports. Rozelle has even gained the ultimate business accolade. Dick Bailey, president of Hughes Sports Network, has said with an unconcealed trace of envy, "No one I know can squeeze the last buck out of a situation the way Pete Rozelle can."
One reason for his reputation is that Rozelle is as relentless as he is resourceful. In 1965, during a period of unrewarding renegotiation of the NFL contract with CBS, he realized that he did not have an essential weapon in his arsenal—the threat of moving to another major network if CBS did not meet his terms. (At the time NBC had the AFL and ABC was tied up with college football.) Undaunted, Rozelle ordered a top-secret study on the feasibility of the NFL creating its own television network. As the CBS situation continued to deteriorate, he showed the survey to a secret assembly of NFL owners. "I laid it all out," recalls Rozelle, "the bottom line potential, the top line and the blue sky possibilities in going to independent TV. It was feasible for us to do it—not a great situation, but within reality. The owners voted to go along with it—we would drop CBS and start out on our own." The owners were sworn to absolute secrecy about the vote. They also decided that CBS should have one more chance to meet the NFL terms and a 48-hour ultimatum was passed to CBS. It was met with yawns, shrugs and a splendid display of ennui—for a short time. "I don't know if CBS would have given in or not," recalls Rozelle, "but one of our owners, sworn to secrecy and all, got on the phone and told CBS about our survey and the dollar figures and the works. Up to the point of that leak, I think CBS had actually doubted our sincerity...." No more. Within 24 hours a new contract was settled and the NFL did not need its own television network after all. "Hell, those plans were phony," growled a TV executive recently. "And that damn 'leak' was phony, too. It was just another Rozelle ploy to squeeze CBS."