SI Vault
Jerry Kirshenbaum
October 01, 1973
While many NFL owners fulminated at the lifting of the TV blackout, Pete Rozelle poetically predicted cavernous stadiums faintly astir with the sound of pigeons and peanuts
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October 01, 1973

Chirp-chirp, Crunch-crunch

While many NFL owners fulminated at the lifting of the TV blackout, Pete Rozelle poetically predicted cavernous stadiums faintly astir with the sound of pigeons and peanuts

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While all about him other NFL owners moaned and groaned, Leonard Tose was losing his head. Enraged at the new Federal law prohibiting the NFL from blacking out events sold out 72 hours before game time, Tose, the president of the Philadelphia Eagles, announced last week that for this Sunday's home game against the Washington Redskins he would put on sale 376 ground-level seats with views so badly obstructed that, he confided wickedly, "I gave 50 of the tickets to charities for one game and even they didn't use them." The idea was that the obstructed seats would go unsold and the Eagles, by averting a sellout, would still have their blackout.

But Tose reckoned without one Mickey Rubin, whose ex-wife Betsy was named the other woman by Tose's wife in a well-publicized legal separation two years ago. Rubin is also Philadelphia's self-styled "Carpet King," a promotion-minded entrepreneur always looking for ways to publicize his broadlooms. He came up with a scheme of his own—what might be called Rubin's Revenge. He decided to buy every last one of Tose's obstructed seats and, having forced a blackout-lifting sellout, to take out full-page newspaper ads proclaiming "Rubin's Discount Carpeting buys out the stadium. Stay home and watch the Eagles and Redskins compliments of Rubin's."

When a Rubin emissary arrived at the box office with a blank check, Eagle officials refused to sell. "I won't be a party to some cheap publicity stunt," Tose snapped. Still, the Carpet King had pulled the rug out from under Tose, who at week's end was no longer quibbling about obstructed seats. "The Redskin game will be a sellout," the owner said dispiritedly. "It'll be on TV."

To judge from their reaction to the anti-blackout law, Tose and other NFL owners evidently feared that pro football might soon need to be covered by the endangered species bill, one of several important pieces of pending legislation that Congress pushed to one side in its haste to get at the blackout. Working its collective will just three days before the football season began, the House of Representatives approved lifting the TV blackout 336 to 37, with the Senate concurring by voice vote a scant 27 minutes later. President Nixon signed the bill the next day, then repaired to Camp David to watch his beloved Redskins beat San Diego on a telecast from Washington that the measure, now Public Law 93-107, had made possible. Said Jack Kemp (R., N.Y.), the ex-pro quarterback and one of the few to vote against the bill: "The last thing to pass this body so quickly was the Gulf of Tonkin resolution."

No sooner had Congress acted than the nation's football-watching habits began to change. The want-ad columns of the Kansas City Star blossomed with offers to sell Chiefs tickets rendered suddenly less desirable by the prospect of home TV, while a smaller number of advertisers, sensing a chance to finally get their hands on tickets, were offering to buy. The new law's 72-hour cutoff created a countdown-to-blastoff atmosphere in which nobody, not even NFL Broadcast Coordinator Bob Cochran, knew for sure what the weekly TV schedule might be. "That was TV Guide ," Cochran said one day last week, wearily hanging up the phone in the league's Manhattan headquarters. "They're going crazy." In the end, the blackout was lifted for 16 games in 12 cities in the first two weeks of the season.

This meant that many NFL home games had become just that, events that now could be watched at home, within reach of well-stocked refrigerators. But some football dining habits died hard. TV offered no temptations to diehards like Jerre Maynard, a Minnesota Viking season ticket-holder who, as usual, was whooping it up before the opener against Oakland with throngs of other Minnesotans in the Metropolitan Stadium parking lot. "Who wants to have a tailgate party in a rec room?" Maynard asked. And here and there around the league some fans enjoyed the best of both worlds—instant replay and in-stadium action alike—by lugging battery-powered TV sets into stadiums.

Meanwhile, old beat-the-blackout practices fell into disuse, bringing grief to many entrepreneurs. No longer was Route 30 out of Pittsburgh clogged with Steeler fans driving to watch home-game telecasts in motels beyond the 75-mile blackout radius. At the New York Giants' first two home games the crowds that used to gather on tenement rooftops overlooking Yankee Stadium had thinned to a stubborn few. And while many neighborhood bars were suddenly packing in TV football watchers, business was off at establishments like Miami's huge The Rhodes Brothers Club, which had previously pirated Dolphin home-game telecasts from a station 120 miles distant in Fort Myers.

For last year's games the Miami club drew as many as 500 fans at a time, a free-spending tribe that crowded the bar, calling audibles for Budweisers and Bloody Marys. For this season's opening-day win against San Francisco, the club's 9-by-12-foot TV screen remained dark and its space-age antenna went unused. Fewer than 80 customers quietly watched the game on three regular color sets. "We paid for all this equipment and we also had 800 uneaten hot dogs," moaned manager John White. "I figured it cost us at least $2,500. Most people just watched the game at home. You can't blame them, either."

It was the fans' craving for home-game TV—and their prospective votes—that inspired Congress to attack the blackout on a three-year experimental basis. The bill also covers network telecasts for baseball, basketball and hockey, but the NFL was the chief target. Baseball enjoys precious few sellouts while national telecasts of the NBA and NHL are mostly game-of-the-week affairs that would require lifting blackouts of no more than one city at a time. Strictly local telecasts are not affected by the legislation. Cynics attributed the congressional action to the ascendancy of the Washington Redskins. Noting that the politicians, like nearly everybody else in Washington, had not exactly stormed the stadium gates until Vince Lombardi and George Allen came along to revive the team's fortunes, one NFL official suggested, "None of this would have happened if Bill McPeak were still coaching the Redskins."

But it was the prosperity of pro football generally, not just the on-field deeds of Allen's Over the Hill Gang, that prompted the lifting of the blackout. Congress felt that the NFL, a $145-million-a-year operation that played to 96% capacity last season, could easily withstand any ill effects of legislation that, after all, had its own built-in escape valve. "If a game sells out, the owners have their money in pocket," explained the bill's sponsor in the House, Massachusetts Democrat Torbert Macdonald, a former Harvard football captain and minor league outfielder. "If it doesn't sell out, the blackout's in effect. It's as simple as that. To use a word in ill repute, the law becomes inoperative."

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