The 1963 season kicked off with the dedication of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and saw the continued escalation of ticket sales and television ratings, and an important legal victory. On Thursday, Nov. 21, the U.S. Fourth Circuit court of appeals reaffirmed the lower court's ruling in favor of the NFL in the AFL's $10 million antitrust suit, effectively bringing to an end 3 1/2 years of litigation. Several owners sent telegrams of congratulation, which were waiting for Rozelle when he arrived at his office, in a buoyant mood, the following day.
Rozelle and Kensil were returning from their lunch at the Holland House that Friday afternoon when they heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. Less than an hour after a choked up, shaken Walter Cronkite delivered the news of the president's death on CBS, with secretaries and executives at the NFL offices walking around in tearful disbelief, Rozelle contacted Kennedy's press secretary, Pierre Salinger, a friend and fellow University of San Francisco alum. After talking with Salinger, he decided the NFL would go forward with that weekend's schedule of games. Historians have tended to judge Rozelle harshly for that move, partly because he was so hard on himself. On numerous occasions in his later years, he would describe the decision as the greatest single regret of his commissionership.
Despite the criticism, the sharpest he'd endured during his tenure, the year still ended triumphantly for Rozelle and the league. In early November, Sports Illustrated managing editor Andre Laguerre made the decision to name Rozelle the magazine's Sportsman of the Year. Laguerre himself had incurred some criticism for running a picture of Navy quarterback Roger Staubach--rather than a memorial to JFK--on the cover of SI the week after the assassination, so he wasn't inclined to change his mind about who should be SI's Sportsman just because of the unpopularity of the Rozelle decision. The honor had grown increasingly visible as the magazine had matured, and Rozelle, as the first nonathlete to win the award, provoked plenty of interest, many letters and much dissent. Though it would later be seen as a visionary selection, its practical impact was more immediate. "It gave me more credibility with the old guard of owners," said Rozelle. "Suddenly, I was no longer a 33-year-old kid commissioner." Laguerre saw then what would become obvious later: Rozelle was revolutionizing sports as well as the role of the sports commissioner.
With Hornung on the sideline, the Packers weren't the same team in 1963, losing the Western Conference title to Chicago. The Bears would go on to win the NFL title that season, with George Halas lifting the championship trophy one more time, as Chicago beat the Giants 13--10.
A week later, after Sid Gillman's San Diego Chargers routed the Boston Patriots 51-10 in the AFL title game, a few members of the press began to publicly question whether the AFL champions might be on par with the NFL champs. After San Diego's victory, Gillman said, "We're the champions of the world. If anyone wants to debate it, let them play us." Even former Cleveland Browns quarterback Otto Graham said he'd pick the Chargers to beat the Bears if the two teams could have met.
The talk prompted another round of merger whispers, as well as a Gillman telegram to his old boss Rozelle, which read, "Pete--Even Pope John recognized the other league."
Gillman received Rozelle's reply the next day: "Sid--Yes but it took him two thousand years."
The coda to Rozelle's amazing 1963 came a few weeks later, in January 1964, with the first-ever open bidding for an NFL television contract. The NFL was being viewed as one of television's most valuable properties, a perception reinforced by the league's increasingly sophisticated marketing skill. Baseball commissioner Ford Frick seemed utterly clueless by comparison. "The view a fan gets at home," he said, "should not be any better than that of the fan in the worst seat of the ballpark."
Rozelle instructed each network that was interested to submit a sealed bid for a two-year deal at the NFL offices at 11 a.m., Friday, Jan. 24. Bill MacPhail showed up for CBS, Carl Lindemann for NBC and Roone Arledge for ABC. The first bid opened, from NBC, was for $10.3 million a season. Then came ABC's bid, for $13.2 million a season, virtually tripling the annual value of the previous CBS deal. Finally, Rozelle opened CBS's bid and announced that the network had come in with a proposal that called for $14.1 million per season. Like its competitors, CBS's bid included a plan to broadcast, for the first time, doubleheaders the last five weeks of the regular season.
"Pete was always cool," remembered Barry Frank, then a J. Walter Thompson advertising exec, later a lieutenant to Arledge, who was in the room that day. "He didn't bat an eye, he just read out each bid. The mood in the room was tense, because this was the future. MacPhail was almost overcome." Rozelle and MacPhail headed to Toots Shor's for a celebratory toast, while the representatives of the other networks left in dejection.