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The following is an excerpt from "NFL Football: A History Of America's New National Pastime" by Richard Crepeau. The author joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. You find the interview and Bill's book review here.
From NFL Football: A History of America's New National Pastime by Richard C. Crepeau. Copyright 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press.
The Perfect Television Game
The engine that powered the new National Football League was television. All else seemed to derive from it, as for three decades television provided at least half of the annual revenue flowing into the league. It was the Great Enabler for the league, the owners, the players, and for all those ancillary enterprises associated in any way with the NFL.
While television money was important, perhaps even critical, to the AFL, it became increasingly important to the NFL. During the ’60s the NFL and television developed a relationship in which the senior partner was not always easy to identify. Was television dependent on the NFL? Or was the NFL dependent on television in a way the AFL clearly was? Or were these two partners locked in an embrace that both enjoyed, and which neither could afford to terminate?
As was made clear during the 1950s, the embrace was an enticing one. The NFL provided television with dramatic content at an inexpensive rate, while television provided the NFL entrée to the American home and psyche. It seemed like a win-win situation as these two new entertainment entities grew together. It was reality television before there was such a genre.
Pete Rozelle came from a public relations background and seemed to have a genius for dealing with television, and indeed with all media. He built upon the foundation laid by Bert Bell and quickly established the NFL as the senior partner in its relationship with television. His adeptness and growing reputation served the NFL very well and created an aura of awe around the commissioner. When Rozelle relocated the NFL offices to Rockefeller Center, he placed the NFL at the epicenter of Madison Avenue and the television networks, and adjacent to the money men of Wall Street. The move was a claim to status and power, and a message to all that the NFL was ready to operate at the highest levels of the new economy.
Rozelle seized control of the NFL, creating a clear sense that all league business ran through his office, and all owners were obliged to rally around the league rules and regulations. David Harris called this “League Think,” and it built upon Bert Bell’s notion that the individual interests of the teams were best served by financial sharing, a notion first put to the test in building the business relationship with television.
In a number of accounts, Pete Rozelle is credited with the idea of a unified national television contract with shared revenue. A recent biography of Bert Bell indicates that Bell was the first to propose the concept, and that he persuaded the key major-market owners—Halas, Mara, and Marshall—to support it. In his autobiography George Halas indicates that he, along with Bell, Mara, and Marshall, proposed revenue sharing. As the plan developed, Bell died of a heart attack before any action was taken, and nothing more happened until Rozelle was chosen commissioner. Actually, television revenue sharing was first proposed by baseball’s Bill Veeck and was picked up by both Bell and Lamar Hunt. Behind this policy was a belief that, across the nation, many fans would be NFL fans, not simply supporters of particular teams. In the end, regardless of whose idea it was, this first television contract, argues Michael Oriard, “more than any other single factor . . . made the NFL what it has become.”
In late April of 1961, the commissioner reached an agreement with CBS on a two-year deal worth $9.3 million to broadcast all NFL regular-season games. Shortly thereafter the U.S. Department of Justice filed a civil suit over the contract, arguing that it violated antitrust law, and that the ruling by Judge Grim in 1953 allowing the blackout did not give the league the authority to negotiate a collective television contract. The NFL asked for a rehearing, and that request was denied.
The commissioner then sought relief in the U.S. Congress. Using his political contacts, which included presidential press secretary Pierre Salinger, as well as Carroll Rosenbloom’s Kennedy connections and help from a number of other sports organizations, Rozelle proved effective. The NFL argued that an antitrust exemption was needed for the television contract so that the American public could watch the NFL every week, making it sound like a constitutional right.
In early September the House Judiciary Committee complied with the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 that allowed professional and amateur sports leagues the right to sell their television contracts collectively. It passed both houses of Congress with ease, and President Kennedy quickly signed the bill into law. In short order CBS and the NFL re-signed their $9.3 million contract. The lesson was clear. The NFL was dependent on government at all levels as a “powerful enabling but non-profit-sharing partner.” Ron Powers saw this episode as “the first step in what would become a lifelong obsession of Rozelle’s: the license to do exactly what he thought was best for the league, and for network television . . .” It might be said “A Czar Is Born.”
From the start of his professional life in New York, Rozelle cultivated well-connected, powerful, and brilliant men: Herb Siegel, chairman of the board of Chris Craft, who was regarded as an “astute media man”; Jack Landry, the senior vice president at Philip Morris, which owned Miller Beer and became a major sponsor of NFL football; David Mahoney, chairman of the board of Norton Simon, a Park Avenue public relations firm; and Bob Tisch, president of Loews Corporation. This power quartet kept Rozelle informed on media developments and advised him on television network negotiations. In return, Rozelle offered good seats to NFL games and invitations to his parties. The other major player close to Rozelle was Bill MacPhail, the head of CBS Sports, whom some argued Rozelle both used and exploited in the NFL’s dealings with the networks.
Rozelle developed the NFL’s media relations and moved to exploit the media and manipulate the public, politicians, and anyone else deemed worthy of manipulation. The commissioner redesigned the NFL public relations apparatus with the help of Jim Kenzil, an Associated Press writer who became one of Rozelle’s closest advisers.
Understanding the insatiable American appetite for numbers, Rozelle hired Elias Sports Bureau to pump out a never-ending stream of statistics for media and public consumption. Sports Illustrated fell under the commissioner’s charms as it grew in tandem with the NFL. Tex Maule, in covering the NFL for SI, wrote in the reverential tones that came to permeate the magazine under Rozelle’s watchful eyes. This was the beginning of a process of change within the NFL, the world of sports television, and American culture.
The sixties was a watershed decade for sports and television. ABC’s decision to develop sports as a central part of their programming moved the other networks in the same direction. The result was a sharp increase in the hours of sports on television, a quantum jump in rights fees, and a repackaging of sports to fit the needs of television. The influx of undreamed-of amounts of money into sports further transformed the sports culture. The battle over money led to an enhanced role of unions in professional sport, which in turn led to further conflict and disruption.
The 1964 NFL television rights auction illustrated the growing power of the NFL, as well as the Machiavellian skills of the one man everyone seemed to trust, and no one should have. Rozelle proved a ruthless negotiator. All three networks were invited to submit sealed bids to this auction. Both CBS and ABC had inquired if Sunday doubleheader telecasts would be acceptable. Rozelle replied in the affirmative. NBC did not ask, and Rozelle did not volunteer the information to NBC because he felt it would be “unethical for me to reveal a rival’s plan.”
At each of the networks, the sports executives convinced the top levels of management to go to extremes to get this contract.Rozelle disingenuously claimed the bids were opened in random order. First came NBC’s bid at $20.6 million, or $10.3 million per year, a significant increase over the expiring CBS contract. Next, ABC offered $26.4 million, or $13.2 million per year including doubleheader broadcasts, nearly triple the old contract. Certainly no one would go higher. The CBS bid was the winner, at $28.2 million, or $14.1 million per year. The announcement took the air out of the room, as it was the largest sports contract ever and almost seven times higher than the previous contract.
Tom Moore at ABC was certain that CBS had knowledge of the ABC bid the night before. Rumors circulated concerning inside information. Color commentator Pat Summerall recalled that he was with Bill MacPhail at CBS late in the week when MacPhail got a call from Rozelle, who told MacPhail to resubmit the offer because the commissioner did not want NBC to get the contract. NBC moved immediately to sign the AFL. The final number was $42 million for five years, a figure that ABC had no interest in matching. As a result, within about a week both leagues had new television contracts.
Rozelle was even more impressive in the negotiations with CBS over the 1966 contract. Many assumed that Rozelle had no leverage on CBS, as no other network was bidding. What the commissioner presented to CBS was the NFL option to create its own television network unless it got what it wanted from CBS. The network agreed to pay $37.6 million for two years, plus $2 million for the two championship games. Shortly after the deal was sealed, CBS learned that there was going to be a merger, and that the championship games for which they were paying $2 million were only preliminary contests to the AFL-NFL championship game. Rozelle’s close friend Bill MacPhail asked why no one told him about the pending merger. The commissioner’s friendly reply was “because it was our business and nobody else’s.”
The 1970 NFL contract produced a stratospheric jump when a four-year agreement was signed between the NFL on one side and CBS and NBC on the other. Ultimately, the total package came to $142 million. The breakdown was $10 million for the Super Bowl, with each network getting two telecasts. The regular-season rate was $33 million per year, with CBS paying $18 million for the NFC and NBC paying $13 million for the AFC. The variance in price resulted from the differences in the television market sizes as well as previous Nielson ratings. The NFL had already signed an $8.6 million deal with ABC for Monday Night Football. This brought the total package to more than $46 million annually, or $1.76 million per team per year. It was a nice way to begin the life of the new NFL, but this was only a preview of the riches that lay ahead. In Churchillian language, it was the end of the beginning.
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