When James D. Norris became president of Madison Square Garden in 1955 he covered his ruggedly handsome head with sports promotion's most splendiferous crown. In all the world there is no indoor sports arena of greater prestige than the Garden, though it is neither the largest of arenas nor the best. But to athletes and sports fans its marquee lights Eighth Avenue with a special aura, as the lights of the old Palace once glowed for vaudevillians.
Last week Jim Norris reluctantly took off the Garden's gaudy crown. He sold his interest in it to an investment company which knows a good property when it sees one. In the opinion of the new owners the Garden has "much greater earning power than has been the case." So, by the force of self-made circumstance and the law, Norris this week stood stripped of his proudest possession.
Though Norris is most prominently associated in the public mind with prizefighting, despite heavy interests in both hockey and horse racing, and though some of ring history's most spectacular fights have been presented at the Garden, the Eighth Avenue arena always has been much more than a fight club. Just about every sport that can be housed indoors has been shown there. The finest of track, basketball, hockey, horse shows and dog shows, not to mention circuses, rodeos, ice shows and professional wrestling, have kept the Garden profitably busy through the years and often have filled it to capacity. But ever since television began piping the fights into the nation's living rooms without fee, boxing has become a minor sport at the Garden gate, attracting the scantiest of crowds. On fight nights the world's greatest sports arena has been so embarrassingly empty that its operators eventually stopped announcing how many (actually, how few) had paid to get in. To be sure, there was always a hard core of regulars present and an occasional attractive match drew a fair crowd. But as far as most boxing was concerned, the Garden became a TV studio.
It was boxing, nonetheless, that drove Norris out of the Garden. His monopoly grip on the sport, established through his International Boxing Club, eventually did him in. The grip was outlawed last month by the Supreme Court of the United States, which upheld the 1957 decision of Federal Judge Sylvester J. Ryan that Norris must dissolve the IBC immediately and sell his Garden stock within five years. Aware that a losing hand is best abandoned quickly, Norris sold the stock within three weeks.
February 9, 1959
Together with his generally silent partner, Arthur M. Wirtz, Norris controlled 40% of the Garden stock, quite enough to give him effective control. Last Friday he announced that his stock and Wirtz's had been sold for $4 million to Graham-Paige Corporation, which used to make automobiles but now makes investments. Graham-Paige has no special corporate interest in sport but its two principal officers, Chairman of the Board Admiral John J. Bergen, USNR and President Irving Mitchell Felt, are all-round fans. Admiral Bergen is a founder and chairman of the board of the New York Yankees Stadium Club, a pleasant rendezvous where members may sip and lunch before a baseball game. He is also a governor and secretary-treasurer of Long Island's Deepdale Golf Club. Graham-Paige holdings include investments in Botany Mills, Inc. and Hotel Corporation of America, as well as gas and oil properties. The investment company also bought the holdings of some other Garden investors and now holds more than 50%.
THE TV FIGHTS
The forced sale, and other provisions of Judge Ryan's decree, left Norris in control only of Chicago Stadium, as far as boxing is concerned. The Stadium in turn controls promotion of the Wednesday night fights on TV. But as this week began even that control had taken on a shaky aspect, because the Stadium, by court order, can promote only two championship fights a year for the next five years. The impression is abroad that such a limitation is satisfactory neither to the two fight-broadcasting networks, ABC and NBC, nor to the sponsors of the fights they televise.
"Continuity" is a big word in television. One of IBC's greatest sales arguments had been that, because of its monopoly—which gave it a very special hold on fight managers—it could guarantee a "continuity" of fights throughout the year. No other promoter could make such a guarantee. But with all its power, the continuity the IBC provided was mainly an uneven flow of mediocre fighters facing ill-matched opponents.
Aside from a continuity of dullness the IBC was able to guarantee the networks a reasonable number of championship fights in the course of a year because it controlled most of the champions. These championship bouts were highly important to the television industry. As Tom Gallery, NBC sports director, testified during the antitrust suit, an ordinary fight draws perhaps 19 million viewers whereas a big title fight can attract 40 million or more. The networks are willing to support the ordinary fights in order to get the title fights. Because of theater network competition they did not get them all—and they missed some of the best—but enough championship events were televised into the home to keep the sponsors moderately happy, or at least resigned to the fact that the IBC was the only store in town.
Now competition is beginning to set in.
This week, for instance, Competitor Bill Rosensohn, a former television man who had just signed Heavyweight Champion Floyd Patterson and No. 1 Challenger Ingemar Johansson for a title fight in June, got an offer which he hopes may lead to a network promotion contract. He did not name the network that made him the offer but it was known that he talked to ABC representatives directly after signing Patterson and Johansson.
"I have already been offered part of one network boxing show," Rosensohn said, "but I want more than a part. I'd like to take over boxing on an entire network. One network has offered me a chance to put on one fight a month but I want to put on a fight every week. No final decision was reached because I am also talking to representatives of the other network and I have to leave on a few weeks' trip around the country to pick a site for the heavyweight title fight."
Rosensohn had said earlier that he would use the Patterson-Johansson fight as "bait" to get a network show. Now his bait has brought him at least a nibble, a clear indication that Norris has begun to lose whatever remains of his once mighty grip.
"But when we get down to serious discussions," Rosensohn continued, "I don't want to base my pitch on the Supreme Court decision. I would want to give the network and the sponsors a better package than they have been buying these past few years—better matchmaking, better fighters, more excitement every week and the heavyweight championship to boot."
Thus the International Boxing Club began to dissolve, though not in the tears of boxing men. Founded in January 1949, when Joe Louis resigned his heavyweight championship so that the IBC could run an elimination tournament to find, and grab firm hold of, his successor to the title, the organization eventually came to dominate boxing by tying the various champions to it with exclusive contracts. A challenger could not get a bout with a titleholder without contracting to fight exclusively for the IBC in case he should win. Thus the IBC perpetuated its control of the various titles. It grew so big and powerful that, until Manager Cus D'Amato came along with a young fighter named Floyd Patterson, no one seriously challenged its power. But D'Amato, who had been humiliated by the IBC in his quest for recognition of Patterson, eventually hoodwinked it out of control of the heavyweight championship. Control of that title has traditionally spelled something resembling control of boxing. Control of it now may be the weapon to wrest Norris' remaining network from him.
It was not D'Amato alone, of course, who brought the IBC to its present state. Floyd Patterson had something to do with it by defeating Archie Moore for the title, though the IBC experts had been confident that Archie would take care of the stripling and Norris himself had bet large sums on Moore. But Patterson surprisingly came off his stool like a lithe young lion, astonished the old master by taking charge of the fight and knocked him out to become the first free heavyweight champion since the IBC was formed. D'Amato then picked a row with the IBC, though not without provocation, and announced a severance of relations.
Loss of the heavyweight championship was a shattering blow to Norris, who then started an unsuccessful campaign to persuade Rocky Marciano to come back, but the loss was not disastrous. The knockout punch was delivered by experts of the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, who twice had to go to the Supreme Court to bring the IBC to heel—the first time to obtain permission to sue the IBC as a monopoly, the second time to obtain approval of Federal Judge Ryan's decree.
Judge Ryan is a man of charm, grace and wit but he is awfully tough-minded, too. His decree was one of the most severe ever handed down in an antitrust case. It was also just about the only way the Norris monopoly could have been ended.
Judge Ryan ordered Norris and Wirtz to dissolve the IBC and to dispose of their Garden holdings. This left them with Chicago Stadium and one ABC television network contract. Both the Garden and the Stadium were enjoined, for a period of five years, from promoting more than two championship fights in each calendar year. He ordered the compulsory leasing of the Garden and the Stadium, at reasonable rentals, for the promotion of boxing contests "as long as [the two arenas] are owned or controlled by the defendants." Since Norris and Wirtz no longer own or control the Garden this order may not apply to Graham-Paige. Unexecuted IBC contracts "for the exclusive services of any boxer and for the promotion of more than two contests in any one calendar year" were declared null and void. So were exclusive leases with independently owned stadiums around the country.
This, as Judge Ryan himself noted, was "drastic" but he insisted that it was "required by the facts."
"Championship boxing was regarded by defendants as a business, engaged in solely for profit," he said. "For these profits defendants were bent upon a plan of monopolization to exclude all competition and leave them free to reap financial gains.
"The relief outlined herein is designed to put an end to the conspiracy; to deprive defendants of their present position in the market, which was attained through the conspiracy, and to destroy the monopoly which they created and seek to perpetuate. Professional championship boxing contests will be opened with television and radio broadcasting to legitimate and healthy competition."
This competition, he made clear, would then be possible between the Garden and the Stadium, since the Norris interests would be completely out of the Garden.
It takes a little time for a concept like that to penetrate the best minds on Stillman's Stoop, where a certain naive cynicism generally prevails. Ever since the Supreme Court decision last month, the sea lawyers of boxing have been holding to the theory that boxing still would be-controlled by Norris through the use of stooges. The idea was that the Garden and the Stadium, once so intimately connected, would continue to work in friendly cahoots. The idea spread from Eighth Avenue to Broadway, where Columnist Dorothy Kilgallen capsuled: "Biggies in the International Boxing Corp. [sic], outlawed by a recent Supreme Court decision, have completed plans to get around the legal blow. The same key men—Truman Gibson, Harry Markson, and Jim Norris—will continue to exercise control, although in a slightly different manner."
DON'T FORGET JUDGE RYAN
If they do, they will have Judge Ryan to deal with. The penalties for such collusion to circumvent a federal court order of this nature are potentially so severe that legitimate lawyers to whom this possibility was broached were astounded that it would cross anyone's mind. One penalty is imprisonment, and the term of imprisonment is at the discretion of the judge. There is no time limit.
Gibson and Norris will surely work together in the operation of Chicago Stadium. Harry Markson, hitherto IBC's managing director, may well continue to serve the Garden, since his experience in boxing goes back to the days of Mike Jacobs, and since Graham-Paige has indicated it has no "present" plans for changes in Garden personnel. But if Markson remains at the Garden you may be sure that he will be a true competitor of his old bosses. He has to be—or someday face the cold blue eye of Judge Ryan.
It may take months for the new situation to resolve itself. In the end, however, boxing will be a healthier, more honest, exciting and very probably a more profitable sport from the standpoint of fighters, managers and independent promoters. As for the fans, they'll see new faces and, once in a while, a really good fight.