As pro football begins its biggest year, the Baltimore Colts depend on icy, daring Johnny Unitas to keep their title. Burgeoning attendance breeds a new league, but its future is rocky
October 04, 1959

The skinny, slightly stooped quarterback stood almost casually in a small open space. Around him the thump and clatter of big men in violent action disturbed him not at all. He looked to his right, feinted, then turned to his left and passed. On the goal line, the end reached easily for the ball and stepped over for the' touchdown. Johnny Unitas had thrown a touchdown in his 26th consecutive league game, Ray Berry had caught it and the Baltimore Colts had gone ahead to stay in their 1959 opener against the Detroit Lions.

It is safe to say that the 55,588 fans in Memorial Stadium all saw Unitas throw and Berry catch the pass. It is doubtful that more than a handful watched the dogged, persistent blocking which gave the play time to develop. It is superb protection which makes Unitas the finest quarterback in the league; plus, of course, his own ability to pinpoint passes, long or short, and to discover and exploit the flaws in a defense. These qualities make him the most valuable—and the most expensive—single player in the league.

There were no empty seats at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium. The night before, in a city bemused by the surge of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Rams drew 71,297 fans for their opening game with the New York Giants—which they lost 23-21. Over 300,000 season tickets have been sold by the 12 pro clubs this year, already insuring a profitable season for some of them. The mushrooming success of pro football, built solidly on a sensible TV program, wise distribution of talent and intelligent promotion, has encouraged a group of optimistic people, headed by Lamar Hunt of Dallas, to plan another league.

Hunt is the son of H. L. Hunt, who is one of three richest men in America. He presumably has unlimited capital to invest; for his information and the information of the backers in the six cities so far listed as franchise holders, he will need it. It costs roughly $1.5 million to operate a pro team for a year. Some of the items Mr. Hunt and his associates may have underestimated: $25,000 for telephone charges, $50,000 for insurance, $100,000 for team travel, $75,000 for scouting for player personnel, $400,000 plus for player payroll, $100,000 for coaches, equipment, managers, trainers. Laundry and cleaning is a paltry $5,000, but the 36 players on a pro team manage to stow away $40,000 worth of fodder during a season. The clubs in the new league will need an average of 35,000 fans—paid—per game to break even.

The experience of the All-America Conference, which began in 1946 and died after the 1949 season, should be a chilling example for Hunt et al. The AAC had the advantage of two and a half years' planning in which to draft name players who were in service and to acquire good franchises, uncontested, in San Francisco, Buffalo and Baltimore. They had owners—Dan Topping, Branch Rickey, Ben Lindheimer—who were familiar with sports promotion, and they were competing with a National Football League not nearly so solidly entrenched as it is today. What happened? The All-America Conference owners lost $11.5 million.

The pro season opened to the pleasant sound of whirring turnstiles. In San Francisco 41,697 people watched the 49ers defeat the Eagles 24-14. The Green Bay Packers upset the Chicago Bears before a full house in Green Bay; 33,844 saw the Pittsburgh Steelers stake a strong claim for the favorite's role in the East by beating Cleveland 17-7, and the surprisingly strong Chicago Cardinals ruined Washington 49-21, before 21, 892 customers in Chicago.

The figures most significant to Hunt and his associates were the relatively low ones at Chicago and Pittsburgh. Even now, with pro football enjoying the most prosperous season in its 40 years, three or four teams will barely break even.

Pro football is exciting, skillful, crowd-pleasing. It is also very expensive if you don't succeed.

ILLUSTRATIONHERE, SHOWN just before the ball takes flight from the accurate arm of football's most valuable player, is the key to the success of the Baltimore Colts. Johnny Unitas (19) has found a receiver open in the defensive secondary and, throwing unhurriedly, he is launching the guided missile which meant defeat for so many Baltimore opponents last season. He's unhurried because the massive, active Colt offensive line, fanatically dedicated to protecting him, has not allowed a single defender to seep through.