Hello, sports fans. To fill you in on the results of some of last week's pro games, the Steers trampled the Rens 109-102, the Gladiators stabbed the Toros 35-8, the Oilers drilled the Raiders 47-16, the Jets blasted the Chiefs 90-89 and the Stars dazzled the Skippers 19-10. As soon as you recover from the shock of those scores, we'll tell you more.
Honestly, there are new pro teams named the Steers, Gladiators, Jets, Chiefs and Stars; also the Pipers, Patriots, Panthers, Bombers, Bills and a few dozen others you may not have caught up with. Along with the Cavaliers, Saints, Chiefs, Broncos, Packers, Titans and Tapers, they are entrants in the three newest "major" leagues to grace professional sport: the American Basketball League, the National Bowling League and the American Football League., otherwise known as the ABL, the NBL and the AFL. Not to be confused with these (and if you're not confused by now, you're not paying attention) are other new teams called the Twins, Angels, Mets, Cowboys, Vikings and Packers in the AL, the NL, the NFL and the NBA, leagues established, more or less, for a number of years.
All of this alphabet soup has splattered sport into a new era: the era of befuddlement. Only a certified public accountant with a good pair of trifocals can follow the sports pages, and not the least puzzled of the citizenry are the sportswriters themselves. The San Francisco Chronicle listed every team and every team nickname on its bulletin board and underscored them in heavy red pencil to keep the poor headline writers from racing en masse to the nearest mental hospital. There are so many box scores, statistics, standings and schedules that The Kansas City Star decided to change its tiny agate typeface to a blacker, more legible one to keep its readers' optometry bills down.
Actually, only a little practice is needed to keep all the teams straightened out. Perhaps the best system is to do it by towns. Take Los Angeles. Although the NFL, the AL, the NL, the NBA, the NBL and the ABL have franchises there, the AFL has moved to San Diego. With that in mind, just keep telling yourself that the Dodgers of the National League are named in posthumous honor of pedestrians who have tried to cross the Hollywood Freeway, and the Lakers of the NBA are so called because Los Angeles has even more lakes than Death Valley. The National Football League's Los Angeles Rams, of course, came from Cleveland, and the American League's Los Angeles Angels are owned by Gene Autry, who rides a horse almost all the time now, since his driver's license has been suspended.
December 25, 1961
Now consider the other coast. The Giants of the NFL play in Yankee Stadium; the Mets of the NL will play in the Polo Grounds and be managed by that famous National League figure, Casey Stengel; and the New York Gladiators of the NBL compete in Totowa Borough, N.J. Once having seen the Knicks of the NBA, who could forget them? And you all know Harry Wismer.
If, after all this, you are still perplexed, get in line. The new teams, the new leagues, the franchise shifts, the flux and the puzzlement are all part of a frantic scramble for the entertainment buck that makes the Oklahoma land rush look like a Sunday stroll through Central Park. Perhaps avarice and greed are words too strong to describe the primary motivational factor; on the other hand, so are civic pride and altruism.
The lamentable fact is that whether the new owners and promoters climbed on the bus simply to make money or for less interested purposes, most of them turned out to be bubbleheads. The public has proved to be more sophisticated and knowledgeable than anyone had figured. Although generally in favor of expansion, fans refused to pay for inferior products, particularly with television at their fingertips. As a result, only a very few of the clubs in the new leagues now find themselves on sound financial ground—the Houston Oilers and San Diego Chargers of the AFL and perhaps the San Francisco Saints of the ABL, to name the only three that come immediately to mind. With franchises such as Omaha and San Antonio of the National Bowling League rigor mortis already has set in.
Expansion, properly conceived and executed, is an admirable goal for all sports. With a population that has grown to 180 million, and with more leisure hours available today than anyone dreamed possible, who can deny that a demand for good new sports events exists, at least in certain areas? Houston, for example, with a population of almost a million, the largest city in the South, deserves big league baseball, professional football and basketball. The same is true of Minneapolis-St. Paul, San Francisco, Dallas, Kansas City. But the trouble with the expansion now rampant is the haste with which it came about.
The American and National leagues are cases in point. The big-league baseball owners killed the proposed Continental League; then, fearing congressional action, they took immediate steps to fill the void. The American League moved to 10 teams in 1961 and discovered that this was an unwieldy, inefficient number to begin with, whether you happen to favor 61 home runs or not. Now the National League is prepared to dilute and suffer, too. Because big league baseball remains the best loved of all sports, it will survive and continue to grow. Eventually Toronto and Dallas and Denver and Atlanta will go big league, too, perhaps in expanded 12-team leagues. In the meantime, baseball must struggle, and so must baseball players. Jetting back and forth across the country, switching time zones week by week, the bleary-eyed ballplayer spends a lot of his time resetting his watch and the rest of the time trying to figure out what ball park he's playing in at the moment. "One night in L.A. I wondered why I was so tired," said Vic Wertz, last season with Boston, now with Detroit. "But then I realized although it was only 10 o'clock it was one a.m. back in Boston." Complained another player: "Just about the time I get straightened out, it's time to leave."
But baseball's expansion problems, nettling though they may be, are as nothing next to those of professional football and basketball. The National Football League is flourishing and has been for 10 years, but some of the franchises are hardly as sound as the public is led to believe. Dallas, Minnesota, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Washington are all hurting at the gate. So what chance does the American Football League have? This is a league that was formed out of frustration. When the NFL stubbornly slammed the door in the face of several deserving cities, Lamar Hunt of Dallas and Bud Adams of Houston decided to take matters into their own hands. Now, in its second year of operation, the AFL is losing less money than it lost in 1960, but its television sponsors are beginning to back out and the resulting blow to each team amounts to about $100,000.
A number of franchises are shaky. Oakland, with a losing team, has to play across the bay in San Francisco; so far the Raiders have dropped seven owners, one coach, one general manager and two publicity men. Boston newspapers give more space to the New York Giants than to their own Boston Patriots, who may find themselves without a playing field after 1962. The Dallas Texans must compete with the Dallas Cowboys, and neither can make money in a setup like that. New York's problem is Harry Wismer. Ed Blaine, a Missouri tackle drafted by both the Green Bay Packers of the NFL and Wismer's New York Titans, explained that he had seriously considered signing with the Titans. Then he talked to Wismer. "After spending 10 minutes in the same room with that man," said Blaine, "there was no doubt about what I was going to do. I went straight back to my hotel and signed with the Packers."
Still, the AFL has managed to sign the first draft choice of the Detroit Lions for the last two years. And although the new league has been far less successful this season than last in signing top college players, it has forced the NFL into a costly bidding race. The Philadelphia Eagles had to come up with a $5,000 bonus and a $15,000 contract to win a Georgia tackle named Pete Case away from the Houston Oilers; this is approximately twice the amount the NFL used to pay for rookie tackles. Ray Jacobs, a 270-pounder from Howard Payne, got in on the gold rush by signing with both the Oilers and the Dallas Cowboys, then didn't know which bonus check he was legally entitled to cash. Said his wife, Jo Ann: "I've got a check in one hand for $3,000 and a check in the other for $2,500—and $1.50 in my purse for groceries. I still don't know what that big, dumb tackle is going to do." With luck Jacobs will collect a potful of cash at the expense of one league or the other, and neither can stand this sort of thing very long. "Sure, the AFL is hurting us," says Buddy Parker of the Pittsburgh Steelers. "The NFL is 25% weaker this year."
If the AFL owners—most of them men of wealth—can afford to hang on for another three or four years, the league will be established. Pay television probably will arrive sometime during that period and almost automatically convert each franchise into a solid moneymaker. Maybe five or six of the eight cities now in the league will survive long enough to cash in. But if too many franchises fold, the remaining teams—the strong ones—probably will be integrated with the NFL. That is what men like Hunt and Adams wanted in the first place. But what a price to pay for the privilege!
The American Football League does have one thing going for it: it is attempting to gain acceptance in a sport that already has proved profitable. But the American Basketball League is trying to pass off its own inferior product as big league in a sport where the established big league is still crawling out of the bushes. Why anyone should want to follow in the National Basketball Association's footsteps is difficult to see. The NBA is a pitifully unbalanced league, with the Boston Celtics dominating the Eastern Division, and the Los Angeles Lakers now dominating the West. The schedule is a cruel series of overnight hops from town to town over a murderous six-month period. The playoff system, in which a full season of competition eliminates only one team in each division, is a farce. The result is that attendance is down 30% this year. The NBA stays alive because of its network TV contract.
Despite all this, Abe Saperstein, the promotional genius of the Harlem Globetrotters, has coveted an NBA franchise for years. Denied admittance, he decided to form a new league, with his own team in Chicago. Thus the ABL—conceived in pique and dedicated to revenge. The league's Los Angeles Jets, playing in the shadow of Elgin Baylor and the Lakers, can't even attract fans with free passes. Kansas City, the best team in the new league, has won 18 of 23 games because (unlike most of the other teams) the Steers managed to sign legitimate local college stars like Larry Comley of Kansas State, Bill Bridges of Kansas and Charles Enke of Missouri. Yet the Steers, who need 3,000 spectators a game to break even, have averaged only 1,500, and are even dropping off that pace. The San Francisco Saints' are averaging 3,500, according to the management, and this relative success may make them eligible for the NBA when the ABL folds, if the figures are accurate. It has become almost standard practice to inflate attendance figures in the new leagues, adding a whole colony of "ghost spectators" to the announced gate. One team fired its press agent for the cardinal sin of understating the attendance at a game.
Desperately looking for some glimmer of light in the bleak picture, Saperstein is quick to note that "our league is giving employment to the little men in basketball—which is something the pro sport hasn't done before." It might be pointed out that the WPA provided employment, too, but nobody made money off it in the long run. Saperstein's league is so incredibly underfinanced that it has to save every piece of string merely to endure through this first season. The Los Angeles Jets, for example, use airplanes for their long hauls, but when they arrive in the Midwest they discreetly switch to private automobiles to cut costs. Awarding a franchise to Honolulu was a romantic idea, but not a very practical one, since private cars cannot make that jaunt. ABL teams fly to Hawaii, but to keep from having to make the expensive trip too often they hang around the island long enough each time to play the Honolulu Chiefs five straight games. Watching two great pro basketball teams five nights in a row would tax even the most rabid fan, but watching Honolulu against the Chicago Majors over the same grueling stretch is clearly above and beyond the call of spectating duty.
Surprisingly, there is one new league that is in even worse shape than the cut-and-patch ABL, and that one is the National Bowling League, an out-and-out promotional venture created on the premise that millions of bowlers would assure the success of the game as a spectator sport. Well, bowling is not a spectator sport, and already the NBL is going under. Curtis Sanford of Dallas, the big mover and shaker of the new league, will not admit defeat, but Sanford is an energetic, driving promoter who never gives up until he is going down for the third time. Already the waters have closed over his head twice. At first, crowds turned out more from curiosity than anything else; the curiosity satisfied, they returned no more. Omaha folded, and so did San Antonio. Who knows who will be next? The Kansas City Stars drew 187 one night. Los Angeles drew 350 and blamed it on 1) the rain, 2) the Lakers' playing in town, 3) Bob Hope. They should have blamed it on bowling. Detroit is doing better than any of the other cities, with Dallas not too far behind. Yet Dallas drew only 300 for a recent match with Fort Worth. "This is the way I figure it," says one midwestern sports editor. "I like to bowl; I also like to fish, but I don't want to pay to see someone else fish. Now you take football or baseball. I can't possibly run 50 yards for a touchdown against the Giants or hit a home run off Whitey Ford, so I'll pay money to watch someone else do these things. But occasionally I can bowl just about as well as any of these guys in the league; sometimes I can bowl better."
Originally the NBL expected national network television support, but it failed to materialize. The league runs at night, during prime TV time, and sponsors figure they'll stick with Garry Moore and Dr. Popenoe. "Unless this league has the backing of national TV time, it isn't going to go," says Harold Weber, who owned the original Chicago franchise but dropped it like a rattlesnake when he found out there was to be no television. "We don't need TV," says Sanford. We'll see.
The shameful part of all this misguided sporting creativity is that a few men with integrity and energy and municipal pride are going to be hurt before expansion is completed. Sport, like everything else, must have its pioneers, and if everyone sat back and waited nothing would ever happen. But it is regrettable that so many of the new leagues and teams and franchises were poorly planned and ineptly organized. Too many entrepreneurs tried to fill vacuums that were not vacuums and wound up expanding for expansion's sake alone. For the sports promoter of the future the lesson should be clear. The American fan wants quality. Let the seller beware.