As he came home from the Olympics, Hammer Thrower Hal Connolly, one of track and field's most respected elder statesmen, had a troubled mind. The official reaction in Mexico City to the celebrated black-glove incident had upset him; so had the scandal rumors involving payments to U.S. athletes by shoe companies. Now, on Oct. 29, a telephone caller gave him something else to ponder: Had amateurism run its course? Was the U.S. finally ready for professional track?
The caller was Al Schallau, 26, an inventive, enterprising Los Angeles attorney. "At first Connolly said I didn't have a chance," said Schallau, "but soon he was extremely enthusiastic."
Unknown to Schallau in those embryonic stages, a pro track movement already was well under way in Los Angeles, also headed by young lawyers, Jerry Sherman and Mike Heaman, both 29, who had begun doing research on pro track while they were in law school three years earlier. Enlisting the financial aid and advice of Jerry Sherman's cousin, Sid Sherman, 42, they devised what they felt would be a successful plan but delayed action until after the Olympics.
The Sherman group felt that 1) emphasis on individual competition would not be marketable in pro track, and 2) track fans were both bored by long races and confused by track's traditional "three-ring circus" format. So they decided to try a track league, sort of like pro baseball, with the emphasis on streamlined dual-team meets (14 events, each run separately, with no races longer than a mile, only four field events and instant electronic scoring devices). In theory, fans would be more turned on by, say, Portland rallying in the last few events to beat Boston than by the individual brilliance of a Ryun, Beamon or Seagren. "We're creating a whole new industry," said Jerry Sherman.
January 13, 1969
Officially announcing itself on Nov. 18, the Sherman group was not really worried about signing athletes or interesting the public. Top athletes like Ed Caruthers, Mel Pender and Tom Farrell had at least tacitly accepted their proposed terms: a straight $10,000 per year plus prize money for three dual meets each weekend for 10 weeks, June through August. The problem boiled down to money—would private investors in 10 cities be willing to risk capital on a pro track franchise? Would TV come up with a fat contract to underwrite all the expenses, at least in the beginning? "Three television networks have expressed tremendous interest," said Jerry Sherman in December, "but we do not need television to finance our project. We are depending on our investors."
Meanwhile, Schallau had been making inroads into whatever early success the Shermans had achieved. By persuading Connolly to join his cause, Schallau gained instant credibility among the athletes, a position he strengthened by adding three more athletes to his advisory board of directors: High Jumper John Thomas, Triple Jumper Art Walker and former Olympic 5,000-meter champ Bob Schul. "Athletes can talk with athletes," explained Schallau. "They had never heard of me. For all they knew I might be some shyster like all the other shysters in the world."
Schallau called his group the International Track and Field Association and modeled it more or less after the pro golf tour, using the traditional meet format. That is, a group of some 80 athletes would tour the country from March through August, staging both indoor and outdoor meets. Each athlete would receive a three-year contract for $10,000 per year plus prize money. Schallau's meets would include all the customary events, staged in the "three-ring circus" manner, and electronic equipment also would be used to determine results instantly. With that, Schallau, too, plunged after investors and a fat TV contract.
Now the entire track and field community was in an uproar. The NCAA was afraid the pros would raid the college ranks; the AAU stood to lose most of its top track stars in one swoop; everyone was worried about how pro track would affect our 1972 Olympic team. "Pro track will definitely hurt our future Olympic teams," said Stan Wright, coach at Western Illinois and an Olympic assistant last fall. "Young athletes who come from deprived backgrounds, mainly Negroes, aren't going to wait for the Olympics. If someone waves money at them, they're going to jump at it, and who can blame them?"
The athletes themselves generally refused to say whether they had signed pro contracts. One Olympian kept his signed contract in his own bank vault so that he could destroy it if his projected employer, Schallau's group, went under. Almost unanimously, however, the athletes, especially black athletes, publicly favored the principle of pro track.
"I feel the amateurs are out of date," said Tommie Smith, Olympic 200-meter gold medalist. "Everybody is turning pro in one way or another. If track turns pro, it gives the athletes what they deserve." Connolly pointed out that pro track should at least help curb shamateurism. "Right now there are plenty of under-the-table payments from promoters, commercials, shoe companies," he said. "Pro track would stop all that." Long Jumper Ralph Boston said pro track also would end "that stupid argument between the NCAA and the AAU. Everybody is going to be funneled out of the AAU into pro track, and there is not going to be any need for the damn AAU anymore."
While these skeletons were being pulled from track and field's closet, the rival groups descended on New York to court the TV networks. Each had prepared for the worst, carefully putting in public disclaimers that TV was not essential for survival. Privately, however, even pro track's most enthusiastic supporters said that a TV contract meant the difference between life and death. "If either group tries to make it without TV backing," said Connolly, "it is doomed."
NBC turned both groups down flat, ostensibly because it had a full quota of sport. ABC and Sports Network each adopted a "show-me" attitude: if either group could get off the ground, they would consider showing a couple of meets this year and discussing a bigger deal for '70. That boiled it down to CBS, where the behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing resembled a political convention. Along with the two pro track ideas, CBS executives were considering a proposal from the AAU: one meet every weekend from May 18 through Aug. 31, half from America and half from Europe, including the national AAU championships in June and a triangular meet among the U.S., Russia and British Commonwealth in July.
"If they took the AAU offer, I'd be a little perturbed," said Schallau, "but they would be televising a bunch of minor-league extravaganzas, because we've got everybody who is anybody." Of the two pro groups CBS actually gave the Sherman plan more serious consideration, but when it came time to put up hard cash CBS announced on Dec. 18 that it was going with the AAU.
If the pro groups were on the ropes, they didn't show it, at least outwardly. In their new offices on Ventura Boulevard in Encino, Calif., the Sherman people continued to seek investors for their proposed franchises and planned a draft of athletes in late February or early March. "I don't think anything is any different," Sid Sherman said.
Perhaps not, but they were drastically different in the rival camp. While Schallau was talking about holding a meet in the Astrodome, his board of athletic advisers—Schul, Thomas, Connolly and Walker—had become so disenchanted that they bolted to form still a third pro group. "We came to realize that this fellow wasn't really interested in our ideas," Connolly said. "He wouldn't listen to us, so we had no alternative."
By New Year's Day the schism was complete. The Schul group was patterned after Schallau's pro-golf-tour plan, the major exception being the introduction of profit sharing for the athletes. In addition to his salary an athlete would be awarded performance points on a 5-4-3-2-1 basis. At the end of the season, after the investors had taken their cut, the athletes would be given a percentage of the profits in proportion to their point totals. Schul's explanation had a familiar ring: "Our plan is based on what amateur meets now make. Even if we have mediocre crowds, we can break even. Under this plan we don't need TV now."
Thus, there are three groups at the moment, each seeking athletes, money and credibility. The coming weeks will be filled with confusion, controversy and deal upon deal. Now that TV is at least temporarily out of the picture, the survival of pro track will depend on the simple question of whether or not the public wants it. While the athletes are hopeful, they are also skeptical. "America loves the Olympic Games," says decathlon winner Bill Toomey, "but not track and field."