Someday, in the not too distant future, all sport seasons will last 365 days a year, except for leap year, when we will have one day off.
The trend toward all-year sports was accented in Palm Springs last month when the pooh-bahs of the National and American Football Leagues met to decide how they would consummate their marriage—a marriage made in desperation when the couple found that it cost far more to live as two than as one.
The 26 owners in professional football gathered in Palm Springs to ratify a suggestion made by a committee of six owners—three from each league. The committee had said that it was reasonable to suppose that most of the pro football fans in the U.S. would prefer to retain the identity of the two leagues, especially in view of the fact that the Jets had just defeated the Colts in the Super Bowl.
The NFL owners were all in favor of this, and the three members of the AFL who had served on the committee agreed with them. In deference to NBC and the proliferating philosophy of the unending playoff in professional sport, the AFL committee members—Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, Ralph Wilson of Buffalo and Billy Sullivan of Boston—had already accepted a bastard plan by which the AFL, with its 10 teams, would achieve numerical television parity with the NFL.
The AFL, a conference of two five-team divisions, didn't match the NFL in TV games in 1968 because the NFL had split itself into two conferences of eight teams each and the conferences had split again into four-team divisions. This gave CBS two games more than NBC—the two playoffs between the division winners in the NFL conferences. The agreed remedy for 1969 was to have the second-place teams in the two AFL divisions participate in playoffs for the AFL championships.
"This will allow the best team in the AFL to play the NFL champion in the Super Bowl," said Commissioner Pete Rozelle, piously. It was an ambiguous statement—and an inaccurate one. A team which finishes second in its division obviously is not as good as a team which finishes first and shouldn't be given the chance, in a playoff series which allows a second—or third or fourth-place team, as in hockey and basketball—to supplant the first-place club.
This playoff epidemic, which Rozelle seems determined to welcome as a panacea, already has spread to baseball, where, until this year a winner has emerged in each of two leagues, and the winner of the World Series has been, incontrovertibly, the World Champion.
If St. Louis, for instance, proves itself the best team in the National League, it shouldn't have to confirm its eminence in a three-out-of-five series with a division champion which has a poorer record. It shouldn't—but it will.
In Palm Springs the football meetings began benignly. The old-guard NFL owners thought that the AFL owners would meekly accept committee recommendations. They might have, except for Paul Brown, who is now general manager of the Cincinnati Bengals and once was general manager of the Cleveland Browns. "I won't accept anything less than a complete merger of the two leagues," Brown told a friend as the meetings opened. "I bought this club—and talked other people into investing money with me—on the basis that I would be in the NFL in two years. I wouldn't have spent the money I did to buy an AFL franchise. I am, deep down inside myself, an NFL man. I bought in for a complete merger, and the wording of the peace agreement says that we will have a complete merger. I'm here to make sure of that."
As the owners met at the El Mirador Hilton, no one would have bet on Paul winning his point. The AFL owners were basking in the afterglow of their Super Bowl win, and the NFL owners, having recovered from the shock, were happy about it because they thought they would pick up AFL adherents for the 16-10 split for another few years.
"They [the AFL owners] want to keep their identity," said an old-line owner. "We want them to keep it. So where's the argument? We'll talk for a few days and play golf." No golf was played.
"Unfortunately," said Lamar Hunt, "the three members of our committee were all doves. I mean, in our conference maybe five owners wanted to keep the alignment as it is and five wanted a complete merger. The merger committee members were for the present alignment. We had no idea when we came to this meeting that we weren't expressing the opinion of the majority."
Brown and the hawks destroyed that illusion. When the owners went home after a week of inconclusive debate, Brown and Co. owned the ball park. "We can't argue with them," said Wellington Mara, the president of the New York Giants. "Legally, they're right. If they want a merger they'll get it."
Now the favored resolution of pro football's problem—the Brown plan, backed by Rozelle—will be to move each AFL division into a conference with two of the NFL fours. That will create two pro football conferences made up of three divisions each—two fours from the present NFL configuration and one five from one of the old AFL conferences.
Thus we can expect the 1970 season (when these pseudo-reforms are anticipated) to produce six NFL conference champions. To make this a more manageable number, but to further confuse the issue and to increase TV exposure, the owners have concocted a scheme calling for two more teams to be added to these playoffs—the second-place teams from each conference with the best won-lost records.
Each conference will have a four-team playoff—three winners and one runner-up—for its championship. Then the conference winners will play each other in the Super Bowl. A second-place team will have to win only two games after the end of the regular season in order to reach the Super Bowl; this championship confrontation could be between two clubs that had failed to win their respective divisions. That would, of course, be a farce on an even more grandiose scale than the one now staged a week before the Super Bowl—the game between second-place teams in the NFL, often called the Rotten Bowl.
Bowie Kuhn, the new commissioner of baseball, defends the innovative baseball concept of four divisions in two leagues, a duplicate of the NFL four fours, except with four sixes. He also says he will make sure that the playoffs don't extend the season "too long."
How long is too long? If the hockey playoffs were extended to their fullest, the season would not end until May 13. Is that too long? For a devout hockey fan, no. But it means that hockey conflicts with baseball. And if hockey doesn't end until May 13 (and basketball, conceivably, about May 6), then you can devote your undivided attention to baseball for only some six weeks—the pro footballers go to camp in July.
Somewhere, there has to be a stopping point. The owners, understandably, want to play as many games as they can. But Mr. Rozelle, Mr. Kuhn, Mr. Walter Kennedy of the NBA and Mr. Clarence Campbell of the NHL, where does ennui set in? If your seasons overlap, which channel do you turn to? If you must fight each other head-to-head for playing dates, where do you stop?
If pro football, enormously exciting over a 14-game season, dilutes the importance of each of these 14 games by going into endless playoffs, then the regular season will grow progressively bland.
If you spend a season determining a champion, the season games are meaningful, Pete. But if you spend a season eliminating a few teams from spurious playoffs put on for the enrichment of TV, then you devalue the season games. Sometime soon the fans will get on to you and quit coming to the regular season games. When that time comes, Pete, you will be in deep, deep trouble. You will have killed that famous goose.
The new shape of pro football suggested by Paul Brown and the AFL militants may be, from a corporate standpoint, right. But pro football and pro basketball, baseball and hockey—are not just corporate operations. Sport is not all business—and anyone who thinks that way is likely to be making a business mistake in the long run.
You can create artificial and infinite playoffs that could drag the pro football season into March.
But maybe nobody will care by then, Pete.