Somebody is making a fantastic error in judgment. Now, who do you suppose it is—General Motors or the Buffalo Bills? GM has decided that a few minutes of O.J. Simpson chatting about cars on TV this fall is worth $250,000, but the Bills think O.J. has no right asking $650,000 to play football full time for several years. Well, I appreciate that General Motors has more money than the Buffalo Bills and I also realize that it is easy for me to spend somebody else's money. Nevertheless, I think Simpson is a steal at double the price he is asking—which would be, incidentally, about what Lew Alcindor got, and I think he came cheap too. Wait till you see what Pete Maravich commands next year.
The reason O.J. should get a bundle is simple. Most sports today are suffering from a dearth of genuine heroes, those magnetic personalities who by themselves attract crowds, increase ratings and create sustained, widespread interest in their sport. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, and while we're at it—Sandy Koufax, Jim Brown and Mickey Mantle. History shows us the most successful ages in sport are not distinguished by events but by individuals. The '20s were memorable because of Ruth, Dempsey, Tilden and Bobby Jones, not because of the events they won.
The need for new heroes is greater than ever now that the seasons are longer. Until the championship games at the end, interest in any sport relates absolutely to the quality and quantity of its heroes. That is, its superstars—an overworked word that must do.
June 8, 1969
Talent is only the first part of being a superstar. Beyond that, to deserve the title a player must establish a notoriety and an impact that can be turned into box office. The Halls of Fame are full of guys who lacked star quality, whereas Alcindor is already an NBA superstar even though he has never played a game; Oscar Robertson is a great player but he is no superstar. Neither is Hank Aaron nor Billy Casper nor Bart Starr, Stan Mikita, Rod Laver, Lance Alworth, Juan Marichal, Pete Rose, Don Meredith, Nate Thurmond, Rod Gilbert or Leroy Kelly.
In fact there are few genuine superstars, or Impact Champions, as they should be called, to differentiate them from the expert journeymen. Consider, for instance, just how little bait Pete Rozelle has as he goes about trying to sign TV contracts for pro football. He has Joe Namath with an Achilles knee as his only certified Impact Champion. He has Johnny Unitas and Gale Sayers coming off the ropes. And maybe he has Simpson. In terms of multiyear millions-of-dollar contracts, $650,000 really does look like a bargain.
Sports generally are so desperate for personalities with instant recognition that now they are even trying to create interest in sedentary middle management. The literal answer, after all, to where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio, is that he has gone to display himself on the coaching lines. But there is no evidence to indicate that this is helping the Oakland A's box office. Similarly, once the initial burst of curiosity is satisfied, it is just as doubtful how long Washington fans will be content to pay money to see Ted Williams and Vince Lombardi exhort their faceless performers. Students of human nature will also be in for a setback if throngs of Cincinnatians show up to watch Bob Cousy sitting on the bench.
At the same time that sports make a fuss over star-managers they let competing businessmen pirate some of the greatest talents they have nurtured. Two of the most stylish Impact Champions in history, Brown and Koufax, left for movies and broadcasting. And why not? Other entertainments pay more realistically than sport for services rendered.
Sport offers too much tribute to the peripheral contributions of the supernumeraries at the expense of the great stars who really make it. Writers and commentators (must they be "color men?") wallow in mechanical expertise. It is always shrewd planning, gears meshing, wonderful organization. Perhaps it only reflects our anonymous lives, but it is forever the battle plan that is celebrated, not the classic individual achievement.
So, submerged by spear-carriers, obfuscated by game plans, programmed by celebrity coaches, the potential hero disappears into the background, the vitality and value he could bring to a sport forgotten.
If I were Howard Hughes, sitting on all that money out there in a dark room in Las Vegas with my own sports TV network and a plan, maybe, of using sports as a springboard to a regular fourth network, I think I might call up Mr. Simpson and say, "If the Bills or pro football don't think you're worth much more than a linebacker, maybe we can work something out. We can, for instance, get a few quarterbacks to go along with you. [Quarterbacks, as Al Davis showed us, have their price.] We can put a league in about eight warm-weather cities and play January to April, when we don't have so much competition but when the number of TV sets in use is still peak high." Ah, but that certainly does sound like science fiction—doesn't it, Rick Barry fans?
Certainly it must seem of some interest to football that the sports with the highest per capita ratio of heroes, hockey and basketball, have enjoyed the greatest recent increase in popularity. The NHL East has a high impact ratio, .667. Three of the six teams have an Impact Champion—Hull of Chicago, Orr of Boston and Howe of Detroit—and a fourth, the Canadiens, are a corporate IC, an Impact Faction.
The NBA has the most young heroes and two Impact Factions, the Boston Celtics and the West-Baylor-Chamberlain threesome. The Impact Faction is as valuable as the Impact Champion since it assures a sport of identification and continuity. We all hated the Yankees because they always won, but when they finally decayed and crumbled it left us with nothing to root against. (Rooting against is every bit as important as rooting for.) With the unbeatable Yankees gone, baseball has lost its most valuable commodity.
Pro football has also lost an Impact Faction, the Green Bay Packers. When Green Bay was winning year after year, we came to know the Packer names—Dowler, Nitschke, Starr, Kramer—just as we did Kubek, Skowron, Bauer, Ford, and it was somehow reassuring to know they were all back, even if we hoped this year they wouldn't win. Now that it is apparent that, like the Yankees, the Packers are through, pro football will suffer. When the Celtics finally fade, as they must, pro basketball will feel the loss.
In no sport is the value of an Impact Faction so obvious as it is in college football. Despite all the polls and bowls and Cinderella slippers, the Ohio States, Penn States and the various Texases have been relatively insignificant in the recent upsurge of interest in the college game. (With a lily-white team and a facility for keeping even Joe Namath in his own immense shadow, Bear Bryant has, on balance, probably hurt the sport.) The one positive constant? Think back: Bubba and Michigan State vs. Notre Dame. Bob Griese and Purdue vs. Notre Dame. Southern California vs. Notre Dame. Every week: Where will Notre Dame be in the polls? And ultimately: O.J. vs. Notre Dame.
ABC has enjoyed unexpected success with college football because it has had the good sense to find enough loopholes in the ridiculously coordinated NCAA TV policy so it could repeatedly show Notre Dame and O.J., separately at first and then together. This year, with no Impact Champion to replace O.J., interest and revenues in college football are likely to drop off precipitously by midseason if Notre Dame does not remain in contention for that ersatz national write-in championship.
Of course, college football would not lie so exposed to that possibility if it had championship playoffs. A lot of people do not subscribe to the concept of playoffs (SI, April 7). They are, purists say, unfair, because it is improper for a fourth-place team like the Celtics to win the league championship while the team that finishes first in regular-season play loses out. But what the hell—away games are unfair and so is the player draft and the reserve clause.
In my opinion playoffs are vital to the success of a sport, not the least reason being that they can give so many of the best players the chance every year to show their skills under the brightest, most magnified circumstances. Think, say, of Richie Allen. He is doomed, it seems, to finish every superb season in obscurity, struggling before the few hundred fans who can muster enough interest to go out to Connie Mack Stadium to see whether the Phillies will finish in fourth place or fifth.
However, if the regular season ended on Labor Day and the rest of September were devoted to playoffs, Allen might become baseball's John Havlicek and take the Phillies through all sorts of upsets right on to the World Series. Showcased every year in that way, an exciting player like Allen would have a chance to obtain the recognition he needs to become an Impact Champion. Besides, to everyone's benefit, this excitement would be carried over into next year's regular season. We could have seen Willie Mays in 13 playoffs, not merely three World Series. What's unfair about that?
With so many players and games and teams—most of them losers—it would be too hard now for Willie Mays to gain the proper attention due him if he were a new rookie breaking in. Quiet men like DiMaggio, Musial and Unitas may never again be recognized. That type made it strictly on the field, needing only sustained excellence. Nowadays the multiplicity of sports militates against that possibility so that all of the most recently ordained Impact Champions have required off-the-field controversy to complement their athletic exploits. Muhammad Ali and Namath had the facility of being heard at an extraordinary distance. Orr and Alcindor were child prodigies. Orr, Alcindor and Namath were all celebrated economic models. Nobody anymore seems to just come along and get better and better and at last just sort of drift into high status. The sports structure has stacked the cards against that.
An arm of that structure, the media—notably the newspapers—has also served to prohibit effectively the lionization of some very logical candidates. Their selected coverage of sports is based too much on tradition; it does not keep up with changing tastes. Often, when the Roller Derby comes to town and out-draws the local baseball or basketball team, sports columnists seem annoyed that people should wish to see what they—as columnists—do not. It is as if the entertainment pages kept jamming ballet and opera and concerts down our throats when it is nude movies we want to see and read about.
Auto racing, which I happen to abhor, nevertheless attracts more paying customers than any other sport except horse racing—and avariciousness, not sport, is the major appeal with the horses anyway. But auto racing seldom receives the attention it deserves. If one of those Yarboroughs or Yarbros or whoever is always winning those 8,000-mile races in the South in their Plymouths or Ramblers were accorded just half the annual publicity a Joe Pepitone gets, within a year one and maybe both of them would be a nationally recognized Impact Champion of the magnitude of a Namath.
Of all sports, none—not even football—needs new heroes as much as golf does. Golf, being a really miserable spectator exercise—especially on television—depends largely on personalities. It has no continuity, and the whole last half of the season, that part after the U.S. Open in June, is a lame duck.
Arnold Palmer has taken golf to where it is, but as sure as God made little white Titleists, the wave has crested. No sport can possibly sustain popularity when every week a new nobody hauls off a big bunch of money from the Magnolia Classic. More money is not the answer. Jackie Gleason is going to offer a $75,000 first prize next year, and all that will do is attract even more nobodies and guarantee a $75,000 nobody winner, which really isn't a whole lot different from a $50,000 nobody winner the week before.
All those people who say close competition is good for a game should be delighted with golf now. It is equality run wild, the ultimate triumph of the me-too middle class. Against the hordes of fine young golfers in every tournament, it is mathematically impossible for a young Palmer to win enough to establish a constituency and bring interest to the sport.
Golf must be restructured—and fast—or it will die for lack of big names. Here's what I would do: divide the money in each tournament three ways. At an average run-of-the-mill $150,000 tournament I would, for instance, allocate only $100,000 for regular prize money. This sum would be contested for by an established—and limited—number of golfers who would qualify for the whole 1970 tour off their 1969 performance—based on a point system, not money winnings, since every golfer in the whole wide wonderful world makes $375,000 a year.
All other would-be stars would compete in a minor league tour in large part subsidized by the big tour. Forty thousand of the $150,000 would go toward prize money for such a tour. It is a high price to pay to keep the riffraff out, but it is worth it. The final $10,000 would go into a gigantic playoff pool that might grow to as much as $300,000 by November, when the top 15 main tour leaders and the single top winner on the minor league tour would meet in a match-play spectacular for the PGA title.
This system would benefit everyone. It would stop the escalation of purses but encourage the fat cats like Palmer and Nicklaus to compete in a maximum number of events. Young players would move up only after establishing a reputation. Point standings would introduce continuing interest for the whole season and stability would be brought to the game.
It is too late in the year to introduce the point system into golf, and baseball probably wouldn't agree on a playoff format—even if it wanted to—until 1985 or so, but it is not too late for Ralph Wilson, president of the Buffalo Bills, to get up the money for O.J. What I'd do if I were Wilson is run around to all the other owners in professional football and say, "Look here, when I bring O.J. into your stadium, you're going to sell out. Without him all you're going to get is your season ticket holders because my team won't even draw relatives. O.J. will make more money for all of us and bring a lot of excitement into the game. So help me pay him what he wants because if he doesn't sign soon, he probably will open a chain of restaurants, and the movie people have been...."