It has come to be ritual, has it not? Sunday, U.S.A. Church services done and noon dinner, too (mashed potatoes out of a box, but perhaps the gravy is from real sauces of roast beef). The men-folks' belts go slack, Sunday suit coats are slung across the backs of the dining-room chairs. It is the appointed hour, and there, sleek and ready in the parlor with its glass eye polished extra clear for Sunday, sits the Zenith, the RCA, the Motorola, the Admiral. Yes, it is Sunday, for hear the thunder of drums, the stir of martial music issuing from the glowing innards; and look, the screen is floating full of the padded bodies of professional football players. There is anticipation, the breath of violence, the spark of carnival in the parlor...The National Football League Is on the Air!...The American Football League in Action! For three, five, maybe even eight hours Sunday is consumed. Night falls with Unitas, Namath, Kapp, Lamonica...and oh how the money rolls in.
The professional football leagues of the United States collect $34.7 million from the NBC and CBS networks for the privilege of telecasting their games. This figure will increase in the 1970 season to $40 million or so, which is 20 times more money than the NFL got for selling the same thing only 10 years ago. Averaged out, it will come to $1.5 million a year for each of the 26 teams in professional football. It is with this money that the newlywed leagues intend to propagate and perpetuate the environment that has made their game America's premier athletic industry and the most popular national spectator recreation of the century.
It is television, nothing else, that has brought this ultimate gift of riches to pro football. The AFL leaped all but full-blown from the coffers of network television. The increase in franchises, the structure of the leagues, the dramatics of the playoffs and the creation of that celestial spectacle, the Super Bowl, have all been brought to us courtesy of the TV Establishment of America. Pro football, as we know it today, is plainly the son of Super Spectator.
Much has happened to pro football in the last 10 years; most of it is good, and nearly all of it has involved stupendous growth. "When I became NFL commissioner in 1960," says Alvin (Pete) Rozelle, "the office operation was two guys and an 80-year-old Kelly Girl in Philadelphia. Now we've got a whole new structure, a full-fledged administrative organization to keep up with expansion...." The 1969 offices of professional football now take up the 12th and 13th floors of a lofty glass skyscraper along one of the loveliest sections of Park Avenue in New York. The suite is thickly carpeted in red and green, there are paintings on the walls, the desk tops are broad and burnished walnut, the furniture is cool, leathery and plentiful. "Two guys and a Kelly Girl" have become 40 employees.
Pro football's opulence and ultraorganization does not imply a deficiency in the reign of Pete Rozelle's late and beloved NFL predecessor, Bertram DeBenneville Bell of Philadelphia. Bell was a brilliant pioneer who spanned the ages of the game. He knew the humiliation of seeing his Eagles play before a paying crowd that contained fewer people than the press box. But before he died in 1959, he also saw his game prosper mightily. Much of the credit for that prosperity goes to Bell, for it was he who perceived a quintessential truth about TV and sport.
Bell ruled flatly that there would be blackouts of all home-game telecasts, and he did this back in TV's dim ages when the DuMont Network and local stations had just barely patched together the first primitive hookups to put the game out on the tube. Thus, unlike baseball's TV-triggered brush with box-office catastrophe, the NFL's attendance climbed steadily in the '50s and '60s, and it now has reached 90% of stadium capacities. To put that in its proper perspective, one must keep in mind that professional football (again unlike baseball) was a weak and dubious sport for most of the 20th century. In the first 34 seasons of its existence, 40 franchises appeared, struggled briefly and failed.
A corollary truth perceived immediately by Rozelle was that the league could disintegrate in a morass of inequities unless the TV dollar was divided equally among all teams. What this did was insure that the have-not clubs with a tiny television potential (notably the Packers) could thrive along with the stout metropolitan haves, such as the Giants, Rams and Bears.
The course of pro football through those formative, fragile years of the '50s was piloted deftly by Bell, a plain, rugged man who used to transact much of his business sitting in his kitchen wearing only his underwear. Now there is Rozelle, an outwardly different breed of genius who wheels the fortunes of pro football from his Park Avenue offices, or perhaps from his Sutton Place apartment, or maybe from his 72-foot Chris-Craft yacht moored in the Hudson River. He is tanned year round, manicured, well barbered, finely tailored, articulate and still only 43 years old. But most important of all—among television pros he is considered a rare fellow.
"Pete is the most talented amateur I've ever seen," says Jack Dolph, until recently the director of CBS Sports. When particularly sticky negotiations are underway—such as last spring when owners were haggling over makeup of the newly merged leagues—TV executives feel free to stay out of it. "Pete will represent our interests as well as we could ourselves," says Chet Simmons, director of NBC Sports. Rozelle has even gained the ultimate business accolade. Dick Bailey, president of Hughes Sports Network, has said with an unconcealed trace of envy, "No one I know can squeeze the last buck out of a situation the way Pete Rozelle can."
One reason for his reputation is that Rozelle is as relentless as he is resourceful. In 1965, during a period of unrewarding renegotiation of the NFL contract with CBS, he realized that he did not have an essential weapon in his arsenal—the threat of moving to another major network if CBS did not meet his terms. (At the time NBC had the AFL and ABC was tied up with college football.) Undaunted, Rozelle ordered a top-secret study on the feasibility of the NFL creating its own television network. As the CBS situation continued to deteriorate, he showed the survey to a secret assembly of NFL owners. "I laid it all out," recalls Rozelle, "the bottom line potential, the top line and the blue sky possibilities in going to independent TV. It was feasible for us to do it—not a great situation, but within reality. The owners voted to go along with it—we would drop CBS and start out on our own." The owners were sworn to absolute secrecy about the vote. They also decided that CBS should have one more chance to meet the NFL terms and a 48-hour ultimatum was passed to CBS. It was met with yawns, shrugs and a splendid display of ennui—for a short time. "I don't know if CBS would have given in or not," recalls Rozelle, "but one of our owners, sworn to secrecy and all, got on the phone and told CBS about our survey and the dollar figures and the works. Up to the point of that leak, I think CBS had actually doubted our sincerity...." No more. Within 24 hours a new contract was settled and the NFL did not need its own television network after all. "Hell, those plans were phony," growled a TV executive recently. "And that damn 'leak' was phony, too. It was just another Rozelle ploy to squeeze CBS."
Perhaps. But no one called Rozelle's hand. So it goes, bluff and counterbluff, ploy and counterploy, all to wring a few more dollars out of the TV till. The entrepreneurs of pro football insist that the desperate grip of their dollar pressure on the networks is not born of idle avarice. If they are deprived of even a few dollars of TV revenue, they say, catastrophe looms, bankruptcy threatens, chaos will reign.
All of which sounds suspiciously like normal, red-blooded, run-of-the-mill facsimile cries of doom as perfected by expert Thespian negotiators of labor and management over recent years. But is it?
The economics of pro football are zany, indeed, and the need for TV money is extreme. For example, the New York Jets, champions of football throughout the galaxy for 1969, did not play before one unsold seat at Shea Stadium in their superseason, yet the club only made $135,000. Still, for some reason, the Jets are up for sale at the mad asking price of $20 million, which is 20 times what the franchise was worth in 1963. One of the most successful NFL franchises, a team that has not had an empty seat at home in several years, manages to net barely $200,000 a year. Inflation has been ferocious: from 1953 to 1968 player salaries for this team have increased 700%; administrative costs have risen 745% and scouting costs are up—hold on now!—2,700%.
"Player payrolls have increased astonishingly in the last 10 years," says William C. Ford, owner of the Detroit Lions and board member of the Ford Motor Company. "Other costs have risen, but not in proportion. Leonard Tose paid an exorbitant price for the Philadelphia Eagles—probably $18 million when you figure in certain house debts. [The same franchise sold for $5.5 million in 1964.] And the expansion franchises are costly [some $8.5 million now]. You can't apply the general rule of thumb—times earning ratio—to football. Franchises are selling for a couple of hundred times earnings, which is ridiculous."
Sonny Werblin, the ex-mastermind of the Jets, is succinct on the subject. "Costs go up and attendance is at the maximum, so there is no longer any maneuverability for management." And Bill Ford sums it up for everyone. "There is no way we could survive without television. We couldn't make it without the income and we couldn't make it without the exposure. Television creates more interest and this influences box-office sales."
Surprisingly enough, this grand submission by pro football to television generates no particular enthusiasm among network executives; they splutter when confronted with their role as benevolent contributors to the sport. "Those guys created this damned monster," says Chet Simmons of NBC, "and now they want us to feed it...."
The networks are likely to dangle between their own best financial interests and the NFL's needs for some time to come. "If we dropped pro football, our affiliates [local stations] would crucify us," says William C. MacPhail, vice-president of CBS-TV Sports. "But this thing has got to level off or our stockholders will start screaming."
Network executives admit that they have caused themselves a lot of their own troubles, for it is their own scrambling internecine competition to get to the best sports events that has led to the escalation of the price war. "The prices we pay are valid only in relation to each other," says Roone Arledge, president of ABC Sports. "Since antitrust laws won't let the networks talk with each other about prices for certain events, we have to go in swinging with the biggest dollar we dare to spend so the competition doesn't cream us. It's absurd, but we're trapped."
The absurdity of TV's plight was never more apparent than in 1964 during The Affair of the Sealed Bid. All the elements that make up the glamorous, scintillating, demanding and unnerving world of network television came into play on this celebrated occasion—suspense, one-upmanship, avarice, jealousy, skulduggery, espionage, mendacity, conspicuous consumption....
It had long been arranged that at 11 a.m., Jan. 24, 1964, in the office of Pete Rozelle, then in the General Dynamics Building in Manhattan, the climax of a dramatic situation would occur. At that hour the sealed envelopes of those television networks interested in bidding for the rights to televise the 1964-65 regular-season games of the NFL would be presented to Commissioner Rozelle. The highest amount of money offered in these secret bids would take the grand and only prize.
At this point in pro football history, the AFL was a separate entity—and struggling. The NFL was an unparalleled success. Y. A. Tittle was the dean of U.S. sport. CBS had maintained a tight grip on the NFL since 1956, a time when pro football was only approaching its era of magic popularity. "Back then I would have preferred us to have college football because I thought the color, the rah-rah and the coeds had it all over the pros," remembers Bill MacPhail. "Was I wrong!" The late '50s and early '60s were remembered as glorious and wealthy years at CBS Sports. "Practically everything we touched was making a profit," says MacPhail. "We were so No. 1 in those days. That was under Jim Aubrey, who probably was the most sports-conscious president the network ever had."
By 1964 the other networks were yearning to lay prostrate both Aubrey and CBS Sports. NBC and ABC each decided to fight to the last drop of red ink to win the NFL rights from CBS, and they laid their plans in utmost secrecy. "It was like a patriotic cause," recalls Carl Lindemann Jr., vice-president of NBC Sports. "Betrayal meant death."
Weeks before the deadline, Pete Rozelle's office had sent each of the three networks a copy of bidding instructions as well as the existing contract with CBS, so there would be no mistake over ground rules. There was many a jot and tittle in the fine print and executives of all three networks pored over the pages seeking some tiny advantage their rivals might overlook. Both CBS and ABC found one. Deep in the thickets of legalese was a nugget, really an inference to be drawn from an omission. Nowhere did it say that the NFL would outlaw televising two games on a Sunday afternoon, one after the other. Any network allowed to do two games on Sunday would, naturally, attract more advertising revenue and thus could afford to bid more for the NFL rights. So, very separately and very secretly, CBS's MacPhail and ABC-TV President Thomas Moore phoned Rozelle to make discreet inquiries about basing their bids on a schedule of doubleheaders. "Go ahead," said Rozelle. There was no call from NBC, and Rozelle did not feel he should volunteer any information. "It would have been unethical for me to reveal a rival's plans," he says.
As bidding day, a Friday, drew near, the secrecy thickened. TV sports people are a clubby lot, and there were long discussions at Toots Shor's, Mike Manuche's, "21" and the like about how much each network might bid. As the rumors expanded, so did Rozelle's dreams of the bid: "CBS had been paying $4,650,000 a year," he recalls, "but I was starting to up my hopes about $1 million a day toward the end. The rumors were fantastic; I thought we might get $10 million a year."
As the fateful Friday drew near, each network went into its final strategy sessions. At ABC Tom Moore had held his board of directors in session for two days and finally convinced them that they should go for broke. "Yes, I got what I wanted," Moore remembers, "but even though I was at the peak of my power then, I needed outside support. We had to have the whole board involved. It was too many people...too many people." It proved to be one too many, for sure.
At NBC the top echelon had been discussing the bid for days—Chairman of the Board Robert Sarnoff, Network President Robert Kintner, Director of NBC News William McAndrew, Carl Lindemann. It was not until an hour before the bid was due that Lindemann learned exactly how much he could offer. "McAndrew came into my office. He had been with Kintner," says Lindemann. "He laid a slip of paper with the number on my desk. We had figured that the break-even point would be at $18 million for the two years. I couldn't believe it when I saw the number Bill put down—it was far more than I had expected." However, before Lindemann left his office that morning he learned something else that was hard to believe. He found out for sure that NBC's bid was going to be far too small.
At mighty CBS the crucial final hours were rich with intrigue. As the sun set on Thursday there was a meeting in the conference room of William S. Paley, CBS board chairman. Only a trustworthy core of executives was in attendance: Paley, Aubrey, MacPhail, Dr. Frank Stanton, president of CBS, Tom Dawson, vice-president of CBS Sales, and Sal Iannucci, attorney and vice-president of Business Affairs. Aubrey took charge and quickly sketched in the situation for the group. Then he snapped out the dollar figure that he thought would be required to clinch the deal. Stanton was aghast at the amount, and Paley was astounded, telling Aubrey that this was a money-be-damned approach more irresponsible than Hollywood ever saw in its worst days. The group discussed it a bit longer, then decided to make the final decision in the morning. Everyone was told to go straight home; there was to be no risk of a leak.
By 9 the next morning Aubrey was in Paley's office again, and a short time later he gave Bill MacPhail the amount of the bid he was to carry to Pete Rozelle's office. When he looked at the figure, MacPhail was almost as astonished as Stanton and Paley had been the evening before: the amount was considerably larger than the number Paley had questioned as Hollywood dementia a few hours earlier. Why?
At 11 a.m. that Friday the anteroom of the NFL offices was jammed with reporters, floodlights, cameras, photographers. MacPhail, Lindemann and Arledge arrived with their network lawyers. The entourage shouldered through the crowd into Rozelle's inner office and sat down around his desk. Then each of the network sports directors handed Rozelle an envelope. At last something was happening above the table.
"I shuffled the envelopes," Rozelle says, "and I opened them at random. The bids were for two seasons, but I had asked them to put their figures in one-year terms." First came NBC's: $10.3 million a year, a stunning increase over the $4,650,000 CBS was then paying. Rozelle swallowed. "I had thought we might get over $10 million. This was really damned good—as much as I expected." Then Rozelle picked up ABC's envelope, ripped it open, scanned the fine print (yes, they wanted the doubleheaders) and finally read out the figure: $13.2 million! Nearly triple the current contract. CBS's MacPhail gazed down at the table and his attorney, Iannucci, whistled a long note and gasped, "Jeezuz H. Keerist!"
"The ABC bid was beyond any of my dreams," says Rozelle. "Even with the doubleheader thing, I never thought it would go over $12 million a year. The CBS bid had to be an anticlimax. I opened it, and the thing was two pages long—all that fine print. The number was toward the bottom and I looked at it...and I looked at it again. It was for $14.1 million a year."
There it was: $28.2 million for two years of televised pro football, the richest sport contract ever made. Photographers rushed in, reporters shouted, people shook hands. Bill MacPhail, deafened by questions and blinded by flashing bulbs, got so excited that he forgot to call Jim Aubrey for nearly ah hour. Finally, as he and Rozelle were about to slip over to Toots Shor for a congratulatory Scotch, MacPhail remembered his boss. "Was Aubrey mad," says MacPhail. "He had already learned about it—in the men's room from some guy who had heard it on the radio. Jim was livid."
Later that day Aubrey cooled off; he bought MacPhail a drink. Now, looking back on the tension, frenzy and triumph of the morning, MacPhail says, perhaps with just the trace of a catch in his voice: "That was my greatest moment in sport."
In its way, it was probably sport's greatest moment in television, too, for it threw open, once and for all, the doors to the big-money vault.
Rozelle may have been surprised, and his owners dumfounded, but nobody in the whole world was quite so shocked as ABC. "I couldn't get it through my mind," says Ed Scherick, then vice-president in charge of programming with the network. "Here we had gone in with $26 million, laid it on the table and been rejected. Do you realize our whole blasted network had cost only $15 million in 1951?" Well, if the truth were known—as it has now come to be among TV insiders—ABC was foiled by one of its own. Yes, the dark state secret of its tremendous bid had apparently been passed along for motives unknown to interested outsiders. That is why NBC knew on Friday morning that its bid was not going to win. NBC did not even try to meet ABC's figure. Too much. And, as shall be seen, there were other forces stirring in the air that day for NBC.
But what of that fantastic CBS bid? Was there an informer tipping off Paley, Stanton, Aubrey? Rumors still crash against the bar at Toots Shor that $50,000 passed from CBS into the hands of an ABC man that day. MacPhail says he does not know, although he agrees it was curious that a proposed CBS bid considered ridiculous on Thursday night was suddenly bumped even higher Friday morning. Tom Moore, who resigned from ABC in August of 1968, says, "I still think our $26 million should have been enough. But Jim Aubrey and I are good friends. We're both out now, and I asked him, 'Jim, you knew our bid that day, didn't you?' He said no. He said he just figured the doubleheader and $1 million per club per year would do it." Perhaps.
Now, even amid recollections of that day's million-dollar whirl, it is time to pause and include the poor little AFL in the memory album. If the AFL ever wants to celebrate its true birthday, it ought to pick Jan. 24, 1964, for not until that date did it spring to robust life. Of course, it was literally born much earlier.
A full-blooded creation of television money and television exposure, the AFL began in 1959 when one Harry Hagerty, vice-chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, phoned Leonard Goldenson, ABC's board chairman, and said he was in on an idea for a new professional football league and would ABC be interested? Mildly taken with the thought, Goldenson passed the word to Tom Moore, who was then ABC's programming boss.
Moore has been a key figure in TV sports' brief history, although it is true that he began his career as a publicity man for Forest Lawn cemetery and once spent two days showing Evelyn Waugh the grounds as research preparation for Waugh's cemetery satire, The Loved One. A whizbang salesman, Moore left Forest Lawn for CBS-TV Film Sales, moved to ABC in '57, became vice-president in charge of programming the next year, network president in 1963 and an ex-ABC employee five years later. He is not revered by network rivals, who feel he took too literally his own dictum: "Anything goes when it comes to competing for the rights to sports events."
Moore followed up on Hagerty's call and met with two men committed to the idea of an American Football League: the late Harry Wismer, the neurotic broadcaster who was the original owner of the New York Jets (once Titans), and Lamar Hunt, the soft-spoken millionaire from Texas who owns the Kansas City Chiefs (once Dallas Texans). Already they had unsuccessfully tried to peddle the new league to NBC, and since CBS had the NFL, the last resort was ABC. "They told me that if we would take them on they had a chance," says Moore. "I told them we were interested, but I didn't think it was worth too much. We agreed to meet again."
At the next meeting Moore was accompanied by Ed Scherick. The gathering was in Harry Wismer's ornate apartment on Park Avenue, and it proved to be a strange occasion indeed. Among Wismer's several idiosyncrasies was his conviction that he was under constant surveillance. He believed anyone associated with him would be perpetually tailed as part of the plot to keep tabs on Harry's life. Thus, in setting up a meeting to found the American Football League, Wismer insisted that everyone arrive at staggered times through as many different entrances as possible and via vastly circuitous routes.
"What cloak-and-dagger stuff that guy pulled," says Tom Moore. "He had secretly taped our first meeting, and I was mad. When I finally got to his apartment I demanded to know if he was going to secretly record us all again. He seemed surprised that I was angry. He thought everybody did it."
At the meeting Moore told the various millionaires and other would-be AFLers that maybe ABC could manage $800,000 a year, a figure so low that everybody was indignant and the meeting broke up. A few weeks later Moore got a call from Sonny Werblin, then president of MCA-TV and unaffiliated with the AFL—except for a role as the founders' key man in the TV negotiation. "Many people think Sonny was a Johnny-come-lately to the AFL," says Moore, "but he was the guy who wrote the original deal. We had dinner at '21,' and Sonny scribbled down some figures and gave them to me. They looked pretty good."
Eventually, a price was reached—about $1.7 million a year. It was neatly scaled to sales-and-rating slippage in a way that would have allowed ABC to reduce its payments in a ratio to how well the games sold. Ultimately, by practically peddling spots from door to door, the network came up with a profit.
So went Act I in The Triumph of the American Football League over Seemingly Insuperable Difficulties Such as Acute Talent Shortage, Public Ennui, Lack of Advertiser Acceptance and the NFL. Act II began on the favorite fateful day—Jan. 24, 1964.
The AFL had now been with ABC for four seasons, with one more to go on its contract. Attendance was up from 926,156 in 1960 to 1,241,741 in 1963. CBS had displayed a rather smug and inverted sign of respect by refusing to give AFL scores during NFL games. The NFL hoped—and assumed—that the AFL would turn up as a corpse any day.
At the very moment Bill MacPhail and Pete Rozelle were clinking Scotches at Toots Shor to commemorate the magnificence of MacPhail's Greatest Moment, the fate of the AFL took an unexpected turn for the better. The NFL bids had been opened only a block from the offices of NBC in Manhattan, and Carl Lindemann, with nothing to celebrate, was back at his desk barely half an hour after he had left, empty-handed, gloomy, seeking consolation, when lo!—"No sooner had I hit the chair than I found this note: 'Call Joe Foss.' Two hours later I was in an office with Joe Foss [then AFL commissioner] and Sonny Werblin. They wondered if NBC would like to take on the AFL."
The coincidence of it all taxes credulity, or does it? NBC's president, Bob Kintner, was celebrated as a sports fanatic. ("He'd call up and chew us out if his dog looked bored by a TV game," says an NBC man.) Bob Kintner had often spoken—grimly—of his determination to have pro football on his network. And Bob Kintner was a close friend of Sonny Werblin. So perhaps it is best to rule out coincidence after all and simply give Werblin credit—again—for his exquisite sense of timing.
When the preliminary meeting with Foss and Werblin ended, Lindemann climbed into Sonny's limousine for the three-block ride back to his office. As they sat in the back seat, Werblin took an envelope from his coat pocket and hesitated a moment with his pen poised over it. "Carl," he said, "you say the NFL got $28.2 million?" Lindemann nodded, and Werblin's pen moved busily about the back of the envelope. Then he looked up at Lindemann, gave him the envelope and said, "We have the following in mind, Carl."
"Well, it was right there on the envelope," says Lindemann. "I don't think we ever changed basically from that." The figures, as finally resolved, came to $42 million over five years, which is a lot of money. Kintner gave his approval to the deal, but he had one vehement demand. He told Werblin, Foss and all concerned that the contract had to be completely wrapped up by midnight four days later. There could be no dillydallying by the AFL. Kintner feared, of course, that ABC might find out about the offer. Perish the thought. The final day arrived, the lawyers were finishing drafting the terms and as everyone was taking a break, Joe Foss slipped quietly out of the NBC offices to the street, stepped into a phone booth near the RCA Building and dialed Tom Moore at ABC. "I couldn't believe it," says Moore. "When Joe told me NBC was talking about $8 million a year, I told him, 'Joe, you're out of your mind. If they really mean $8 million a year, take it! But bring your lawyers with you!' " Foss told Moore he already had a copy of the contract with him. Would Moore like to see it?
And thus it was that the president of ABC-TV hurried to the corner of Sixth Avenue and 50th Street, and there, with the commissioner of the American Football League at his side, squinting in the dim light of a street lamp, he read the terms of a contract that his bitterest rival would have fought a battalion of FCC commissioners to keep him from seeing. Moore finished reading, folded the paper up, handed it to Foss and told him the AFL would be foolish not to accept. Then, using the same pay phone Foss had called him from, Moore dialed his boss, Leonard Goldenson, at a Park Avenue dinner party and told him the sad news. "I said we'd end up losing $5 million a year if we tried to keep the AFL," said Moore. "Leonard did not argue."
That night, representatives of NBC and the AFL assembled at Toots Shor. It was 11 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1964—hardly 100 hours since Bill MacPhail and Pete Rozelle had toasted their partnership in the same saloon. Now it was Carl Lindemann and Joe Foss who shook hands—and despite the enormity of the NFL's monetary triumph, this second deal was the more significant to the future of pro football, for it meant the AFL was, without dispute, a big-league venture and here to stay.
The events of January 1964 meant, in the final analysis, that for better or worse, an entire sport had been bought, and it was never really going to be the same again. Everybody, including the fans, recognized—and soon accepted—the fact that whatever pro football did in the future, the decisions would have to be made in terms of the economic needs of television. We might be impressed by new contract figures and annoyed by schedule changes (it's hard to feel rah-rah on Monday night), but we will never again be surprised by anything pro football and television cook up.
A small but meaningful example is the attitude toward commercial breaks. They can hardly go unnoticed; there are always at least 19 over the four quarters of a contest. But complaints about them have increased to the vanishing point. Whereas network executives were once paranoid on the subject, they are quite unconcerned about public reaction to commercials now. As MacPhail says: "A few years ago I wouldn't talk about this outside my most trusted colleagues at the network. We used to have those semisecret signals from guys in red caps or white gloves. Now a man just waves his hand at the referee when we need a commercial. Nobody cares."
The influence of TV on the game is more apparent in the self-determined and voluntary acts of football entrepreneurs themselves than in any pervasive coaxing or general arm-twisting by network men. Within the past year, the two decisions that will do more to shape pro football's future than anything in some time—realignment of the leagues and scheduling of Monday-night games—were both caused by the reaction of owners to the influence of television.
The realignment—Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh into the AFL—was made in that fashion solely to placate AFL owners who insisted that their league get some prime TV markets, which those three cities are. "It would have been degrading to the AFL if the NFL were providing most of the TV money," says Lamar Hunt, "and never mind that the money gets shared evenly anyway."
The Monday-night games were scheduled because the owners looked at their rising costs and wanted more income. The only realistic answer, as seen by Rozelle, was Monday-night prime-time television. The venture was hardly appreciated by NBC or CBS. Each has a Monday-night schedule of very profitable whatnots that it likes to bring to America during those hours, and prime-time football is dubious as a moneymaker by comparison. Both networks tried to put some muscle to Rozelle—to no avail—and then tried to sweet-talk him into just five or six games (which an NBC-CBS alliance might have picked up in order to split the damage). But Rozelle insisted on a full 13 games, and he sold them to ABC last spring for $8.6 million after the briefest of negotiations. Probably the sharpest spur to ABC's bid was not so much delight at getting back in the pro football game as the menace of Howard Hughes and his sports network. Roone Arledge puts it quite frankly: "We didn't delude ourselves. We were worried that we'd lose a whole load of affiliates to Hughes on Monday if we didn't have the games ourselves. We simply couldn't risk the competition."
One of the final moral and economic anomalies caused by ABC getting Monday's games is the fact that both NBC and CBS—having committed millions for lavish productions, glamorous promotions and various other priceless gimmicks to generate a massive and tenacious public commitment to pro football—must now turn about on Monday nights and try to knock the game off the rating charts and into electric limbo. Yes, it is a tangled web we weave....
The question for pro football as it moves into the '70s is whether the world is too much with it—saturated to the point that audience enthusiasm and, more important, advertiser interest, wanes. "It's bad," says Tom Gallery, NBC's former sports director and one of the acknowledged deans of TV sport. "It's even worse than we think, because the time on pro football games is so expensive that no one can afford more than a couple of spots. The pro football people have been pressing so hard that they are forcing sponsors right out of sight with those high fees. It's killing the networks, too, and I don't know how long it can continue."
No one does. But if it did not continue, if TV pulled out of pro football and left all those bankrupt owners behind, the game would probably wither and lie desiccated upon the land. Ritual Sunday U.S.A. would go back to—what? Croquet? Wicker-basket picnics in bosky dells? Naps? Cups of Kool-Aid in porch swings?
We need not face that emergency for a time, however. It is rooted deep in the nerve centers of competitive television that, after profits, the ruling drives are corporate jealousy, financial gamesmanship and a nagging fear that your rival will outshrewd you.
If the major networks were to drop out of pro football today, Howard Hughes is waiting in the shadowed wings. And behind everything, one can see the ethereal shape of pay TV. So it would seem the needs of pro football will be met via TV for some time. It is written in the celestial circuitry, upon some engineer's log in that great technocracy in the sky, that things really are as a CBS executive says: "When we make a sport successful, we become our own worst competitors. We bid the prices up and up and up because we don't dare do anything else for fear a competitor will get the event."
Beneath that blanket of self-perpetuating money, pro football looks secure for years to come.
NEXT WEEK: THE TOUGHEST GAME
The most competitive of TV sports is a contest the public never sees. Amid intrigue and suspicion, plot and ploy, hilarity and dismay, the networks risk their millions.