It came as consummate glad tidings not long ago for the National Football League to learn that it was rated No. 1 in appeal to beer drinkers, high-mileage drivers, men over 18 years of age and people earning above $10,000 a year. What's more, the NFL was truly gratified to discover that it also has particular appeal as a television offering to people who are categorized as light viewers (as opposed to heavy viewers, who habitually undergo a catatonic immersion of 52 hours a week and must ultimately grow eyes like welder's goggles).
Once upon a time professional football would have been mighty pleased simply to rank No. 1 in football fans who paid for their tickets, and never mind their private lives and drinking habits. But these are years of profound complexity and remarkable risks. Without a solid consensus of beer drinkers and high-mileage drivers as support, the structure of the sport could turn soft indeed. Thus, Commissioner Pete Rozelle is sincerely pleased when he assesses the fortunes of pro football in this manner: "Our demographics are such that an advertiser who pays a higher cost-per-1,000 for sponsoring pro football really has a better buy than if he paid much less for another program. We have the advantage of being both news and entertainment, so our word-of-mouth profile is excellent. You don't find people telling their parking attendant, 'Wasn't Lassie magnificent putting out that forest fire last night?' "
In the age of Super Spectator the success of sports is properly discussed in this kind of swollen Newspeak, the gabble of the market researcher, advertising director, media specialist, cost efficiency consultant, etc., not to mention demographics...cost-per-1,000...word-of-mouth profile...keen merchandising potential. One can almost hear the tap, tap of pointers against sales charts. Will the Masters really increase Cadillac sales? Is the NBA too blue-collar to sell Chryslers? What is the outlook for peddling antileak antifreeze with the Stanley Cup playoffs? Can the Rose Bowl truly sell more deodorant than a John Wayne movie? Is the World Series honestly a best-buy vehicle for shaving cream?
Yes, the sale is the thing, and televised sports are essentially an adjunct of commerce. Yet in the tangled web of cause and effect generated by the age of Super Spectator, there are influences loosed upon the land that do not quite fit definition or justification in terms of dollar return or sales production or profit margin or the damned demographics. Televised sports are creating changes in the patterns of our lives. No one bothers to really look—aside from the inspection of sales figures—at what is happening out there on the other end of the tube. It is time to look.
January 26, 1970
Some points of true value and some hours of profound enjoyment have been brought by televised sports to the environs of Rice County Highway 16, which is the major road through Morristown, Minn., now that State Highway 60 bypasses the village. Ask Irv Schumacher, for one. He is 46, towering tall, bald as a pullet's egg and owner of Irv's Bar, which is just across Highway 16 from Babe Nordmeier's Chevy agency. Irv has quite a good business. Even in the bright mornings of this past October the screen door slammed frequently as farmers stopped by for a shot or a beer to clear up an early cough or throw off a lingering chill. After a pause for thought, Irv Schumacher pronounces TV sports to be of a slightly higher order than the average program. "I'd say the kids around here have higher goals and ideals and stuff because of what they watch on TV," he says. "They ain't going to go out and be the next President of the U.S. necessarily because of it, but they do learn that you have to put out before you can expect to win. They see the superstars, you know, and they see that those fellows put out all the time and that's why they're great. It's the kind of lesson you can tell a kid and tell a kid, but it don't really make a dent until he sees it."
Morristown is a rural hamlet of 670 people on the plains of southern Minnesota, 65 miles south of Minneapolis. Cornfields reach into the village limits, old tire swings dangle from the boughs of backyard trees, and the water tank, a point-capped cylinder perched high on spindly legs of steel, is the only structure in town rising above the treetops. Well, almost. There is a church steeple or two and a thicket of TV antennae, frail pipes bolted to roof beams that reach up to bring down the latest sound and newest pictures from Saigon or Shea Stadium or beautiful downtown Bur-bank. Along the washboard roads outside town, fields stretch in mammoth patchwork to the horizon a few miles away. Farms are dotted at random across the distance, each an island in the gentle rolls of the land: a clump of trees, a barn, a silo, perhaps a windmill and, of course, the TV antenna upon the farmhouse roof.
Some things don't change in 30 or 40 years around towns like Morristown. Fat orange school buses still roll through an autumn dusk, and the cheery oompahs of Whoopee John or Harold Loeffelmacher and his Six Fat Dutchmen are considered good music. At high school football games the crowd still strolls the sidelines keeping pace with the action, and the bank is always open on Saturdays, that being the day farmers flock into town. But other things are different, for Morristown is today a typical wired-up, plugged-in, turned-on neighborhood in Marshall McLuhan's Global Village. Farmers have transistor radios on their tractors now; no lonely corn picker or wheat combiner needs to tell time by the sun with a disc jockey from Minneapolis pinpointing it every five minutes. While they are milking in the barns, radios above the stalls sing out with music, news and commercials for Black Angus bulls ("About ready for a new bull? Get one that breeds more red meat! Less gristle! Less brisket! Buy Black Angus!"). And in the cool night when the chores are done, the glow of the tube fills the parlors and there is Walter Cronkite or Phyllis Diller or a Texas marching band come to visit.
Morristown is Super Spectator in the flesh, demographics with a beating heart. Here, for example, is Lowell Rasmussen, porkier now at 35 than when he was a 12-letter man for the Morristown High School Comets. Lowell runs the local Mobil station. He has his name stitched in red thread above the pocket of his blue coveralls, but he says it isn't necessary because he doesn't serve more than a dozen transient customers a month now that State Highway 60 bypasses Morristown. "My business is with my friends," he says. Lowell stays open 12 hours a day, and the passing time is marked by an electric 7-Up clock, by a calendar advertising an auto-parts outfit and bearing the painting of a cheerful, undressed lady, and, yes, by a constant flickering flow of tiny gray images on the 11-inch screen of his TV set.
"Well, I don't look all the time," says Lowell. "But it's like having company in the background when no one is around. I never miss anything that has to do with sports, though. I've been a fan of everything since I was 10 years old, and there's never been anything quite like sports on TV. When I was a kid I used to dig around for every newspaper clipping and every magazine story I could find. I'd cut out pictures and keep charts and listen to the radio and imagine a whole game in my head. But the kids now, they get to see it like it really is. And you should see them—little rascals in third and fourth grade—out playing football in a field, and they'll be fading to pass and pumping their arms like John Unitas. I see them, but I can't believe it. They're better at their games than we ever were; they can copy the superstars because they can see them."
And here is Rick Ellingworth, 15, a rather frail, good-looking boy who plays quarterback for the Morristown Comets. This is not exactly a superstar situation, for Morristown High has only 120 students, and even though the football coach, Mike McGovern, has installed such relatively sophisticated elements as a wing-T offense and a stunting defense, things never really crackle with big-time tension around the Comets. For example, Quarterback Ellingworth is given two audible signals to call at the line of scrimmage. If he sees the defense shift and he wants the play moved to the right he shouts "Gladys!" For left he yells "Jeanette!" Those are the names of the girl friends of two Comet players. Ellingworth is a farm boy who drives a pickup truck to and from football practice and arises each morning at 5 o'clock to milk 50 cows before school. In a setting as old as agriculture, the visions of a Super Spectator prevail. "When I'm doing chores," says Rick, "I'm always thinking about my roll-outs and sprint-outs, about the way I seen Staubach do 'em, and Tarkenton. I think about Bart Starr, and I try to think how I'll do some eye-fakes when I'm going to pass. Like Starr. I think about how Joe Na-math plays, how great he is. Not the way he lives—not that, because Namath does things he probably shouldn't do. But I can just see in my mind the stop-action of him dropping back and the way he gets rid of the ball so quick." There you have it—images of the hobbled grace of Joe Namath back to pass amid the morning milking in a Minnesota barn, an astounding combination of hero worship and the learning process that did not exist before TV sport came to Morristown.
Here, too, is Stanley Peroutka, 46, who has managed the Land O'Lakes creamery in Morristown for 25 years and has watched the changes. "It used to be that my farmers would come in with their milk in the mornings and the talk would be about the weather and the crops and maybe a bad word for Harry Truman or Henry Wallace. Farmers didn't give a damn about sports a few years ago. They wouldn't go to no high school games, and they wouldn't let their sons go out for sports either because it took them away from the farm. My farmers didn't know a touchback from a touchdown. But you should hear them now in the mornings. They're talking zig-outs and flare passes and blitzes like Bud Wilkinson or something. A lot of them like baseball best though, because they understand it a little better. Now that we got the Twins, there's a real strong baseball following here. I think there's even more people going to our Sunday town-team games. I know that a lot of my farmers at the creamery go up to five, six Twin games a year. Ten years ago these guys never even seen a town game, and now they're at the big leagues all the time."
So the Land O'Lakes creamery has become big-league territory. The Twins, the Vikings and the North Stars belong to Stan Peroutka's farmers. In Irv's Bar you can see a schedule tacked up showing that the Morristown Comets will take on the Ellendale Raiders, the Medford Tigers and the Blooming Prairie Blossoms. And next to it is another schedule: the Vikings vs. the Packers, vs. the Lions, vs. the Bears.... It is a wedding of two worlds, the majors and Morristown living happily ever after.
It is a fine gift that the farmers, the bartenders and the quarterbacks living along Highway 16 have received. Superficially the giver is television, for neither the Twins nor the Vikings could survive without their TV revenues. Yet the real origins of the gift lie across a chasm of time, space and motivation in places far from the rows of men in bib overalls on the stools in Irv's Bar, far from the network executives at Toots Shor's bar, far from Rick Ellingworth's barn, far from the spacious suites of Pete Rozelle and Bowie Kuhn.
In South Boston is a factory, huge and blocky. It is built of bricks and glass and looks like any other industrial complex. Its distinguishing characteristic—until its occupant recently outgrew the premises—was a smell. Quite a nice fragrance, if rather too palpable, hung over an area of several square blocks. It was a familiar aroma, familiar because it was the scent of the nation's top-selling underarm antiperspirant spray: Right Guard deodorant. This was the place: 90 million cans of Right Guard turned out each year. Just being near the spot—an honest-to-goodness deodorant plant—made one feel almost reverent. For isn't this the symbolic center of American life in the late 20th century, a kind of pop shrine in an age when every living American has been alerted (at last!) to the desperate need to seem clean?
Deodorant was not the only issue of the place, for this was and still is the headquarters of the Gillette Safety Razor Company. Right Guard is merely a late addition to the traditional razors-and-blades business of this esteemed old firm. No company has had more influence on the early advancement of sports through MassCom than Gillette. Long before Right Guard was helping underwrite the World Series, the company was selling its blades to men who enjoyed sport. As far back as 1915, Gillette was running baseball scores in its newspaper ads. By 1929 a favorite radio feature on the NBC Blue Network was Gillette's Graham McNamee reading The Sports News Review. In 1935 Gillette got in on its first major sports broadcast when it sponsored the Max Baer-Jim Braddock fight and launched a far-reaching merchandising plot that kept the fight—and Gillette—before the radio-listening public for weeks.
"We have always merchandised the devil out of our relationship with sport," says Al Leonard, Gillette's public-relations manager, who has been affiliated with the firm's promotion and advertising creations for 40 years. "The Baer fight was only one of the first." For 26 weeks prior to the match, Gillette had Max Baer playing a private eye in a radio drama called Lucky Smith. Beyond that, Gillette launched a national contest to name Max Baer's dog. There were more than 250,000 entries, and the first prize of $1,000 went for the name Livermore Gay Blade. But Max Baer lost the fight, and Gillette did not plunge into action sports again until the summer of 1939 when a man named A. Craig Smith (no relation to Lucky) was the advertising manager of the firm. Smith was a brilliant idea man who had come to Gillette when the company was under the direction of Gerard Lambert, whose name should live as long as men breathe because he engraved the term "halitosis" upon the world's consciousness during an earlier stint as the head of Listerine. Craig Smith led Gillette into its halcyon days as sport's No. 1 commercial backer.
In the summer of 1939 Craig Smith sat down with Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and arranged to pay $100,000 for the radio rights to the World Series of that year. Eager to capitalize on what was, for those depressed days, a major investment, Smith took a 49¢ cardboard pack of razor and blades that Gillette had introduced the year before and ordered a special batch of World Series wrappers printed up bearing the picture of Yankee Third Baseman Red Rolfe. He flooded Gillette's retail outlets with the package and sat back to wait. During the Series the company bombarded the world with 16 commercials per game, but disaster struck: the Yankees knocked off the Reds in four straight. Gloom descended on Gillette, for the company had gotten absolutely minimum advertising exposure for its $100,000 adventure. Smith was disconsolate. But then sales figures began arriving in Boston and—eureka! "We couldn't believe our eyes," says Al Leonard. "Sales were up 350%. It wasn't even a new product and here were these fantastic records coming in. We didn't wait: we went running all over the country to buy every major sports event we could find."
Gillette wound up doing the Orange Bowl, Cotton Bowl and Sugar Bowl in 1940, plus the Kentucky Derby, the World Series again, and on Dec. 8, 1940—for the grand sum of $2,500—the National Football League championship. That unforgettable game was carried by 117 stations of the Mutual Network, and it led sport-page Cassandras to predict the early death of pro football as a viable entertainment because George Halas had allowed his Chicago Bears to eradicate the Redskins 73-0.
Over the next 20 years no single commercial concern was more closely associated with sport broadcasts than Gillette. It invested heavily in the birth of the American Football League by buying a quarter sponsorship of each game in those ungainly early days, and until 1965 it owned the radio-TV rights to the World Series. Probably Gillette's best-remembered television involvement was its Friday-night fight series. In a 20-year period the company sponsored no fewer than 600 boxing matches on television. Gillette was insistent on continuing its electronic bouts long after both the public and the networks had begun to express dismay over the forlorn caliber of the fights—as well as the unscrupulous characters promoting major-matches. Not until 1964 did Gillette finally cancel its boxing programs, and then it was reluctant to do so. "We simply could not clear enough stations, although we pounded the table as hard as we could," says Leonard. "Boxing was not in vogue. But we had splendid profiles from our National Shaving Habit Study, which surveyed 3,000 homes twice a year, showing that fight fans were using Gillette blades more than almost any other group. Finally we had to give in. Granted hindsight, we might have made it a Fight of the Month instead of a Fight of the Week."
In the past three or four years, Gillette has given up its supremacy in sponsoring the mass communication of sports. No longer does a nation thrill to the words, "The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports Is on the Air!" And all those fine old commercial phrases—"How're Ya Fixed for Blades" and "Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp"—have vanished along with the hyperthyroid parrot that did the soft-shoe dance.
But Gillette is still very big in TV sports. The company spends some $10 million a year. "We're not alone anymore," says Al Leonard. "We're only one of many advertisers on an event. There is no way we could possibly afford to buy an entire major event, or even enough of it to get the product identification we once did."
Times change and, while the fragrance of antiperspirant rises into the sky, Gillette does much of its selling in that nether ground known as prime-time television. These are the dark hours when the largest audiences are staring at the tube and the average cost of commercials is $765 per second. During this period the knobs on Super Spectator's electric connection with the world are essentially controlled by women (at least, that is what advertising geniuses believe). Prime time is when you market shampoo, headache potions, padded brassieres, eye makeup and a boundless stock of creams, pastes, gargles, liquids, goos, glues, tubes, fluids, juices, serums, pulps, puddings, syrups, gels, emulsions, washes and rinses, as well as razors, tonics and deodorants. Many admen scorn the prime-time audience, calling its millions Banana-Eaters, a term that derives from the alltime high ratings of Bonanza, "which is known in the trade as Bananas. One caustic agency executive defines Banana-Eaters as "old men, shut-ins, mitten knitters, Goldwater voters and collie dogs who should know better."
Much of the buying of prime-time commercials is done with a kind of MIRV approach called "scatter planning." This means that a series of commercials for a product is scattered over a nearly random range of time slots, perhaps covering all three networks and eight or nine different shows.
Such an advertising campaign is geared almost totally to quantity. Much of TV sports coverage, on the other hand, is bought with a different rationale in mind—not quantity of audience, but quality. The cost per 1,000—on a household basis—of sports programming is often double that of routine prime-time shows. The aristocratic price scale (as much as $200,000 per minute for the 1970 Super Bowl) scares away many of the impulse packagers but not a somewhat classier kind of advertiser who is anxious to reach a different level of viewer—airlines, insurance companies, banks, AT&T and auto manufacturers, as well as the essentially male products such as oil, gasoline, tires and beer. John DeLorean, general manager of the Chevrolet Division of General Motors, says: "The difference in paying $7 a thousand for sports and under $4 a thousand for Bananas is well worth it to us. You know you're not reaching Maudie Frickert. You're reaching men, the guys who make the decision to buy a car. Another major factor is that most of our dealers are sports fans. We feel that it is almost as important to get our message to them as to our customers."
It is a competitor of DeLorean's, the Chrysler Corporation, that has replaced Gillette as the champion of sports advertisers. Chrysler spent $12.5 million last year to sell Chargers and Challengers and Barracudas and Darts and Imperials within the purview of sports. So important is Chrysler money to TV sport that Dick Forbes, the corporation's advertising director, has become something of a sports celebrity himself. During the 1969 World Series he was introduced and pictured on NBC television; he shared a box with former Chief Justice Earl Warren, NBC President Julian Goodman and Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Last summer, when the NBC Game of the Week was televised from the stadium of the Minnesota Twins, the director was appalled to learn that the Twins customarily used a Mustang to ferry relief pitchers in from the bullpen. He insisted that the Mustang not be used while NBC-TV was there. "Dick Forbes has contributed too much to sports to be embarrassed by seeing a competitor's car on his telecast," said the director. Relief pitchers walked that day.
In 1968, at the time of NBC's cataclysmic gaffe in the name of Heidi, the first person that NBC Sports Vice-President Carl Lindemann Jr. called in the chaotic moments after the little goat girl shut out the Jets was—yes—Dick Forbes. After Lindemann's unstinting apologies, Forbes exploded: "Carl, you know we always go to completion. It's in the damned contract that we never interrupt an event. Carl, dammit, I hate to say it, but you have handled this situation like an amateur!" And Lindemann continued to apologize....
A genial, good-natured fellow—without a Heidi crisis at hand—Dick Forbes would never encourage the idea that he be treated with obsequious concern or velvet care. But the money he spends does help support a broad spectrum of sport—including the Game of the Week, the World Series, the Rose Bowl, the entire AFL and the Bob Hope Desert Classic. Assuredly, there is a margin of gratefulness to Dick Forbes all the way from Broadcast Row to Irv Schumacher's Morristown bar. Yet Forbes is irked at any suggestion that his $12.5 million could be construed as a contribution to the advancement of sport. "Maybe we help keep baseball alive and football healthier," he says, "but we would never consider it if it were not a sound business proposition, a sensible investment. Sport offers Chrysler a selective audience of males. We can reach the 18-to-49 age group, the family-oriented man, the young-minded man. There is prestige for Chrysler in having the product associated with these events. Sport is a splendid environment for our commercials, because when a man is going to buy a big-ticket item like a car, he wants to know that he is dealing with a prestige company. Sport is a wholesome, clean, healthy setting for our product. There is no serious controversy involved, no dissent. I would rather have my commercials follow Curt Gowdy than Huntley-Brinkley. And that is why we are in sport."
Chrysler has been investing heavily in TV sports since 1961. It was one of the first advertisers on the AFL and was instrumental in giving the new league a lease on life. "It was embarrassing for us to be associated with the AFL in some of those awful early games," says Forbes. "But we had the guts to stay with it. Naturally, it did us no good at all in markets like Chicago and Los Angeles, but we were the hottest ticket of all in towns like Kansas City and Oakland. Our dealers were ecstatic. What merchandising we were able to work out then! Players visiting the dealerships and other tie-ins. Yes, we were pretty sure the AFL would make it eventually. The owners were young and wealthy. It was just a matter of time."
The AFL contract is now among the most valuable in sports. Chevrolet's DeLorean would dearly like to get some commercials on either the NFL or the AFL telecasts but believes there is no way. "Chrysler's got one league sewed up, and Ford owns the other," he says. "So we're doing the best we can with college football and golf and the rest of the stuff."
Significantly, the sales volume at Chrysler has climbed in the years the firm has advertised with sports. At least this seems significant, but there are few certainties in advertising, few verities. "The resurgence of Chrysler has come in the years since we've bought a lot of sports," says Forbes. "But who can say that is the reason? In this business, finding any definite correlation between advertising and sales results is our Holy Grail. We have no precise way to relate the impact of an ad campaign to how much we sell. There are too many variables."
Yes, how to correlate a television advertisement and subsequent sales? For no useful statistical purpose, some people in Morristown, Minn. were asked how their buying habits related to what they saw advertised on TV sports programs. Though Detroit may consider the NFL Ford property and the AFL owned by Chrysler, no one in Morristown could think of an auto manufacturer who sponsored any telecasts. John Oys, 35, the superintendent of schools, did say, "I imagine Ford is buying pro football time since they seem to have all the—heh, heh—better ideas." Stanley Peroutka at the creamery said it did not matter that he couldn't recall which cars were sold because he would never be swayed by television commercials anyway. "It don't make any difference what they say. I'm buying Chevys and I'm buying them from Babe Nordmeier here in town. In a place like Morristown, if you don't buy a Chevy from Babe, if you don't stick with the home-town boys, you are a horse's hind end." Lowell Rasmussen at the Mobil station said he did not know whether Mobil Oil's big expenditure in TV sports on behalf of "detergent gasoline" helped his volume. He did say that his pals had begun to kid him about the Mobil commercials in which an automobile owner is constantly trying to wash his motor. "They tell me they're going to the Laundromat in Faribault for their lube jobs," Lowell says, with a weak grin. And Irv Schumacher served up a whiskey and ginger ale to a man just in from hunting ducks that morning and said, "I don't think I'd buy something just because of what is said about it on television. But I'll say this, there are getting to be quite a few things I don't touch with a 10-foot pole because I've been so damned perturbed by the commercials they put on television."
Perhaps there are no definitive answers to be found in Morristown. Still, we must ask many questions—strange questions—before we approach the truth of the television-sport world in the '70s. Would there be Minnesota Twins if there were no mentholated cigarettes? Would there be Saints or Padres or Royals or Dolphins or Bucks if there were no antileak antifreeze or supermileage gasoline or greaseless hair tonic? Could the Vikings survive without Polyglas tires? Could the Mets have won without lime-scented shaving cream or Arnie have been so bold if it were not that United flies friendly skies? Maybe yes, maybe no. Only one thing is certain. Dick Forbes spends $12.5 million. John DeLorean is confident sport brings the audience that Chevrolet wants. Yet it is not difficult to find television and sport executives who wonder if there are enough corporations willing to pay the premium to support major league sports in the manner to which they have so quickly become accustomed. They fear the commercial base for sports TV may dwindle away, that the price for rights will drop, the fiscal structure be undermined and the prosperity sapped from sport itself. This is why the statesmen of sport do not rest easy as they look to the '70s. Through them, sport has allied itself, irrevocably, with television. No longer can the man who pays his way into a stadium assure the success—or even existence—of his teams with his dollars, or with his fervor. As things now stand, the future of big-time athletics depends upon the whims, the quirks, the guesses and the goals of salesmen, product engineers, labor officials, economic analysts. Yes, absurd as it seems, sports fans must root almost as much for a good business climate as for a good clutch hitter so that TV's millions keep rolling in. We must trust that the skies of United never turn surly, that Schlitz does not lose its head, that Travelers finds no leaks in its umbrella, that Chevrolet does not decide Maudie Frickert holds the checkbook after all, that Ford won't build another Edsel. We must root for the gross national product, hope our linebackers can dam the gold drain and pray that Dow Jones will win 20 games at least.
Television has carried sport into the golden era of Super Spectator, but at the same time has come a life and death dependence on the dollars of commerce. Major league sport has sold itself beyond the capacity to control its own destiny. All it can do now is hope that it will be well treated.