Pete Rozelle had it all figured out. For 29 years he checked his ego at his office door, rolled up his sleeves and put in 11-hour days trying to cajole competitive owners and competitive players into getting along with each other. At first, in the '60s, Rozelle's smooth and evenhanded style worked, and the commissioner of the National Football League saw his game flourish mightily. But by the time he resigned, in the late '80s, one man's will and fair-mindedness could no longer prevail.
Today if a sports commissioner were to try to suspend a star player because he suspected the player of gambling, he would probably face months of litigation and a seven-figure bill from the league lawyers. In 1963, when the 37-year-old Rozelle decided to discipline Green Bay Packer back Paul Hornung for betting on his own team's games, he summoned Packer coach Vince Lombardi to New York and let Lombardi read the evidence file. Rozelle then announced to the coach that he was suspending Hornung for a year. With that the two men went out for a Scotch.
Today if a sports commissioner were to decide to realign his league, he would face interminable infighting and years of politicking. Twenty-four years ago, when the old NFL, newly merged with the AFL, had to realign, no one could agree on the logical NFC divisions; so Rozelle wrote all the possible realignment structures on pieces of paper, placed them in a flower vase and had his secretary, Thelma Elkjer, pick one out. She picked the current three-division setup.
In 1960, when Alvin Ray Rozelle was elected NFL commissioner on the 23rd ballot, he instantly understood, being a former public relations man, that he was not the story. Pro football was the story, and Rozelle had a vision of what he wanted his sport to be. He would push and negotiate and persuade until he achieved it. His vision: closely contested games played in full stadiums and all over national television.
When Rozelle began his term, baseball ruled American sports culture. Pro football was just building a little head of steam, still glowing from its most dramatic nationally televised championship, the 1958 title game, in which the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime. Rozelle felt there were two keys to the future of sports in America: parity and TV. At the time, each NFL team made its own television deal: Pittsburgh and Baltimore were on NBC, Cleveland was syndicated on a private network, and other teams fended for themselves on CBS. "By the end of 1960," Rozelle recalls, "we talked to the owners of the big-city teams—in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York—and got them to agree to the concept of a network package for all our teams. Then we went to Congress and obtained a bill allowing us to sell club rights collectively to a single network. That set the stage for our 1962 contract." The NFL's small-market teams had received about $150,000 apiece from TV in 1961, compared with $500,000 for big-market teams; that figure jumped (and fell) to around $330,000 apiece for all teams from CBS in 1962 and vaulted to more than $1 million per team with the second CBS deal, in 1964.
The most powerful owners at the time, such as Wellington Mara of the Giants and George Halas of the Chicago Bears, were big believers in the common good, so getting the richer clubs to split the TV deal equally with small-market teams was not terribly difficult for Rozelle. Thus the Packers, in America's 65th-largest TV market, would almost certainly be dead today had they not begun to receive that equal slice of TV revenue. While it might be argued that it was those team-spirited owners of a generation ago, rather than their commissioner, who secured the financial fortunes of the NFL, it is still true that the dominant sport in this country became dominant under Rozelle's visionary watch.
His legacy? The 1986 Super Bowl was the most-watched TV broadcast of all time, with 127 million people seeing at least part of it. In '87 every team in the AFC East was tied 5-5 entering Week 11 of the season. In '88 stadium attendance in Week 7 (934,211) was the highest of any weekend in NFL history. In '90, not long after Rozelle's departure, the league negotiated TV contracts that would pay each club an average of $32.5 million over four years. Pete Rozelle had been able to retire in peace. His league was the giant of them all.