When most people think of Pete Rozelle, if they think at all of Pete Rozelle, they probably recall a genial fellow with a balding pate and the ready smile of a car salesman who popped up at the end of the Super Bowl. Rozelle was the commissioner of the National Football League, of course, but what did that really mean? The players played, the coaches coached, the owners owned, the fans stomped and hollered, but what the hell does a commissioner do? Commission?
Until his death in 1996, Rozelle was dwarfed in every way by owners, coaches and players, and it was impossible for the viewer innocent of the inner workings of pro sports to view him as much more than a functionary. The hired help. The guy whose job it was to order the stuffed mushrooms for the party after the game.
Those a bit closer to the game had another opinion of Rozelle: as a shrewd promoter of his sport. He invented the Super Bowl, for example, and sold the rights to the first game to two networks (NBC and CBS), which forced them to compete for viewers. He invented (with ABC Sports chief Roone Arledge) Monday Night Football, which is the second longest running prime-time show on American television, after 60 Minutes. He exhibited a taste for kitsch and spectacle unrivaled in professional sports. He loved floats and glitter and marching bands. His idea of beauty was a balloon drop. (He did not, however, like the name Super Bowl. It was coined by the son of Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, whose imagination had been captured by the newly invented Super Ball.) It is now commonplace for a regular-season football game to attract ratings that surpass the playoff games in other sports. And the reason for that is Pete Rozelle.
But there is a third view of Rozelle espoused by those who watched him work: he was an iron-willed tycoon who created the business model for all of professional sports. In addition, he figured out a way to make the NFL far more valuable than other sports, including the national pastime, baseball. Rozelle recognized that a sporting event was more than a game--it was a valuable piece of programming. Such media moguls as Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch have used that strategy to build entire networks. Rozelle, however, did them one better. In the long-winded discussions about the money sloshing around professional sports, the structure of the businesses receives little attention. But the structure, as designed by Rozelle, has been largely responsible for the money. That structure, in a word, was a cartel.
The football league Rozelle inherited in 1960 was a fragmented collection of 12 franchises, each run more or less as a stand-alone business. The squabbling owners faced serious competition from the newly formed American Football League, bankrolled by one of the richest men in America, Lamar Hunt. Rozelle's first trick, one that Rockefeller would have admired, was to put an end to the unprofitable competition. In 1962 he traveled to Washington and persuaded Congress to grant the NFL the first of two exemptions to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The exemption enabled Rozelle to fold the two leagues into a single, albeit fragmented, business.