PETE ROZELLE: Football's High Commissioner

PETE ROZELLE He hooked us on football as show biz and gave Sunday (and Monday) a new kind of religious significance

  • Share
  • Read Later

(2 of 3)

Rozelle's next big move was to weld the owners of the new, expanded league into a cartel. This too required an exemption from the antitrust laws, which Congress granted in 1966. One morning the three major television networks woke up and found not a collection of individual teams competing with one another to sell their broadcast rights, but a single entity with a growing sense of its value.

The result, as we now know, was wonderful new bargaining power. The new revenues went into promoting the game and grabbing an ever greater slice of the entertainment business. "When the networks put up as much money as they did for the rights, they felt they had to promote the game," says NFL spokesman Joe Browne. "And by promoting the game, the game grew." Back in 1960, when the 33-year-old Rozelle accepted the job as NFL commissioner, the combined revenues of the NFL and the franchises were less than $20 million. The NFL this year projects combined revenues of nearly $4 billion. Similarly, the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota Vikings were each sold for about $1 million in Rozelle's rookie year. The newest NFL franchise, in Cleveland, was auctioned for $530 million last year.

In his eulogy of Rozelle in January 1997, Arledge said that a president of a sports division negotiating with Pete Rozelle and the NFL had "about as much clout as the Dalai Lama has dealing with the Chinese army." What he failed to mention was that Rozelle had created the army.

In retrospect, the whole thing looks like an outrageous violation of old-fashioned American free-market principles. But in 1966 virtually no one but Rozelle was thinking of pro sports as a seriously big business. The notion of pro football's "bargaining power" was patently absurd. Having formed his cartel, however, Rozelle managed it in much the same way the Japanese zaibatsu manage their cartels--with a view to market share (read: global domination).

He understood, somewhat ironically, that the key to attracting fans was fierce competition on the field, and that the key to fierce competition was every team's having roughly the same amount of money to spend on players. To that end Rozelle persuaded NFL owners--two dozen raving megalomaniacs--to share their television spoils equally. While there still remains a discrepancy between the richest franchise (Dallas) and the poorest (Indianapolis), the difference is a fraction of that in other pro sports.

Probably it helped that unlike so many would-be power brokers, Rozelle did not look like a man who wished to wield power. Of course the gifts required to pull this off aren't the ones normally associated with empire building. They are to a large extent the gifts of a diplomat. Diplomat in this case is another word for a man with a talent for dealing with megalomaniacs. Each year that Rozelle presided over the NFL, another owner published his autobiography explaining how he was the visionary behind the rise of pro football. Each year Rozelle laughed and let him enjoy his press. Rozelle seems to have been the sort of spectral tycoon who took his satisfaction in managing other people without their knowing it.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3