"I firmly believe that when the final history of the National Football League is written, the all-time hero of the NFL, the man who contributed the most to changing America's Sunday afternoon watching habits, is Pete Rozelle," said Miami Herald columnist Edwin Pope on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series (Carter-1 1). Professional sports have been one of the most profitable and popular forms of entertainment throughout the days of radio and television. They continue to dominate the airwaves not just in America, but worldwide. But, which sport can be said is the biggest draw? Pete Rozelle made it his mission to make the National Football League stand above all other professional sports leagues, and his impact is seen today, years after his death.
Pete Rozelle made the National Football League the titan of sports entertainment it is today. On January 26, 1960 in a shocking switch that ended seven days of bitter fighting among the 12 NFL owners, Los Angeles Rams general manager Rozelle was a compromise choice and elected the league’s new commissioner on the 23rd ballot. Until the announcement, the 33-year-old Rozelle’s name had not even been mentioned among the candidates (Carter-2 1). He was quite young, despite his experience in the league, which may have led to the reluctance to hire him. The league’s front office had been a mess beforehand, with non-football affiliated men handling the league’s operations. In 1966, Rozelle began working on a merger behind the scenes with longtime Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, considered the [former rival of and separate league to the NFL] American Football League’s father figure. They, along with several other owners, put together a deal and kept Al Davis, the [Oakland] Raiders’ executive and short time AFL commissioner, out of it (Carter-2 1). There was quite a dirty rivalry between Rozelle and Davis. The public saw the differences between the two very powerful men as a vast divide, and the picture they painted was not far from that. There was much bitterness between the two men, and it grew as the leagues merged. The merger was the last piece to the puzzle in creating the biggest media-sports spectacle of all time: The Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl is an event to all the world. The first Super Bowl was known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in January 1967. Though the initial contest between Green Bay and Kansas City drew only 61,946 fans in the 100,000-seat Los Angeles Coliseum, it would eventually become the biggest annual one-day spectacle in American sports (Carter-1 2). The advent of the championship game between the new NFL, with the addition of the old AFL, was not thought of as important, like established title games such as the World Series, and boxing title matches. At last year's Super Bowl, $100 seats were going for $1000. Rozelle made the Super Bowl an American tribal rite. He made it easy for scribes to get their stories. He courted publicity. He would call the competing teams together and explain to them the importance of media cooperation. He encouraged media wives to attend by arranging tours and Super Bowl week activities for them. No other sport did that (Murray 1). Few, in the late 1960s, thought the Super Bowl would not survive, it being too radical an idea. True fans of the game rallied around it and through the genius of Rozelle, it became the media and sports monster millions of people watch in late January. Even as large as the Super Bowl was to become, Rozelle did not stop at the single idea-turned-explosion.
The next big idea Rozelle had that he put into action was Monday Night Football. Created and first aired on the ABC network in 1970, Rozelle pushed the Monday night idea hard on the networks, and ABC - last in the Nielsen ratings - took the gamble and watched it succeed beyond all expectations. Today, only CBS' 60 Minutes has been on the air longer (Unlisted 2). Even today, as the ratings have taken something of a hit, it still remains a major pull. Monday Night Football is a nationally broadcast showcase of the NFL’s best, as it often only matches up strong, well-marketed teams, stalwarts like the San Francisco 49ers and exciting new upstarts like the St. Louis Rams. While Monday Night Football has given us some tremendous on-the-field highlights, with last-second finishes, NFL records and a flurry of spectacular performances, some of the greatest MNF exploits have occurred off the field (ESPN staff 1). Monday Night Football started out with one of the most prominent, talented and recognizable figures in the broadcasting business, Howard Cosell, in the booth. From its advent, MNF has employed the best in the business to call its weekly football contests, and in 1998 the first woman to work on the broadcast staff for an MNF telecast joined in, Lesley Visser. Rozelle made something monumental from everything he worked with, and his efforts would only produce more.
Rozelle undoubtedly had an eye for business and a knack for making a dollar from gutsy, risky ventures, but for his successes, he had trials as large to handle. A jury ruled against the NFL in the antitrust trial brought by the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission and the Oakland Raiders, May 7 [of 1982]. The verdict cleared the way for the Raiders to move to Los Angeles. The 1982 season was reduced from a 16-game schedule to nine as the result of a 57-day players' strike. The strike was called by the NFLPA at midnight on Monday, September 20, following the Green Bay at New York Giants game. Play resumed November 21-22 following ratification of the Collective Bargaining Agreement by NFL owners, November 17 in New York (NFL.com staff 2). Interestingly enough, Al Davis, Rozelle’s early rival and business adversary, owned the Oakland-Los Angeles Raiders. The month of non-football activity in the middle of the usual season surely was a hard hit to everything Rozelle had built. The labor strife and litigation wore on Rozelle, and the commissioner resigned in 1989, leaving a legacy that few could have predicted (Carter 1-3). Despite business victories like the $2.1 billion television contract for the NFL and dodging a bullet with yet another anti-trust suit against his NFL, the struggle to watch his creation grow past what he could handle caused him to step away. This time, the trouble was with the United States Football League, a rival professional football league. The suit was presented seeking Rozelle to pay $1.6 billion in damages, but the USFL escaped with $3. Rozelle left his post as the NFL commissioner, but he left in title and operation only.
Pete Rozelle made the NFL what it is today. He also influenced tycoons such as Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, and even then, they still could not best the empire he had constructed. He also followed the progress of his league; as it grew, he adjusted and made the best of what it was at any given time. He saw the potential in a humble little game that formerly was popular in the northeast and predicted the giant it would grow into. His ideas got progressively pluckier and they paid progressively larger dividends. He was a man for the times, a man for the league, a man for progress, change and adventure. He was thrust into the commissioner’s job at 33, following the death of the acting commissioner. He retained an understated youthful love for his game, stating that Ollie Matson is the greatest running back of all time, and he had a flair for putting on a show. Pete Rozelle made something that has been a staple of American culture and media, as well as for the rest of the world, from an obscure sport. He was the personification of the National Football League’s rise.
Carter, Bob. “Rozelle Made NFL What it is Today.” ESPN Classic SportsCentury. (2001) November 25, 2002. http://espn.go.com/classic/biograph
Carter, Bob. “Rozelle was NFL innovator.” ESPN Classic SportsCenutry. (2001) November 25, 2002. http://espn.go.com/classic/s/add_rozell
Lewis, Michael. “High Commissioner: Pete Rozelle.” Time 100: Builders and Titans. (2001) November 25, 2002. http://www.time.com/time/time100/builde
Murray, Jim. “Rozelle sold entire nation on his sport.” ESPN Classic SportsCenutry. (2001) November 25, 2002. http://espn.go.com/classic/s/murray_on_
Author unlisted. “Pete Rozelle 1960-1989.” Sportsencyclopedia.com. (2002) November 28, 2002. http://www.sportsecyclopedia.com/nfl/co
ESPN staff. “MNF Through the Years.” ABC Sports Online. (2002) November 28, 2002. http://espn.go.com/abcsports/mnf/fromth
NFL.com staff. “NFL History Chronology.” 1981-1990. (2002) November 28, 2002. http://ww2.nfl.com/history/chronology/1