No entity has had more of an impact on American sports broadcasting than the National Football League, and no single figure was more important to that league than Pete Rozelle. Commissioner of the NFL from 1960 to “89, Rozelle presided over the changes that made the NFL the nation’s premier professional sports organization and gave it the power it currently wields in the broadcast world.
From the day he took over as commissioner at age 33, Alvin Ray Rozelle began crafting what would become the business model for all of professional sports, led by the revolutionary belief that professional sports belonged in the same light as big business.
In 1960, the league’s 12 franchises were run as standalone businesses. Rozelle understood that a league-first, teamsecond concept would be far more prosperous, so he lobbied Congress to grant an exemption to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act that would enable the NFL and competing American Football League to become a single business. The exemption granted, Rozelle initiated the merger and expansion that increased the organization from 12 to 28 teams, creating the modern NFL. Far more important to the future of sports broadcasting was the second exemption Rozelle received, legalizing singlenetwork television contracts for professional sports leagues. Instead of competing with one another to sell broadcast rights, the NFL teams, newly imbued with an understanding of their growing worth as a collective, put one shared broadcast package up for sale. The NFL suddenly had a level of bargaining power never before enjoyed by a professional sports organization.
“Congress sanctioning the single-network deal is the most significant thing Pete ever did.”
The new commissioner did not stop there. Realizing that the New York Giants’ earning 10 times what the Green Bay Packers received in television revenue enabled the Giants to spend more money on players, Rozelle made another drastic change. With a steadfast belief that on-field competition was the lifeblood of the league and that comparable team revenues would encourage on-field competition, Rozelle instituted a revenue-sharing scheme. The plan gave each team roughly the same amount of money to spend on players, thereby encouraging the evenly talented rosters he believed were necessary for fan growth.
“He said that, for the strength of the league, they had to share the money equally or the league would go to hell,” says Jim Kensil, a former Associated Press sportswriter.
In 1961, Rozelle negotiated a two-year, $9.3 million deal with CBS, the first of its kind, and split its revenue evenly among the franchises.
In addition to his contributions to the business side of broadcasting, Rozelle also had a profound impact on its content. Encouraging television to grow alongside professional football, he created Sunday doubleheaders, expanded playoffs, put every game on television, and along with ABC Sports President Roone Arledge, invented the wildly successful Monday Night Football broadcasts.
Of all the changes he championed, however, Rozelle was most proud of the title game he created, the Super Bowl.
“The most fun thing was watching the development of the Super Bowl because the game is what it’s all about,” Rozelle said on retiring in 1989. “I really felt a high at every Super Bowl, with all the glitz and the spectacular halftime shows.” At the time of his retirement, nine of the 10 television programs with the largest audiences in history were Super Bowls. Rozelle’s NFL high had officially become a national epidemic, serving as a testament to his innovations across three decades at the helm of the nation’s most important professional sports league.