Pete Rozelle (1926-1996) served as commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) from 1960 until 1989, leading the League to unprecedented profitability and popularity.
Born in the small California town of South Gate, outside of Los Angeles, on March 1, 1926, Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle took an early interest in sports. He played basketball and tennis for Compton High School, from which he graduated in 1944. Upon graduation, Rozelle enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving until 1946. He then enrolled in Compton Junior College and returned to the world of sports as the college's athletic news director. Rozelle also covered high school basketball for local newspapers. The same year that he entered Compton Junior College, the NFL's Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and chose the college as the site of their training camp. Rozelle showed an interest in the team and became an assistant to Maxwell Stiles, the Rams' public relations director. Rozelle made a good impression on the Rams' administration, but his position was strictly temporary. In 1948, he left to finish his degree at the University of San Francisco (USF).
Rozelle graduated from USF in 1950 and became the University's athletic news director, a part-time position. He was able to attend major sporting events and made many contacts that would help him professionally in the years to come. One such contact was Tex Schramm, general manager of the Los Angeles Rams, who hired Rozelle to serve as the Rams' public relations director in 1952. Rozelle remained in that position until 1955, when he left to join the public relations firm of P.K. Macker in San Francisco. While in this capacity, Rozelle represented Australian athletes and sports firms during Australia's hosting of the 1956 Olympic Games.
While Rozelle advanced his career in public relations, the Los Angeles Rams were experiencing administrative difficulties. Fifty percent of the team was owned by Dan Reeves, and the other half was owned by two people who could not get along with him. To escape this strife, Schramm left the Rams in 1957, and the club was without a general manager. NFL commissioner Bert Bell offered the position to Rozelle, who overcame initial misgivings and took the post before the end of the year. He proved an immediate success with the Rams, using his talents as a public relations professional to soothe the turmoil within the organization. In the process, he greatly impressed Reeves.
State of the Game
The popularity of football had increased steadily throughout the 1950s. In 1958, the sport received a gigantic boost when one of its first nationally televised championship games (featuring the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants) turned into one of the most well-played and exciting games of all time. Although interest in football had increased, a 1960 Gallup poll revealed that 34 percent of Americans named baseball as their favorite sport, with just 21 percent preferring football.
When the owners of NFL franchises met for their annual meeting in 1960, their league faced serious challenges. Bell, who had served as commissioner of the League since 1946, had died suddenly the previous year, and a rival professional league, the American Football League (AFL), had been established. The AFL promised to compete with NFL teams for both players and markets. Various factions among the 12 NFL owners advanced candidates to fill Bell's position as commissioner, but after ten days and 23 ballots, no candidate had secured a majority. Finally, Reeves put forward his employee, Pete Rozelle, as a compromise candidate. Rozelle was elected, but was opposed by some of the NFL's most established and influential owners.
Upon becoming commissioner, Rozelle immediately set out to revolutionize the administration of professional football. Borrowing from the stated intention of the AFL owners, Rozelle proposed that all NFL teams pool revenues they received from television contracts and advertising, and then distribute them evenly. This approach to the distribution of media revenues was not popular with owners in large markets such as New York and Los Angeles, but Rozelle saw a collective approach as essential to the survival of teams operating in smaller markets, such as Green Bay, Wisconsin. Furthermore, by presenting a collective front, the NFL would be able to secure better national television contracts. Rozelle referred to his collective approach as "League Think." Although League owners soon saw the benefits of Rozelle's tactics, legal obstacles to his plan still existed. In order to pool their television revenues, the NFL would need a partial exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits monopolistic business practices. Rozelle argued the NFL's case before the U.S. Congress and secured the required exemption in September 1961.
Rise of the AFL
Under Rozelle's leadership, NFL television revenues tripled between 1962 and 1964 to $14 million per year, and the popularity of football began to increase rapidly. The AFL had also benefited from football's increased popularity and soon began to pose a serious threat to the NFL's prosperity. Competition between the leagues resulted in greatly increased salaries for players, which in turn began to effect the financial health of both leagues. The situation had become intolerable by 1966, and Rozelle was forced to act. First, he convinced the team owners in both leagues to allow the AFL to merge into an expanded NFL. Rozelle then convinced Congress to grant a further Sherman Antitrust Act exemption for the NFL to enable the merger to proceed. This merger also resulted in the creation of an end-of-season game between the champions of the NFL and the AFL, which soon became known as the Super Bowl. The first Super Bowl, matching the Green Bay Packers of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL, was played in January 1967.
The reconstituted NFL enjoyed unprecedented popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Television revenues continued to rise and Monday Night Football, first shown on the ABC network in 1970, soon became a national institution. Gallup conducted another poll in 1972 that revealed football was the favorite sport of 36 percent of Americans while just 21 percent favored baseball. Despite the growth of the NFL during the 1970s, new challenges emerged. Players threatened to strike in 1974 for the right to become free agents when their contracts expired. Also, another rival league, the World Football League (WFL), came into existence the same year, but went defunct in 1975 due to insufficient financial backing. By 1980, the NFL comprised 28 teams, up from 12 in 1960, and had reached new heights in both profitability and popularity.
Labor and Legal Challenges
Rozelle's "League Think" strategy had succeeded beyond the owners' wildest dreams, but the economic realities of sports were beginning to change again in the 1980s. Although the NFL's television revenues continued to rise, reaching an all-time high of $2.1 billion for the 1987 season, the importance of stadium leases, concessions, and the sale of "luxury boxes" became an increasingly important part of team revenues. Luxury boxes were private blocks of seats featuring amenities including televisions, bars, and buffets, which are normally sold to corporate clients for an entire season. Older stadiums, which lacked luxury boxes and were often owned by the home team's city, generated far less revenue than newer venues. Furthermore, cities desperate for a professional football franchise were willing to build stadiums at public expense and offer generous payments to teams willing to leave their traditional markets. Owners received offers they literally could not refuse. One of the League's most storied and profitable franchises, the Oakland Raiders, moved to Los Angeles after securing a favorable stadium lease in 1980. Rozelle opposed the move in the courts, as did the city of Oakland, but they were unable to prevent the Raiders from moving. The courts eventually ruled that the NFL would violate antitrust laws if it barred its owners from moving their franchises to secure more lucrative arrangements in new cities. Following the resolution of this case the Baltimore Colts, another of the NFL's most famous teams, moved to Indianapolis, Indiana, for the 1984 season.
The contractual rights of players continued to haunt the NFL during the 1980s. Throughout the League's history, players had, in effect, been the property of their teams. When a player's contract expired, he was forced to renegotiate only with his own team, rather than being able to market his skills to all NFL teams. This meant that players were forced to take whatever salary their teams were willing to pay, which had the effect of holding salaries down. In the heyday of the AFL, a sort of free agency had existed, since AFL teams felt free to offer contracts to NFL players, and salaries had risen dramatically. Following the incorporation of the AFL into the NFL, competition between franchises for players became almost nonexistent once again. Rozelle had done his best to secure this arrangement by instituting what became known as the Rozelle Rule, which required any team that signed a player previously belonging to another team to offer compensation for the lost player. The effect of the Rozelle Rule was to make signing a free agent a very risky prospect for a team, which would only find out after the fact what type of compensation they would be required to make to the player's original team. Under these circumstances, player salaries stagnated throughout the 1970s and the mood of the players became increasingly militant. Players struck in 1982 and 1987 to secure some form of free agency, or at least a modification of the Rozelle Rule. Eventually, a very controlled form of free agency was put into place, a salary cap installed, and the Rozelle Rule suspended. This compromise solution is still in effect today, although it had been made with some acrimony, alienating fans and hurting the League's popularity.
In addition to its labor and legal troubles, the NFL was increasingly confronted with the problem of substance abuse among its players. The use of steroids to enhance on-field performance, which had been condoned by many teams, became anathema due to public outrage and the discovery of the physical side-effects of steroid abuse. Additionally, off-the-field use of recreational drugs by players caused a seemingly unending series of embarrassing incidents. Rozelle was shocked by the pervasiveness of drug abuse in the League, as was the public, and by 1986, the NFL's television ratings were beginning to drop for the first time during his tenure.
A new rival professional league, the United States Football League (USFL), came into existence in 1981. The USFL enjoyed far more secure financial backing than had the WFL, including among its owners multi-millionaire Donald Trump. Despite the fact that the USFL avoided direct competition with the NFL by playing its games in the spring, the very existence of the new league had the usual effect of creating a form of free agency and causing players' salaries to rise dramatically. The USFL enjoyed several years of prosperity before eventually moving its games to the fall in an attempt to compete directly with the NFL. It combined this move with the filing of an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, seeking $1.5 billion in damages for what it alleged was the NFL's restraint of trade within the business of football. Under Rozelle's direction, the NFL successfully defended itself against the USFL's competitive and legal challenges. The new league folded shortly after it lost the preliminary judgment in its court case against the NFL in 1987.
Rozelle guided the NFL through the troubled 1980s, with television revenues per team climbing from $69 million to $493.5 million between 1977 and 1986, but at a high personal cost. By the end of the decade, he was having difficulty sleeping and was smoking three packs of cigarettes per day. Rozelle's influence and effectiveness were officially recognized when he was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1985. Despite this honor, the perception that the League's popularity and profitability were stagnating was beginning to undermine Rozelle's support among owners in the late 1980s. In 1989, with more than two years remaining on his contract, Rozelle decided that he had had enough and resigned as commissioner of the NFL.
Rozelle served briefly on the board of directors of NTN Communications, Inc. of Carlsbad, California, in 1994, before retiring due to his failing health. He died of cancer on December 6, 1996 in Rancho Mirage, California.
Further Reading on Pete Rozelle
Columbia Reference Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, 1993.
Harris, David, The League, Bantam Books, 1987.
Broadcasting and Cable, April 18, 1994.
Fortune, August 4, 1986.
Jet, April 29, 1985.
New York Times, March 23, 1989.
Newsweek, September 20, 1982.
Sporting News, February 4, 1985; December 16, 1996.
Sports Illustrated, September 1, 1983; January 30, 1989; April 3, 1989.
Time, December 7, 1998.
U.S. News and World Report, January 26, 1987.