Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Pete Rozelle



Professional football is wildly successful and profitable, even by professional sports standards. With $20.4 BILLION in combined revenue due from their 4 television deals (3 of them run through 2011, and the 4th through 2013), sold out stadiums across the league, a successful website and a growing network dedicated solely to the sport, it’s fair to say that the NFL has never been in better shape. The popularity and financial stability of the National Football League finds its origins in the era led by former league commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Rozelle became the commissioner of the NFL in 1960, and his first major success may have been his most important contribution to the well-being of the league. In 1961, Congress passed the Sports Broadcasting Act, which allowed the league to pool its broadcast rights into a single package which would then be negotiated with the networks as a single commodity. Prior to his promotion, Rozelle was the league’s main man in Washington, lobbying for the act. The massive television deals that the NFL currently is able to negotiate are in no small part due to Rozelle’s efforts.

But Rozelle’s contributions did not stop there. When a rival league (the AFL) rose up to challenge the NFL’s superiority, Rozelle embraced the challenge and designed a championship matchup between the leagues – now known as the Super Bowl (a mildly successful venture, to say the least). With the success of the AFL and the Super Bowl, Rozelle successfully navigated a hugely successful merger of the two leagues in 1970.

After this episode, Rozelle opened the owners eyes to the power of expansion as a way of limiting competition. As the league’s popularity grew, Rozelle began a slow growth in the league’s size by adding teams. This served two functions – it limited the talent pool available for any rival leagues, and it placed teams in cities that would have made strong homes for franchises in a rival league. Since the AFL merger, the NFL has weathered two high profile challenges; the USFL in the mid 1980’s and the XFL in the early 2000’s, and has retained its place at the top of the football world.

When Rozelle took over as commissioner, the NFL had just 13 teams, no national television deals, and was arguable less popular than college football and professional basketball. By the time Rozelle retired from his position in 1989, he left the NFL with 28 teams, multi-million dollar deals with two networks, and the title of the fastest growing sport in North America. Since Rozelle’s time, media revenues for sports programs in general have skyrocketed, and the NFL has benefitted as much as any sport. Pete Rozelle brought a CEO’s mentality, a lobbyist’s influence and a fighter’s toughness to his role as the head of the NFL, and transformed the league into an international phenomenon that still generates obscene amounts of wealth for its owners and players, as well as hours of entertainment for its fans.

More on Rozelle

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