Friday, November 13, 2009

Eighteen Regular Season NFL Games? Not So Fast

Eighteen Regular Season NFL Games? Not So Fast

By Evan Weiner

November 13, 2009

12:00 PM EST

(New York, N. Y.) – John Bogusz is not a name normally associated with the power structure of the National Football League, but John Bogusz is a major player in the NFL. You see John Bogusz is the head of sports sales for one of the NFL’s major financial partners, CBS, and at a Sports Business Journal sports business conference in New York, Bogusz didn’t seem particularly happy with the trial balloon that his partner, the NFL, floated a couple of years ago that the league might add two regular season games.

It is not known how Rupert Murdoch and his henchmen at FOX, another league partner, feels and neither Robert Iger at Disney, the parent company of ESPN nor Jeffrey Immelt have weighed in on the issue. DirecTV’s John Malone has also been silent. The NFL isn’t a real money maker for networks although it can be safely argued that Murdoch’s FOX syndication (technically FOX is not a network) was put on the map by the NFL in 1993 when Murdoch outbid CBS for the National Football Conference national over-the-air TV rights in the United States.

Murdoch may have overspent for the NFL in 1993 from a dollars and cents standpoint on what really is a TV entertainment series, he benefited greatly turning FOX from a ragtag network (syndication arm) with a few shows like The Simpsons and Married With Children into a legitimate entity and along the way he picked up more powerful stations in Detroit and Milwaukee which dumped CBS for FOX and Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers games.

TV networks use the NFL as a platform to promote other programming, CBS lost that platform in 1993 and the network fortunes plummeted. That is why a guy like John Bogusz should be taken seriously because TV is the NFL’s most important partner.

The NFL was a ragtag, pretty close to semi-pro league, in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The league didn’t stabilize until 1953 when the Baltimore-New York-Dallas franchise returned to Baltimore and even then there were questions about the future of a number of franchises including Green Bay (where fund raisers were held to keep the team going and to build a new stadium) and in Chicago, where the Cardinals could not compete with the Bears forcing the Bidwill family to look at alternative cities like Minneapolis and Buffalo before settling on St. Louis in 1960.

Television made the NFL. In 1950, baseball, boxing and horse racing were the most popular sports in the United States. By 1965, football became the favorite sport among American fans and it had all to do with television.

To that end, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is now reviewing names to put before a committee that selects Hall of Famers. There are numerous people who should be in the Canton, Ohio shrine who built football. People like William Paley, David Sarnoff, Rupert Murdoch, Bill MacPhail, Carl Lindemann, Roone Arledge and Leonard Goldstein. Paley founded CBS and it was Paley’s money that helped solidify the league in the early 1960s and propel the league from a mom and pop store operation to the multi-billion entity it is today.

Leonard Goldstein is not recognized as a football pioneer but he is. Goldstein’s small American Broadcasting Network cut a deal with the upstart American Football League in June 1960. It was a five-year agreement that was worth about $2,125,000, which was an enormous sum for an unproven sports entity in 1960. The eight AFL owners evenly divided the ABC cash and that deal would cause a world of concern in the National Football League which had 13 teams with 13 different TV contracts of various worth with the New York Giants, Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams having the most valuable and Green Bay sitting at the bottom. (In 1960, CBS gave the Bidwill family $500,000 after they moved their Cardinals to St. Louis and freed Chicago from having Bears games blackout because the Cardinals were home as under the NFL blackout rules, no home game could be televised in Chicago when either team was home, CBS put together the Bears network. Some of the Bidwill’s “home” games were played in Minneapolis and Buffalo to get around the blackout in the 1950s. The $500,000 was to go to move portable stands from Comiskey Park in Chicago to St. Louis.)

Goldstein put the AFL on the map and that contract had a major implications. The AFL deal more than likely violated American antitrust laws as the league bundled the assets and sold it as one entity. In 1961, Rozelle and the NFL studied the AFL deal and decided that grouping the NFL’s then-14 teams into one package would be far better than having 14 separating networks. On September 30, 1961, Rozelle got the cover he needed to duplicate the AFL deal from President John F. Kennedy who signed into law the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961, which allowed Rozelle and the very established NFL to borrow a page from Lamar Hunt’s new AFL and sell the TV package to either CBS or NBC.

Paley (and McPhail) outbid Sarnoff (and Lindemann) for the 1962 and 1963 for $4.65 million. In 1964, Paley got the better of Sarnoff again and won the NFL rights for $28.2 million for the 1964 and 1965 season. The NFL was flush in money while Goldstein’s old deal dragged down the AFL.

But Sarnoff was not going to be beaten. NBC and Sonny Werblin had a long time relationship and now Werblin was getting a TV deal together for the AFL. Werblin owned the New York Jets. Sarnoff gave his old business partner Werblin a five-year, $36 million deal. Sarnoff’s endowment made the AFL, gave Werblin the kind of money he needed to sign the University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to the biggest contract ever given to a player by a football team and set off a series of events including the escalation of players salaries in bidding wars between the two leagues flushed with TV money that ended with the June 8, 1966 merger between the National Football League and the American Football League.

Football ceased being a game between June 1960 and January 1964. Football was a TV show that filled hours on Sunday morning and afternoon in the fall and winter, depending on the time zone. Advertising flocked to games because they could reach young men and middle-aged men, their target audience because they were watching football.

The NFL was CBS and Ford; the AFL was NBC and Chrysler. Even after the merger there were fierce rivalries between the teams, the networks and the sponsors although that died out as the NFL and AFL amalgamation took place over a four-year period.

But the American Football League-National Football League World Championship Game first played in 1967 did not catch on until 1969.

Namath, more than anybody, is responsible for the Super Bowl becoming a quasi holiday and now a National Special Security Event under the aegis of the US Department of Homeland Security. Namath and Muhammad Ali were at the vanguard of the evolving athlete, going from the aw shucks you know I have nothing to say mode like Joe DiMaggio to the brash, I will show you model. Namath had the white shoes, the mink coat, the fu Manchu moustache, what passed for long hair, a perceived perception so to speak built by sportswriters who were divided into NFL and AFL camps instead of sticking to journalism.

Namath was one of those hippies that ruined sports while the crew cut Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts was old reliable.

Perceived perceptions are often wrong.

Sportswriters in NFL cities dismissed the AFL out of hand. Fortunately for football owners, players, coaches, general managers and fans, sportswriters didn’t run TV networks. Paley, Sarnoff and Goldstein did and they were much smarter than the average football writer like Sports Illustrated Tex Maule who was probably the worst offender of the journalistic role of being an impartial observer.

Namath was not the best player on the field in Super Bowl III when the Jets beat the Baltimore Colts but he guaranteed a Jets victory and the Jets did win and that victory would ultimately lead to ABC and Roone Arledge and the NFL agreeing to a pact, which created Monday Night Football in 1970. ABC’s Monday Night Football was not just a game presentation; it had to include an entertainment element to attract non-football fans.

It did.

Television has called many of the shots in football since Goldstein signed that initial contract with Lamar Hunt in 1960. Oddly enough football’s TV success came out of a failed concept, the Continental League, the Branch Rickey-led baseball business that started in 1958 with the hope of establishing a third major league by 1961. One of the Rickey business tenets was that all Continental League owners would share TV revenue equally. One of the owners of the proposed Denver Continental League team was Bob Howsam who also was part of the proposed Denver Broncos franchise of the AFL in 1959. Rickey’s concept ended up as part of the AFL and by 1961 was embraced by Rozelle and the NFL as “leaguethink” a concept that put the good of the league ahead of the individual team owner.

People like Goldstein, Sarnoff, Paley, McPhail, Arledge, Lindemann and yes-even Murdoch (all of whom should be put in the Canton Hall in that media category as they are far more important than any sportswriter) are responsible for the football industry so when a CBS sales guy talks, it is worth more than a casual listen. TV made the NFL and is a huge financial partner and TV may call the shots on the number of regular season games, after all it is THEIR dollars being spent.

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