Alvin Ray "Pete" Rozelle (March 1, 1926 – December 6, 1996) was the commissioner of the National Football League (NFL) from January 1960 to November 1989. Rozelle is credited with making the NFL into one of the most successful sports leagues in the world.
He was a visionary whose gift for negotiation and promotion always resulted in huge forward leaps for the business of football. Rozelle's accomplishments are legendary and include such things as blockbuster television contracts, winning the war with the competing American Football League by merging it with the NFL, developing the Super Bowl into America’s premier sporting event, dealing with difficult player issues including strikes and threatened strikes, and facing numerous court and legislative battles.
Rozelle revolutionized the administration of professional football and led it to unprecedented profitability and popularity with his collective approach, which he referred to as League Think.
Rozelle was born in South Gate, California, and grew up in suburban Lynwood, California, during the Great Depression. He graduated from Compton High School in 1944, lettering in baseball and basketball. He was drafted into the Navy in 1944, and served 18 months in the Pacific on an oil tanker. He then enrolled in Compton Junior College in 1946, where he earned $50 a month as the school's sports information 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 in his temporary position.
In 1948, he transferred to the University of San Francisco (USF). Even though he was still a student, he earned $200 a month as the school's sports publicity director and assistant athletic director, under Joe Kuharich.
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.
In 1952, Tex Schramm, who at that time was the chief assistant to Los Angeles Rams' president Dan Reeves, offered Rozelle the team's public relations position. Rozelle remained in that position until 1955, when he left to join P.K. Macker, an international public relations firm that had been retained to promote and publicize the 1956 Summer Olympics in Australia.
By 1957, he was back with the Rams as general manager. He proved an immediate success with the Rams, using his talents as a public relations professional to soothe the turmoil that had developed within the organization. He went on to turn the disorganized, unprofitable team into a business success.
When the owners of NFL franchises met for their annual meeting in 1960, their league faced serious challenges. Bert Bell, who had served as commissioner of the League since 1946, 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, Dan Reeves suggested Rozelle, as a compromise candidate. Rozelle was elected, but was opposed by some of the NFL's most established and influential owners.
The NFL, in 1960, was following a business model that had evolved from the 1930s. When he took office there were ten teams in the NFL playing a twelve game schedule to frequently half-empty stadiums, and only a few teams had television contracts. Following the lead of the rival American Football League, Rozelle negotiated large television contracts to broadcast every NFL game played each season. In doing so, Rozelle not only played one television network against the other, but also persuaded NFL team owners—most notably Carroll Rosenbloom of the Colts, and George Preston Marshall of the Redskins—to agree to share revenues between teams, as the American Football League had done since its inception. His business model was essentially a cartel that benefited all teams equally, from revenue sharing to the player draft.
After becoming NFL commissioner, Rozelle 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. Owners in the large market teams such as New York and Los Angeles opposed the idea. In order to make it possible for teams to pool their television revenues, the NFL would need a partial exemption from the Sherman Antitrust Act, which prohibits monopolistic business practices. Rozelle went before the U.S Congress in 1961, and in September of that year, the NFL secured the required exemption.
As a result, NFL television revenues tripled between 1962 and 1964, to $14 million per year, and the popularity of football began to increase rapidly. Rozelle's "aptitude for conciliation" with the league's owners and his work in expanding the NFL led to his receiving Sports Illustrated magazine's 1963 "Sportsman of the Year" award.
Rozelle's only significant misstep during this time occurred on November 24, 1963, when the NFL played a full schedule of games (untelevised) only two days after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, while the rival American Football League (AFL) postponed its games out of respect for the fallen president. Rozelle soon came to regret his decision to have the NFL play, and frequently stated publicly that it had been his worst mistake. However, Rozelle and then-White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger had been classmates at the University of San Francisco years before, and Rozelle consulted with him. Salinger urged Rozelle to play the games. Rozelle felt that way, citing that "it has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy."
The AFL 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. With American Football League commissioner Al Davis and other AFL and NFL executives including Lamar Hunt, founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Rozelle negotiated the merger between the American Football League and the NFL in 1966. Rozelle 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.
Following the urging of Al Davis, Rozelle also agreed to the creation of the Super Bowl and later supported the concept of Monday Night Football.
The reconstituted NFL enjoyed unprecedented popularity throughout the 1960s and 1970s. The 1970s saw Rozelle at the peak of his powers as a sports league commissioner. He presided over a decade of league expansion. Monday Night Football became a staple of American television viewing, and the Super Bowl became the single most watched televised event of the year.
The 1980s saw drug scandals and struggles with powerful owners over team movement. Additionally, the United States Football League (USFL) formed, again pushing player salaries higher, and ultimately embroiled the league in further legal troubles. 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. The NFL withstood its rival league and the USFL eventually folded in 1987, shortly after it lost its legal battle against the NFL. He also presided during two players' strikes in 1982 and 1987.
He retired as commissioner on November 5, 1989 and served briefly on the board of directors of NTN Communications, Inc. of Carlsbad, California, in 1994. He died of brain cancer at the age of 70, in 1996, in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Rozelle is interred at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego, California.
Rozelle married his first wife, an artist named Jane Coupe, in 1949. The couple had one child, Anne, born in 1958. However, Jane's problems with alcoholism meant that Rozelle (along with his lifelong secretary, Thelma Elkjer) was his daughter's primary caretaker. It was not uncommon to see Anne at owner's meetings (some joked that her love of Joe Namath was a reason behind the AFL-NFL merger) or for Pete to take off early to help her with schoolwork or to take her out on the town. Rozelle and Coupe divorced in 1967 (with Rozelle awarded full custody of Anne), and he remarried in 1974 to Carrie Cooke, daughter-in-law of sports impresario Jack Kent Cooke. They remained together until his death.
Pete Rozelle was commissioner for 29 seasons and was one of the key creators of the Super Bowl. The year he died, some 94 million people viewed the Super Bowl and in ensuing years the totals reached more than 100 million.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney, son of an NFL founder and a Rozelle contemporary said, "He was the greatest commissioner I have ever seen in sports. If Pete had not been commissioner, we would have gotten on as a league, but we wouldn't be the sport we grew to be under his tenure, the top American sport. And we wouldn't have obtained the respect the NFL has."
Rozelle also played a role in creating Monday Night Football, which, other than 60 Minutes, is the longest-running prime-time show in television history.
Pete Rozelle was inducted into the National Foot Ball League’s Hall of fame in 1985.
All links retrieved March 14, 2019.
Austin Gunsel (interim)
|Commissioner of the National Football League
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