Look How the Owners Smile - Sports Illustrated Vault | SI.com
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Look How the Owners Smile

Television has dumped happy problems on pro football—how to handle all the fans and cash
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When the Detroit Lions held their annual stockholders' meeting in the Sheraton-Cadillac Hotel the other day, only about 50 of the 130-odd owners showed up. They were in a jovial, happy mood; suntans were a dime a dozen, and the conversation, as often as not, was about building cooperative apartment houses and driving sports cars and the weather in Florida.

Edwin J. Anderson, the president of the Lions, called the meeting to order. Mr. Anderson wore a large red carnation, a shirt with a white collar and a pleated blue front tastefully decorated with small red figures, and an air of authority—all with aplomb. He has the thickest eyebrows west of John L. Lewis, and he is an amiable, very capable man who is also president of the Goebel Brewing Company. A Beloit College football player in the mid-'20s, he has been president of the Lions for eight years. Knute Rockne called him "one of the finest players I have seen" after Anderson performed nobly against the Irish in 1925.

Anderson waved the heavy eyebrows vigorously at his stockholders and said, "I'm not surprised at the small turnout. Any time a business is doing well, the stockholders stay away from the meetings. Have a bad year, and you have to hire a hall for all of them." The president's report indicated that the Lions are not likely to hire a hall any time in the near future either.

The Lions averaged some 53,000 fans at home games in 1957—more than the capacity of Briggs Stadium. They are an artistic as well as an economic success, winning four division and three world titles since the 1950 season, when Anderson took over as club president.

No small part of this success must be ascribed to W. Nicholas Kerbawy, the ebullient general manager of the club. Kerbawy, a former high school Spanish teacher, joined the Lions in 1948, and his flamboyant personality and flair for sports promotion melded perfectly into the maturing business of pro football. Like the more successful of this new breed of executive, Kerbawy sleeps in cat naps during the season so that he can be instantly available at any hour of day or night for the quick decisions that spell the difference between champs and tail-enders.

SUCCESS FOLLOWS MERGER

The prosperity ol the Lions is typical of the tremendous burgeoning of professional football in the last five years. Actually, the growth of the sport began in 1950, after the old All-America Conference folded, ending a suicidal battle between the rival leagues which cost owners millions of dollars but which created many new pro football fans. With the additional boost provided by wise use of television, the pro sport has climbed steadily since; only the Chicago Cardinals lost money last season, and the Cardinals are a unique case. Competing in the only two-team city, they must share the popularity (and the football dollar) with George Halas' perenially colorful and successful Bears.

Yet, despite the growing prosperity of the sport, Commissioner Bert Bell of the National Football League manages to strike an arresting poor-mouth note. "Anyone who gets into this business to make money should have his head examined," says Commissioner Bell.

Indeed, it appears that although the National Football League has broken attendance records in nine of the last 12 seasons (1957 was up a whopping 11% over 1956), skyrocketing costs have kept the owners' profits down. For example: the Lions, in 1953, had a player payroll of $300,156; but by 1957 it was up to $384,000. Over-all operating cost of the Lions has gone from $1,200,000 in 1953 to $1,600,000 in 1957, and even the tremendous increase in attendance could not have overcome this rise without the pros' ace in the hole—television.

The Lions' television and radio rights bring them $160,000 per year; their net profit after taxes in 1957 was $151,052. At first glance, it would seem that without television the club would have lost about $9,000, but this quick estimate does not take into account the tax bite. The Lions' gross profit in 1957 was $309,000, including the TV take. Without television and radio, the gross would have been some $149,000, leaving a net profit after taxes of about $71,520.

"One reason the player payroll has been able to go up so far is television," Bell pointed out. "Take the television money out last year, and you'd cut down profits by more than half. The clubs would have had to cut down on costs, and the big item in costs is the player payroll."

VICTORY FOR COLTS

The intangible benefit of television—the huge reservoir of new fans—can't even begin to be measured. Recently in Baltimore, the Colts and the United States Naval Academy engaged in a gingerly tug of war. Navy had scheduled Notre Dame for November 1; the following day, the Colts had a home game against the Green Bay Packers. Since Navy has a contract with the Baltimore Park Board, the governing body of the Memorial Stadium, stating that no football game shall be played in the Stadium five days before or one day after a Navy game, Navy testily declared it would move its game to Philadelphia or New York if the Colts did not cancel theirs. Said Navy Athletic Director Slade Cutter: "Baltimore is our home port, but we have to have a sellout for Notre Dame to make playing there worthwhile.... I think if the Baltimore football fan has the choice he's going to pay his money to see the Colts and Packers, not Navy and Notre Dame."

Colt General Manager Don Kellett was equally blunt. If the Park Board ruled against the Colts, he said, the Packer game would be played in Miami or Dallas.

The Baltimore Evening Sun conducted a poll to see what the fan on the street wanted; of 15 persons questioned, all 15 said let Navy and Notre Dame move but keep the Colts and the Packers here. In the face of strong indignation from the Baltimore public, Cutter came about on a new tack and agreed to play in Baltimore, despite the professional game next day.

The same howl of indignation was heard in Pittsburgh when the NCAA, decrying contamination of its amateur athletes by exposure to soil trod by pros (SI, March 3) stepped into negotiations between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the University of Pittsburgh for use of Pitt Stadium. It is no secret in Pittsburgh that Pitt Athletic Director Tom Hamilton has been cool toward the pros; in the face of a loud public clamor to let the pros in, it is likely that he, too, will have to back down.

The admission of the Steelers to Pitt Stadium will help clear up one of the main problems which besets pro football today. Four teams—Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Washington and the Chicago Cardinals—have been handicapped by inadequate accommodations at home. In some cases, parking problems have cut attendance; in others the stadium capacity simply has not been sufficient to take advantage of the occasional "big game" which boosts clubs comfortably into the black. With the Steelers in Pitt Stadium and the Philadelphia Eagles moving into the University of Pennsylvania stadium, two of the bottlenecks will have been eliminated. George Preston Marshall would like a bigger stadium for his Washington Redskins and may get one; he has made goo-goo eyes at several alternate locations in an effort to prod a new stadium out of the District of Columbia. The Cardinals, playing at Comiskey Park, have no place to go; recent talks with a Houston group which would move the team to the Texas city fell through over lack of a suitable available stadium there.

The problems of the pros are relatively pleasant ones, however. What with the nationwide interest created by regionally slanted television programs prohibiting the local telecasting of home games, the pros actually have more business than they can handle. Unlike baseball, which is looking for more fans to fill empty seats, pro football is looking for more seats to accommodate a growing host of fans for whom there are no seats. No wonder Mr. Anderson and his fellow bosses are looking so happy these days.

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EDWIN J. ANDERSON IS LIONS' BIG BOSS

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NICK KERBAWY IS GENERAL MANAGER