In the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, on a hot humid night last month, some 70,000 people paid from $3 to $6 for the privilege of watching the St. Louis Cardinals whomp the Green Bay Packers in a preseason football game. It was not a particularly good game, but the spectators howled as though they were seeing a championship playoff.
"Does that crowd and that noise prove anything to you?" asked Dave Dixon, the promoter of the game, when it was over. "If it hadn't rained all day, we would have filled the stadium. We would have had 82,000. We need a pro club here."
As pro football enters its 69th year, the keynote of the most rapidly growing spectator sport in history is expansion. And pro football, in this year of change, problems and prosperity, is overflowing its stadiums.
The two biggest worries of the established National Football League are what to do about expansion and how to cope with the stepchild of its own prosperity, the American Football League. Probably the most eagerly awaited game in American sports is the playoff between the National and American champions, but this still seems years away.
"We have no plans for such a game," repeated NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle recently. "The welfare of our players is one of our prime concerns. Their efforts in the championship game produce $900,000 annually in pension benefits, and a playoff with the AFL could only dilute this, certainly not increase it.
"Besides that, I would like to point out again that for three years we were publicly vilified by the owners in the AFL, and we were sued by them for $10 million, a suit which cost the NFL a great deal of time and money to win. It was less than a year ago—only last December—that this suit was finally resolved."
Rozelle is not too eager to move into new cities, either, despite the indicated interest and obvious ability of New Orleans and Atlanta to support a professional football team.
"I doubt that we will expand the league in the immediate future," he says. "If and when we do, then certainly Atlanta and New Orleans deserve the strongest consideration. But one of the difficulties is personnel. It takes years to acquire the depth of material necessary to be a contender in the NFL. Dallas and Minnesota are good examples of that."
If and when the NFL does expand, the Tex Schramm plan is the one most favored by the owners. Schramm, the general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, envisions two conferences, each split into two four-team divisions. The division champions would play for the conference championship, and then the conference winner would play for the league championship, thus stretching the season into January.
But to utilize this plan, the NFL would have to add two teams, and it is doubtful that promoters in Atlanta and New Orleans will sit waiting for their NFL bid when the AFL is eager to move in and might soon do so.
"If the NFL would tell me that I could surely have a franchise, I would wait as long as necessary," says Dixon, the New Orleans promoter. "But I haven't had any assurance of any kind. If the AFL makes a good offer, I'll have to take it."
While the NFL is moving slowly in expanding the league, the clubs are beginning to ease the demand for tickets by cautiously moving into theater television. In New York, Baltimore, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington, Green Bay and Milwaukee, it is almost impossible for a nonseason-ticket holder to get a good seat to a home game. The Bears, after a successful experiment with theater television in the championship game last year, will offer some 10,000 theater tickets to their home games this year. The Detroit Lions and the New York Giants will televise three or four of their home games in theaters, and other clubs will begin in 1965.
"The owners consider theater television an extension of the home stadium for the fans' convenience," says Rozelle. "The money to be made is not yet significant. But this is an exciting new way to present the sport."
Rozelle does not believe that home pay television will be a factor for a long time. "Should clubs go into home pay television, I feel it will be strictly on home games, the way theater television is being used now. I can't imagine our ever forsaking free television of road games."
The year's most notable development may be the tremendous expansion of the scouting systems of both leagues. Fifteen years ago the Los Angeles Rams dominated the NFL on the strength of the most meticulous scouting system in football. In 1964 the Rams will spend well over $100,000 on scouting talent in colleges—about the same amount it will cost every other club in the league.
Vigorous competition for talent between the two leagues has increased scouting budgets. At the end of last season the old league dreamed up an extensive but effective dodge that gave it a temporary edge in signing college players. The NFL used a widespread network of baby-sitters to insure signing the top draft choices. The baby-sitters were scouts who camped on the draftees' doorsteps to wait until the player had been chosen and then held the fort or signed him for whatever club had drafted him. In past years the player was not approached until after the draft was over, and the club owning him had found time to send someone to talk contract. The NFL owners can no longer wait; now drafting and signing of a player is almost simultaneous. The AFL is beginning a baby-sitting system this year, and draftees of the future will have two men ringing their doorbells at the same time.
The added emphasis on scouting and the signing of players is the NFL's tacit admission that the AFL, despite difficulties at the box office for the last four years, is in business to stay. Any lingering hopes that NFL owners nursed for the demise of the young league died abruptly when the National Broadcasting Company signed a five-year contract, to begin in 1965, for AFL games. The contract gives $750,000 a year to each AFL club to start with, increases each year to nearly a million in the fifth year, and, in effect, insures the AFL's survival until it can attract enough customers and sign enough top-level football players to offer the NFL real competition.
Although AFL fans will claim otherwise, it will be another two or three years before the AFL can match the NFL in the quality of football played, and it might be longer if the younger league is not more successful in signing draftees than it was last year (two of the first NFL choices). But when the two leagues are more evenly matched, the NFL will have to forgo its stance of injured innocence and accept the AFL as a worthy rival. Already there is cooperation between the two player associations.
But it will not be the players or even the weight of public opinion that will bring peace to the pro football war. The cost of football talent has zoomed during the four years of the AFL's life, and 1964 bids fair to set new records in bonuses given and salaries paid. It will be an economic necessity for the AFL and the NFL to join in a common draft to keep player pay on what owners consider a reasonable level, if they can avoid incurring antitrust penalties as a result of interest aroused by the recent CBS-New York Yankees deal.
Right now there is a trend in the NFL toward joint drafting within the league. Some clubs are pooling their scouting information. Already operating in pools are two three-team combinations (San Francisco, Los Angeles and Dallas, and Detroit, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia) and one four-team combination (Green Bay, St. Louis, Baltimore and Cleveland).
"We get a much better report on a player this way," says Tex Schramm of the Cowboys. "We get three reports instead of one. We don't make as many mistakes on players."
Despite rising costs, no team in the NFL will fail to make money in 1964, and some teams in the AFL probably will be in the black for the first time. And 1964 may be the last year that any pro football team loses money, because the TV contract insures a profit for every AFL club.
Prosperity aside, 1964 looks to be a thrilling season in both leagues. Several clubs have improved prospects and are going to surprise fans across the country—see following pages, if you please.