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Original Issue


Bigger and richer than even, pro football opens with the leagues at peace for the first time and the tills bulging

When the Golden Boy challenges the Golden Girl in prime time on television this Saturday night, professional football will find out, suddenly, whether it is true that most of TV viewers in the nation would rather watch Paul Hornung than Miss Wisconsin.

As Hornung leads the champion Green Bay Packers of the National Football League against the Baltimore Colts in the season opener in Milwaukee, Miss Wisconsin will be on another network in the Miss America contest, the television show with the highest rating of them all. It looks like Hornung and the other pro stars—Jim Taylor and Bart Starr of Green Bay and Johnny Unitas and the fine Colt receivers—should outdraw Miss America, whoever she turns out to be. The game is a rematch of the bitter Western Division playoff last season—except that this time Unitas and his supersubstitute, Gary Cuozzo, are in good health, and Green Bay has the gold-dust twins, Donny Anderson and Jim Grabowski, to go with the Golden Boy.

This is, of course, the first season of peace between the National and American leagues after five years of warfare—and it's wonderful, at least for the owners. Many details of the merger remain to be settled but, unless there is a major hitch, the leagues will join in a common draft in January and stage a world championship game between their champions. They will also save sacksful of money on baby-sitters, long-distance telephone calls, entertainment of college football coaches and star players, and rookie bonuses.

Sometime in the next two or three weeks two new franchises will be awarded—one in the NFL and one in the AFL. Three cities are in the running—New Orleans, Seattle and Cincinnati. New Orleans is the leading contender, with Seattle next and Cincinnati the outsider. New Orleans has made plans to build a domed stadium by 1968 and in the meantime can offer the 81,585-seat Tulane Sugar Bowl. Seattle has access to the University of Washington stadium (capacity 55,500) and will build a new arena of its own if the voters approve the idea this month. While Cincinnati also has plans for a new stadium, it can offer only Crosley Field (capacity 29,603) as an interim site. Look for New Orleans and Seattle to win the NFL and AFL franchises, respectively.

New Orleans is also the likeliest site for the supergame, the playoff between the champions of the two leagues. The city seems to fulfill all requirements: it is neutral, it is warm, it has an acceptable stadium in the Sugar Bowl and it has already demonstrated enthusiasm for pro football. If a clincher is needed, New Orleans is not a major television market. Since the city in which the game will be played will be blacked out, that is an important consideration. The only rival site appears to be the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Rose Bowl seats more people (100,423) than the Sugar Bowl, but it has disadvantages. The Los Angeles area is NFL country and is also a major television market which the supergame's sponsoring network (not yet selected) would be loth to black out.

The tentative nature of the pro merger may linger until the game gets the legislation it wants from Congress to make it exempt from antitrust actions. The so-called Sports Bill, written to that end, is not likely to be enacted in this session. Pete Rozelle, commissioner of the National Football League and commissioner-to-be of the joint leagues, has spent most of his time recently in Washington lobbying for a special bill to give legal status to a common draft. So far he has not been successful. Meanwhile, a joint committee of the two leagues has met once to consider a new constitution and to iron out minor problems. Committee members are Texas Schramm, Dan Reeves and Carroll Rosenbloom of the NFL and Lamar Hunt, Billy Sullivan and Ralph Wilson Jr. of the AFL. Rozelle himself is a nonvoting member.

Some of their problems are not minor, however. As a starter, which network will be awarded the supergame? The NFL might have a claim to the game for its network, CBS, on the basis of seniority. But it is unlikely that NBC would agree. And both NBC and CBS have valid claims to a reduction in the enormous fees they pay for the championship games. The interleague championship certainly diminishes the value of the latter to the networks and the fans, if not the team owners.

Luckily, the game itself is played under essentially the same rules in both leagues, aside from one major point—the extra one. AFL teams have the college-style option of kicking for one point or throwing or running for two after a touchdown. It seems an exciting addition to the game and something that the NFL could well afford to concede.

All of this talk of mergers, lobbies, prime-time television and joint committees smacks of big business, and necessarily so. Pro football has become very big business. This year the NFL has drawn nearly a million and a half spectators to preseason games, setting a record for the sixth straight year. Regular-season attendance last year reached a handsome 83% of capacity in the 14 NFL stadiums, and crowds for 1966, even with the big new parks in St. Louis and the expansion city, Atlanta, should be still closer to capacity. A year ago the NFL went into action with 475,000 season tickets sold; for 1966 the total will be crowding 550,000. Forty-five thousand of these were sold to the football-happy Atlanta fans. Total seating capacity in the NFL for the season has been raised from 5,600,000 to 6,100,000.

And then there is television revenue, with its history of sharp upward spurts at moments of contract renewal. This year, for the first time, the NFL is lifting its blackout of cities where games are being played and beaming in outside games. There will be six NFL games on national TV, double the number of a year ago, and eight TV doubleheaders. The AFL continues a heavy television schedule and has also succumbed to the temptation of ending the home blackout.

Beginning its sixth year of operation, the junior league has come of age. Its long-term TV contract with NBC has purchased its survival. AFL attendance and season-ticket statistics have also grown impressively. Season-ticket sales (nearly 200,000) are running 25% ahead of 1965. Then the league set an attendance record of 1,782,384, but with the addition of a new club—the Miami Dolphins—and a new 53,000-seat stadium in Oakland, total attendance could easily reach 2.5 million in 1966. The biggest surge in season-ticket sales comes from Kansas City, where Lamar Hunt's Chiefs sold more than 21,000. Last year only 9,550 were sold. (The New York Jets lead the league with 43,000.)

The final merger, with interlocking schedules and the leagues integrated into two two-division conferences, cannot take place until 1970, but this prospect has already sent franchise values up. Stock in the Boston Patriots soared to twice its previous value when peace was declared. The San Diego Chargers, a club Barron Hilton had on the market for a couple of years with no takers, was snapped up for a record $10 million last month by a syndicate headed by Eugene Klein, president of a chain of theaters. Klein will keep the Chargers in San Diego, despite rumors that he intended to install the club in Anaheim as co-tenant with the California Angels.

If the Chargers are worth that, then the value of such old, established franchises as the New York Giants and the Cleveland Browns is staggering to contemplate. This raises a question. Will increasing television exposure, the voracious demand for talent as the leagues expand and pro football's aggressive hunt for still more revenue endanger the future of the game? This is the game launched by men like George Halas, who went into it not for money but for fun. Most early NFL owners were happy to write off their clubs as deductible hobbies.

Now that wild prosperity has come, owners should pause and reflect. There is as yet no indication that the public has had a surfeit of pro football, although it is heavily televised from late summer until mid-January. But the TV industry is pressing for still more—more games per season and more commercials per game. Other sports—notably baseball and boxing—were wounded by unlimited television. Pro football still seems to be some distance from the saturation point, but the warning signals are there.

After all, Miss America has survived for a long time on only one appearance a year.