Professional football, approaching its 50th year on the American sports scene, has reached early middle age in enviable condition. In 1968 it appears sound, solvent and secure. More than three million people will have watched exhibition games even before the season gets under way, and another eight or nine million will crowd the nation's stadiums before Super Bowl ends the show in January.
Season ticket sales have boomed in both leagues, and the NFL, having played to more than 88% of park capacity in 1967, will near season-long sellouts in all of its parks this year. The AFL, spurred by the surprising success of its clubs against the older league in the preseason games, will probably enjoy an even healthier increase in season attendance. Television networks have vied with one another in showering money on the teams for the privilege of saturating the sets of the nation with pro football.
The National Football League even operates its own concessions, in effect, with NFL Properties, an organization which licenses toy franchises and product endorsements on a league-wide scale. The money goes to the league and to the players. It does not amount to much, but every little bit helps. All in all, the empire Commissioner Pete Rozelle surveys from a corner office in Rockefeller Center seems sounder than the gold standard, with a future assured of continuing success.
"Seems" is the operative word. For the fact is pro football could conceivably become a victim of that very success. Capacity crowds and TV's top dollar are, oddly enough, portents of fiscal difficulty. The player strike that slowed NFL teams in their preparation for the 1968 season (and probably accounted for the early success of the better-prepared AFL clubs in preseason games against the NFL) cost the NFL several sacks of gold in added pension benefits, pay for exhibition games and higher payrolls.
The Los Angeles Rams, coming off a 1967 season which was by all odds the most successful in the club's history, cleared less than $300,000 on a business worth over $10 million. The Rams, while one of the more generous teams in salaries, scouting expenditures and general expense, are not out of line with the rest of pro football. The squeeze put on by the players hurt them, and it will hurt the rest of pro football, too.
The problem, of course, is that while expenses—for players, pensions, scouting and travel—are going up steadily, income is nearing a ceiling. Seat sales and TV returns are reaching the sticking point. Unlike most businesses, pro football clubs are in the unfortunate position of not being able to manufacture more of their product to meet increased demand.
Practically, there are only three avenues to more income, none of them palatable to the general public. The clubs can 1) raise ticket prices, or 2) cut their squads severely, and by so doing reduce the quality of the game or 3) try to squeeze more money from the networks. The only way the networks can afford to pay more money is by proliferation of TV games. The AFL, in its opening week of league play, put games, on the home screen on Friday night, Sunday afternoon and Monday night; if the NFL matches that programming, pro football will compete with old movies for total TV time, a situation devoutly not to be desired.
The hangover from the war between the AFL and the NFL accounts for most of the current headache. Players were paid exorbitant bonuses, salaries skyrocketed and a player standard of living was created which may be difficult for the owners to maintain—let alone improve. While it is doubtful that the newly militant player association will relax its demands for more money, more benefits and bigger pensions in the near future, this may finally be pro football's only alternative to pricing itself out of business. The players are concerned with a brief 5-to-10-year earning span and, understandably, want as much as they can get. The owners have to live with the increasing payrolls year after year. The time may come eventually when the costs will be too high.
Maybe the answer lies in the formation of more clubs like Green Bay, a civically owned, nonprofit club in which all money earned is plowed back into the franchise and the operation is truly a sport, not a business. Or maybe the players will have to look forward even beyond their pensions—to the survival of the game.