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Pete Rozelle
Pete Rozelle
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Pete Rozelle Interview

Pro Football Hall of Fame

May 15, 1991
Rancho Santa Fe, California

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  Pete Rozelle

Can you describe that day in 1960 when you were chosen as Commissioner of the NFL? You weren't the obvious candidate.

Pete Rozelle: That's right, I wasn't. I was with Dan Reeves, who was the majority owner of the Rams, and all of the big boys in the room during the meeting.

They had a long, intense discussion, and long voting procedures, trying to elect a new commissioner because Bert Bell had passed away. And we were there for ten days. And the group that the Rams were a part of were supporting -- a lot -- the San Francisco 49er club attorney, Marshall Leahy, who was the attorney in San Francisco, a nice man. And they kept voting for him. And then there was a bloc of three or four other clubs who would vote for anyone but Leahy. And that went on for ten days and 24 ballots. And finally, we broke for lunch, to begin the lunch period. And Dan Reeves and -- I think -- Wellington Mara of the Giants, and Paul Brown of the then Cleveland Browns, came to me and said, "We're going to put you up, you know, nominate you for the job, and be voting." And I said, "I'd prefer not to." It had been so messy for ten days, and I said that was so far off. And they said, "Why don't you just sit and be quiet, and they'll ask you to leave the room." So we went back in session, and I was totally shocked, because they had considered political figures, and big names and so forth and they couldn't get agreement, partially because of the bloc wanting Marshall Leahy. So they decided to get off Leahy and go get on someone else. And so they nominated me and asked me to leave the room. And suggested I might want to go into the men's room or something, because the newspaper men -- there weren't many in those days, now there'd be hundreds -- but there were about 20 maybe, and they were all around the lobby. So when I went out, I went into the men's room, and just stayed. Told them where I'd be. When someone came in, I would be just washing my hands, and I'd keep doing that until they left, and then I'd stop washing my hands, and dry them, and sit and wait. That went on for -- I forget how long, maybe 45 minutes or an hour. Then they came in, took me back, and told me I was Commissioner of the National Football League. So I can honestly say I took the job with clean hands.

Why did they choose you?

Pete Rozelle Interview Photo
Pete Rozelle: You'd have to honestly say it was partially from desperation. They would be made to look somewhat foolish with this long meeting to find a replacement for Bert Bell. Miami hotel prices in those days had to have an impact on them, because the whole economy was different for football. They had been there ten days, and so I think that was a major factor -- timing.

There's been some speculation that the team owners thought they could push around a 33-year-old, and that they thought you would be no threat to them.

Pete Rozelle: I don't know what went through their minds, but I was sure happy. It was an amazing coincidence, being there at the right time.

So you didn't have a vision of this when you were a kid? "I want to be the Commissioner of the NFL!"

Pete Rozelle: No, I wanted to be sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. That was my goal.

If they did assume from your inexperience that you would be a pushover, when did they learn otherwise?

Pete Rozelle: Oh, there were several incidents.

You're in a strange position, because you work for these people, and yet, it's up to you to enforce the constitution and by-laws that they set up. So there's discipline involved, and you have to take issue with them on some things they might want to do, and say, "Well, you can't do that." But they were pretty good. Most of them understood. I know that George Halas was, of course, almost the founder of the National Football League, a great Chicago Bear coach and owner. And I remember, I had to call him in, and he flew in from Chicago. Called me from the airport, and asked if we could meet out there. I said, "No, I want to see you in my office. And he came in and we talked over whatever the problem was at the time. But he didn't get mad. He was very supportive of me. He had respect for authority and knew they had to have a strong commissioner. Not someone who would do just what was, at the time, the thing to do, but one that would stick to their guns and do what they felt was right.

[ Key to Success ] Integrity

Wasn't there some bad blood in those years, between the teams from the large markets and the teams from the smaller markets?

Pete Rozelle: We had a problem, because in 1960, when I became commissioner, clubs made their own television contracts, and the small market clubs did not do very well. Had a real strange set up; you had CBS carrying the games of -- I think -- about eight clubs, and they paid $175,000 a year for the Giants, down to maybe $75,000 in those days for the Packers. And then you had one of the teams on the Fox sports network -- Sports Network, not Fox in those days -- that was a Cleveland team, and they got 175. And then Baltimore and Pittsburgh had just moved over to NBC. So it was all fractioning. The clubs were competing with themselves, and there was no chance of increasing the income. So we did press for an anti-trust exemption in Congress, and strangely enough, football is subject to the antitrust laws. Baseball got an exemption way, way back, and we tried to get one ourselves. We couldn't at that time. But we did get exemption from the standpoint of selling our television rights as a package, all the teams at one time, rather than individually. They said it would not be against the antitrust laws, so we got that through and were able then to negotiate a contract with CBS. I guess at that time we were maybe getting two-and-one-half million, all 12 clubs, in those days. Now let's see, 30 years later they average 32,500,000 a year in the latest contract they got. So that was a big thing. And we shared the television equally. We got a commitment from the owners. They were very good about it, the big city teams. They could have been kind of one-way. The big-city market clubs -- like New York, Chicago Bears, the L.A. Rams -- agreed to share the television money equally with the smaller markets, like the Green Bay Packers, 75,000 in the community. And Pittsburgh was not a big city in those days. That really was a thing that was most important to the league, because it made all of them compete for players, and compete with strong organizations equally.

It also had a tremendous impact on the way the public viewed football. It equalized it.

Pete Rozelle: Also, we packaged them all on the same network. Later we used several networks, but all in a package. It increased the promotion for the league. That was a big factor too.

It had an impact in equalizing the teams too, didn't it?

Pete Rozelle: The whole thing was equalizing the competition on the field. The sharing of income gave everyone the tools, the money, to compete equally. Now some didn't, but management and coaching and so forth being the big difference, and players, they had the opportunity, at least, to compete equally. That was a very important thing, rather than one small market being down forever.

At the time that this all was taking place, there was no such thing as the Super Bowl. Football was not nearly the obsession with the general public that it is today.

Pete Rozelle: It was sort of starting to become the "in" sport. We were fortunate to take advantage of it, because in the early '60s, we were the first sport to set up our own merchandising promotion company, NFL Properties, and our own film company, NFL Films. They had their own offices in New Jersey, and they filmed every game, and used those for shows, and sent them overseas for showings overseas, and did a great deal to popularize the National Football League.

[ Key to Success ] Vision

Television itself was fairly young back in 1960.

Pete Rozelle: It was. As a matter of fact, I can remember in the late '50s and early '60s, the first talk of cable television. They called it "community antennae television" in those days. It was to service the mountainous areas, say, of Pennsylvania, that couldn't get reception of regular television. So they would set up a cable system for handling that. There were no cable channels, it was just to give them a chance to watch television. Of course, that developed quite a bit over the next 30 years.

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