Pete Rozelle: From USF Student Publicist to “Father of the Super Bowl” and Beyond

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This year’s Super Bowl featured a television viewership of 111.3 million people. To put that in perspective, President Obama’s recent State of the Union address netted only 38 million. It is safe to say that the Super Bowl has taken on a life of its own, not only because of the enormous number of people that watch, but also because of its effects on secondary markets as well. Last Sunday, millions of dollars were spent on new televisions, sounds systems, tortilla chips, chicken wings and beer. A thirty second commercial during the Super Bowl cost a company $3.5 million dollars this year according to sports website bleacherreport.com. All of this money and mayhem must force the Super Bowl into the ranks of America’s national holidays, and yet very few people know where this miniature economic stimulus package even came from.

Pete Rozelle, dubbed “the Father of the Super Bowl”, graduated from the University of San Francisco in 1950. While getting his degree from USF he worked as a student publicist for the Dons football team. After graduation he became the athletic news director for USF Athletics.

What Rozelle did for the game of football is the reason why those ridiculous statistics mentioned above are possible. In 1960, Rozelle became the Commissioner of the National Football League. In those days, the NFL was a loosely tied assortment of 12 franchises that each acted as separate entities. The newly formed American Football League, financed by a young oil beneficiary named Lamar Hunt, presented serious competition to the unorganized NFL. The leagues were stealing each other’s star players in dirty, unofficial deals, stadiums were mostly empty and the sport was in decline.

In 1962, Rozelle traveled to Washington D.C. and asked Congress to exempt the NFL from the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. In this way, he facilitated the combination of the terribly fragmented NFL and the newly formed AFL into one, single business.

Rozelle’s next move was to convince the various team owners, like Hunt who owned the Kansas City Chiefs and Tex Schramm who owned the Cowboys, to cooperate. He did this by showing them the massive bargaining power they could potentially levy on the television networks, with respect to their teams’ broadcasting rights. Rozelle realized very early on that professional sports were going to be a big business. Rozelle had essentially created a national football cartel.

Now that the teams had bargaining power over the television networks, they could use their extra revenue to promote the game. According to an article on Pete Rozelle in Time Magazine by Michael Lewis, the combined revenues of the NFL were less than $20 million in 1960. By 1998, combined revenues were at $4 billion dollars and now revenues are nearing $12 billion.

After the formation of the NFL was complete, the newly dubbed league needed a championship game. Prior to the junction, each league had played a title game to decide a winner, but the game was played on one team’s home field, giving that team an advantage. Rozelle reasoned that the best solution was to have a final championship game played at a neutral location. Henceforth came what we now know as the Super Bowl. But the name of one of America’s favorite holidays wasn’t necessarily meant to stick. Rozelle despised the name “Super Bowl,” which was actually dubbed by Lamar Hunt after his son showed him the newly invented, incredibly bouncy, Super Ball. With the help of the media the name stuck and by the time Super Bowl III came around and it was official.

What else did Rozelle do for professional football? He also invented Monday Night Football with ABC sports chief Roone Arledge. Together they realized that more people watched television on Monday nights than on Sundays. Monday Night Football is the second longest running prime-time television show in America, surpassed only by 60 Minutes.

Rozelle’s contributions to the American sports industry have had a deep influence. The fact that football has such a big impact on our society today is largely due to Rozelle’s work. He was not only a publicist and a commissioner, but also a diplomat and most importantly, a fan.

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