Pete Rozelle

Alvin Ray Rozelle made the NFL the most successful sports league ever to exist.

Born in South Gate, California on this date in 1926, he was the older of two sons born to a grocery store owner.  The family moved to nearby Lynwood, where Rozelle was called “Pete” by an uncle at five years old and the name stuck.  He attended Compton High School, where he served as sports editor for the school newspaper while also lettering in tennis and basketball.  One of his CHS classmates was future Dodgers Hall of Famer Duke Snider, who accidentally knocked out Rozelle’s two front teeth during a basketball practice.  After graduating high school in 1944, Rozelle was drafted into the U.S. Navy, serving 18 months in the Pacific on an oil tanker.  In 1946, he entered Compton Community College, where the Los Angeles Rams—having just relocated from Cleveland—practiced.  Rozelle was working as student athletic news director at CCC when he met Rams’ executive Tex Schramm and was invited to help out in the team’s publicity department.  In 1948, Pete Newell, head basketball coach for the University of San Francisco, met Rozelle during a recruiting visit to Compton and was so impressed that he arranged to get him a full scholarship to USF to work in the Dons athletic department.  Following graduation in 1950, Rozelle was hired as USF’s athletics news director for $ 250 per month.  Two years later, Schramm hired him as a public relations specialist for the Rams.  Rozelle left to market the 1956 Melbourne Olympics before becoming General Manager of the L.A. Rams in 1957.

Pete Rozelle was 33 years old when he left Los Angeles for Miami Beach to attend the annual NFL meetings in January 1960.  Bert Bell, who had been the league’s commissioner since 1946, had died unexpectedly three months earlier, and the owners were voting on his replacement.  After nine days and 23 ballots, the owners settled on Rozelle, who had not been in consideration for the job when the meetings started.  One of his first moves as commissioner was moving the league offices from Philadelphia to midtown Manhattan, where all three major television networks had corporate offices.  Prior to Rozelle, NFL teams had separate TV packages.  Under his leadership, CBS paid $9.3 million to broadcast NFL games.  In 1962, he fined George Halas—owner/coach of the Chicago Bears and co-founder of the NFL—for abusing field officials.  One year later, he suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras– two of the league’s biggest stars–for betting on games, a scandal that tore at the league’s image.  The moves earned Rozelle the complete respect of the league.  In 1966, he negotiated the agreement for the merger of the NFL with the upstart AFL after persuading Congress to grant the league exemption to the Sherman anti-trust act, creating bargaining power for the new league with the television networks.  After creating the Super Bowl, Rozelle sold the rights to two networks, NBC and CBS, forcing them to promote the game and grow the league.  In 1969, he forced Joe Namath—the biggest superstar in pro football-to sell his nightclub, Bachelors III, because it was frequented by gamblers.  Namath retired for six weeks before changing his mind, selling, and returning to the NFL.  Rozelle, along with Roone Arledge [Daily Dose, July 8] invented Monday Night Football, bringing sports into prime time television, reasoning, “There were a lot more TV sets in use on Monday night than on Sunday afternoon.  We’re undoubtedly getting a lot of new fans.”  Three years before Mr. Rozelle’s retirement, the rival United States Football League brought a $1.6 billion anti-trust suit against the NFL.  After review, the judge awarded the fledgling USFL a settlement of three dollars, effectively sealing its’ demise.

Alvin Ray Rozelle served as commissioner of the NFL for 30 years, spanning the terms of eight Presidents.  A charismatic leader, he was the premier commissioner in all of sports, guiding the league through a period of unprecedented growth.  When Rozelle arrived in 1960, the NFL had 12 teams worth one millions dollars each.  When he left in 1989, the league had 28 teams–each worth more than $ 100 million.  Rozelle was a consensus builder, not a power broker, and had a policy of “league think”—his mantra promoting unselfishness among the franchises.  He turned pro football into America’s number one sport, surpassing baseball as the country’s national pastime. Red Auerbach [Daily Dose, January 12] observed, “Pro football was nothing until he became commissioner.”  He was a visionary, negotiating blockbuster television contracts, overseeing the AFL-NFL merger and inventing the Super Bowl, which would become America’s premier sporting event.  Rozelle was an iron-willed tycoon who created the business model for all of professional sports.  Mr. Rozelle had a strong management style, convincing owners to share revenue equally and allowing small-market teams a chance to compete.  Vince Lombardi said, “What Pete Rozelle did with TV receipts probably saved football in Green Bay.”  He inherited a fragmented collection of 12 franchises and turned it into a cartel.   In 1960, the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys joined the league for $ 1 million each.  In 1999, the Cleveland Browns paid $ 530 million to join.  His biggest regret as commissioner was allowing NFL games to be played just two days after the JFK assassination in 1963, yet Pete Rozelle was named “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated later that year.  In 1999, The Sporting News named him the 20th Century’s most powerful person in sports.  In 1985, Mr. Rozelle was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  Eleven years later, he died of brain cancer.  At the time of his retirement in 1989, nine of the ten most-watched programs in television history were Super Bowls.

“I firmly believe that when the final history of the National Football League is written, the all-time hero of the NFL, the man who contributed the most to changing America’s Sunday afternoon watching habits, is Pette Rozelle.”– Legendary sportswriter Edwin Pope