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Sacco Sez: The marriage of television and the NFL

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I recently received a phone call from a local sportscaster who asked rhetorically, "How did we get here?" referring to the enormity of the NFL today.

Recently, the major television networks released data on the top 100 shows of the past year, and 82 of the 100 were NFL games. And according to Front Office Sports, Fox Sports has sold 30-second commercial spots for Super Bowl LVII for more than $7 million apiece, a number once considered unfathomable.

The popularity of the NFL and pro football with the American public is such that the NFL Network was spawned many years ago, and more recently you likely have seen commercials advertising the spring pro leagues, the USFL and the XFL.

Describing the "now" of television and the NFL is relatively easy. The "when it began" is a good deal more complicated.

The NFL is married to the American public through television. Television networks are constantly looking for programming — more specifically, programming that will excite and capture the eyes of the viewers.

The NFL provides that more than any other sport in world history. It sells excitement, image and enthusiasm to an eager fan base excited to watch.

As an example, let's look at this past Christmas Day.

For many years, that has been the domain of the NBA, which has traditionally played games on the holiday since 1947 and has showcased five premier games on television for the past 15 seasons. But this past year, Christmas fell on Sunday, and so the NFL had a triple-header that competed with the NBA. The ratings were five to one, in favor of the NFL.

When did this dominance begin?

There were a combination of events in a roughly five-year span from 1958 through 1963 that determined all this.

From the beginning of sport in America, baseball had been number one, followed in popularity by some mix of horse racing, boxing and college football.

But at the end of the 1958 NFL season, on Dec. 28, the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the first "sudden death" game in football history. There was something about the sudden-death aspect of the game that grabbed the American public. The game was nationally televised by NBC.

The game ended when Colts fullback Alan "The Horse" Ameche scored on a 1-yard touchdown run after 8:15 of overtime. Those eight minutes and 15 seconds turned out to be the sports version of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walking on the moon.

It was and still is referred to as "The Greatest Game Ever Played." All eyes were on that game.

The following year, Lamar Hunt announced his intent to form a new, competing pro football league. The first meeting was held on Aug. 14, 1959 in Chicago. Hunt represented Dallas, along with Bob Howsam of Denver, Bud Adams of Houston, Barron Hilton of Los Angeles, Max Winter and Bill Boyer of Minneapolis, and Harry Wismer of New York City.

The new league was labeled the American Football League. Later that year, they added two more franchises in Buffalo and Boston.

The NFL, led by commissioner Bert Bell, said it welcomed the new league.

"[T]he more teams and the more competition the better," Bell said in July 1958.

But then Bell died of a heart attack, and after a rather contentious meeting to select a new commissioner, Pete Rozelle of the Los Angeles Rams was chosen. A compromise choice on the 23rd ballot, Rozelle turned out to be the greatest commissioner in the history of American sport, and one of his greatest traits was the ability to be a visionary.

In one of his first decisions, Rozelle made one of his first decisions in saying that the NFL headquarters simply had to be in New York City. And right on the heels of that was television and the future of pro football.

In the early 1960s, Rozelle worked to build consensus across league owners to sell broadcasting rights to NFL games in a new way: as a group. In years prior, networks made deals on a team-by-team basis, but by selling the TV rights to the entire league, Rozelle hoped to equally share revenue across the league. For example, the Green Bay Packers would receive the same amount of television revenue as the New York Giants regardless of their difference in market size.

Astonishingly, the owners agreed. Rozelle had his meetings and made a deal with CBS, and remarkably, in his mid-30s, he created a television empire that exists in virtually the same form today.

Meanwhile, the AFL existed but was not expected to last long. It, too, had a revenue-sharing television deal, as ABC signed a five-year contract to broadcast the fledgling league's games starting in 1960.

NBC, which was one of the "Big Three" broadcast networks along with ABC and CBS, held the rights to the NFL Championship Game through 1963 and then purchased the AFL broadcast rights starting with the 1965 season.

Those decisions and contracts brought all three networks into the mainstream of televising sports.

In 1972, a Gallup Poll asked the public, "What is your favorite sport to watch?" The answer then was resounding. Pro football, for the first time ever, had jumped ahead of baseball, and it has not changed order since then.

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