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Sundays with Sacco: The marriage of football and television


When we watch the NCAA Final Four or some other major event on television, we take it completely for granted.

But we should, because once something is invented and reaches mass market status, we quickly forget that it once did not exist. The same goes for cell phones (remember the flip phone, the wall phone, the party line, or even no phone at all?).

The Broncos' Super Bowl 50 win was seen live by the entire country and most of the globe; such is the interest of fans and the growth of both TV and its relationship with the NFL.

But as with everything, there was a beginning that came before the present. Before there was the robust young adult, there was the birth, which has been carefully chronicled by

In the 1940s, there had been games televised here and there, but there were not enough TV sets in public use to justify more.

Things all changed in 1950. As with so many things, the first golden age of pro football spawned the marriage of sport and new technology. The Los Angeles Rams became the first NFL team to have all of its games, home and away, televised to its home market.

The Washington Redskins followed the Rams in arranging their games to be televised, with other teams making deals to have selected games shown on the new medium.

In 1951, the Rams tweaked their policy and decided to televise only road games, figuring that televising home games would hurt sales at the gate.

That same season saw the NFL Championship Game televised nationwide for the first time. The Dumont Network paid the staggering fee of $75,000 for the rights to the game, in which the Rams defeated the Cleveland Browns, 24-17.

Once it began, neither the NFL nor TV went back. Everyone could see the potential, and Park Avenue eyes opened like manhole covers.

The NFL's policy of blacking out home games was challenged in court in 1953, but upheld.

The title game continued to be televised by DuMont, but competitive bidding had begun almost as soon as that first game was shown, and in 1955 NBC replaced Dumont as the network for the title game, paying a rights fee now up to $100,000.

In 1956, CBS became the first network to broadcast some NFL regular-season games to selected television markets across the country.

As with so many things, where we are today had its birth in the post-World War II decade of the 1950s and its growth to full maturity in the turbulent 1960s.

A gigantic leap forward came in the 1958 title game, still referred to as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Entire books have been written about that seminal moment, with key elements coming together like a Big Bang theory for the combination of football and TV.

The Colts (with superstar Johnny Unitas at quarterback) beat the New York Giants (the biggest of big city franchises) in the first "sudden death" overtime game ever played in NFL Championship Game history. Not only did a national TV audience watch, but the pro football fandom was captivated by the concept of sudden-death overtime.

And to top it off, there was a newspaper strike in New York City at that time, forcing eyeballs that had previously looked down on TV to stare right at the screen.

Then, in 1960, the American Football League was born, bringing the Broncos and Denver into pro football. But Denver did not survive and grow just because of those putrid mustard-and-brown uniforms.

The AFL had a five-year TV contract with ABC, a fledgling network merged with a fledgling league. It was just enough to keep the AFL alive to compete with the NFL, forcing the eventual merger of the two leagues.

NFL Commissioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack suffered at Franklin Field on October 11, 1959, setting the stage for the arrival on the scene of in my opinion the greatest commissioner in pro sports history, Pete Rozelle.

Rozelle was elected in 1960, moved the league offices from Philadelphia to New York City (Bell was a Philly guy through and through, you see), and no one ever saw the future better than Rozelle.

While this swirl of growth and activity transpired, with a new league on the horizon, the Giants made the new commissioner aware that they had a contract offer to have all their games televised.

But Rozelle, ever the visionary, asked them not to take that deal. He had a plan to present to the networks.

Drum roll, right here.

Pete Rozelle suggested that every single game be televised back to each team's market, making Green Bay the television equivalent of New York in terms of the national eyeball, with the owners to share the television revenue on an equal basis.

The Giants went along with it, and Rozelle's idea was eagerly received by the other teams, who all wanted a share of the newly made television pie, and the AFL and ABC followed suit with every Sunday game being televised.

And moving forward from 1960, that is how the basic watching of pro football still exists, with other exponential developments that reflect the sophistication of societal growth.

But in terms of TV and pro football, the sport stood up and walked on two legs in 1950 and by 1960 was in full sprint.

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