Rozelle, Alvin Ray ("Pete")
ROZELLE, Alvin Ray ("Pete")
(b. 1 March 1926 in South Gate, near Los Angeles, California; d. 6 December 1996 in Rancho Santa Fe, California), National Football League commissioner who presided over the modern growth and development of the league and is considered by many to be the architect of the modern sports league.
Rozelle was the son of Raymond Foster Rozelle and Hazel Viola Healey; his uncle nicknamed him "Pete" when he was five. The family lived in Compton, California, a Los Angeles suburb, and Rozelle attended Compton High School, where he played basketball and tennis. After graduating from high school in 1944, he entered the U.S. Naval Reserve, serving on a coastal tanker that never ventured far from San Pedro, a Southern California port. While he was in the navy, he met Jane Coupe; they married in 1949 and had their only child, a daughter, in 1958. Upon completion of his two-year navy stint, Rozelle entered Compton Junior College. In 1947 he briefly worked as assistant to Maxwell Stiles, the public relations director of the Los Angeles Rams. After transferring to the University of San Francisco, Rozelle served as that school's athletic-news director from 1948 to 1950. He graduated with a B.A. in 1950 and became the school's assistant athletic director. In 1952 Rozelle joined the Rams as the team's publicity director. Three years later he left to work for the San Francisco–based public relations firm P. K. Macker and Company, and in 1957 he returned to the Rams as general manager.
After the respected National Football League (NFL) commissioner Bert Bell died suddenly while attending a Philadelphia Eagles game in October 1959, NFL owners gathered at the Kenilworth Hotel in Miami to select a new commissioner. Participants disagreed over the nomination of Marshall Leahy, an attorney for the San Francisco 49ers, and Rozelle emerged as a compromise candidate on the twenty-third ballot. The football league he inherited in 1960 was a fragmented collection of franchises operated as independent businesses. Five teams held individual television contracts; seven others had none. In 1951 the NFL received a reported $75,000 from the DuMont Network to televise its title game between the Cleveland Browns and the Los Angeles Rams. The national pastime was baseball, and the NFL faced significant competition for players and sponsorship from the newly formed American Football League (AFL), financed primarily by Lamar Hunt, one of the world's richest people. The NFL was more collegial than corporate, with headquarters located in a suburb of Philadelphia near a pharmacy where Bell liked to lunch. Two clerks and a temporary worker were the only employees.
Shrewd compromise, lobbying in Washington, D.C., a new corporate image, and Rozelle's understanding of the power of television helped launch the NFL into prominence. In the early 1960s Rozelle and the league moved to New York City and presented several petitions to Congress seeking the power to negotiate single-network contracts. A bill providing this exemption to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and was signed into law by President John F. Kennedy. Rozelle persuaded NFL owners to reject individual deals for the benefit of the league. New contracts shared revenues, which strengthened league parity and, ultimately, equal access to capital for teams in small regional markets.
In 1966 Rozelle approached Congress again with a plan to merge the NFL and AFL without legal consequences. His lobbying of Senator Russell Long of Louisiana resulted in a second exemption to the Sherman Act that ensured the league would not have to address charges of stifling competition. Not surprisingly, New Orleans, in Senator Long's home state, received an expansion franchise from the NFL that year. After Rozelle negotiated the merger, he became the commissioner of the new conglomerate. Under their arrangement, the two leagues combined to form an expanded NFL, featuring two conferences (American and National) and twenty-five teams. Over the next seven years, three additional franchises were added. While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the conferences agreed to play an annual World Championship Game beginning 15 January 1967. Rozelle oversaw this contest, a spectacle soon renamed the Super Bowl. There was no initial extravaganza—the top ticket price at the contest was only $12, and more than 32,000 empty seats graced the Los Angeles Coliseum as the Green Bay Packers crushed the Kansas City Chiefs in the inaugural game.
Rozelle began incorporating structure designed to promote licensed products, heritage, and community service conducted by the league. NFL Properties, NFL Films, and NFL Charities were created to manage this process. In 1967 Rozelle started lobbying network executives to televise live football in prime time on Monday evenings. After finally persuading executives at the American Broadcasting Companies (ABC), Monday Night Football premiered on 21 September 1970. The show evolved into the nation's longest-running sports series and one of the longest-running television programs in history. At Rozelle's retirement, nine of the ten most-watched television programs in history were Super Bowls, and several polls taken in the late 1970s and early to mid-1980s found pro football to be America's favorite sport by increasing margins over baseball.
Growing NFL power allowed the league to beat back challenges. Competition from the World Football League and the United States Football League was stifled during Rozelle's tenure, and the NFL emerged stronger from both these encounters. But there was nevertheless a successful internal challenge. Al Davis, the principal owner of the Oakland Raiders, filed a lawsuit for the right to move his team to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, after the NFL blocked the move. When a 1982 court decision superseded the NFL's prohibition, granting Davis the right to relocate, NFL officials portrayed Davis as a rogue owner.
In addition to legal battles, the league confronted drugs, gambling, and racism. Player strikes occurred in 1974, 1982, and 1987, and Rozelle was criticized during the latter two years for staying on the sidelines and leaving negotiations to the NFL Management Council. In 1982 the league played only a nine-game season, and in 1987 it used replacement players for three games. These conflicts wore on Rozelle over the years. At his retirement in 1989 he identified the constant struggle as commissioner as a reason for his resignation.
Rozelle was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated in 1963 and received acclaim as one of Time 's 100 most influential people of the twentieth century when he was named to the list of twenty "Builders and Titans." His honors included election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1974 he married Carrie Cooke; they had no children. For a brief time in 1994, until illness forced him to leave, Rozelle worked on the board of NTN Communications, a company in Carlsbad launched by two men affiliated with the Houston Oilers football team; Rozelle's involvement symbolized his belief that technology and sports can work successfully in tandem to make money. Rozelle died in 1996 from complications related to brain cancer and is buried at El Camino Memorial Park in La Jolla, California.
Under Rozelle's leadership the NFL transformed from a national sporting organization into a worldwide marketing conglomerate. Tall, thin, and amiable, Rozelle navigated the league to expansion from twelve to twenty-eight teams during his tenure as commissioner from 1960 to 1989. His ability to negotiate lucrative television contracts and persuade owners to establish cooperative financial arrangements allowed the NFL to prosper.
Michael Lewis's short biography of Rozelle for a Time special issue, "Twentieth Century's 100 Most Influential Builders and Titans," focuses on Rozelle's foresight as a business manager and the leader of a large sports organization. In Supertube: The Rise of Television Sports (1984), Ron Powers describes the impact of pro football and Rozelle on modern television sports programming, advertisers, and the way in which sports leagues view television as a source of revenue. Total Football II: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (1999), edited by Bob Carroll, Michael Gershman, and David Neft, is an excellent reference for facts, figures, and key events and players spanning Rozelle'scareer. Dave Kindred's "It Was Great—For Pete's Sake," Sporting News (16 Dec. 1996), is a thoughtful essay describing Rozelle'sinfluence on modern sports. An obituary is in the New York Times (7 and 8 Dec. 1996)
R. Jake Sudderth