Pro Football From Abacus To Computer (Oct, 1968)

Pro Football From Abacus To Computer

By Gene Ward

When it came schedule-making time in the National Football League, Commissioner Bert Bell used to lock himself in a suite of rooms at the Racquet Club in Philadelphia, sharpen a gross of pencils and stop all incoming calls.

He was a gregarious soul, this man who guided the pro game through its growing-pains era and he dreaded the self-imposed seclusion as a skipper of an ocean liner dreads being beached.

“But there is just no other way to do it,” he once told me. “Every owner has his pet ideas as to the schedule he wants his team to play, so the only solution is to do it myself and present it as fait accompli.”

Although the NFL Manual doesn’t list an official record for this particular brand “of durance vile, Bell once admitted he spent 48 consecutive hours in his suite, before a huge schedule board, playing with an abacus with the names of the clubs pasted on each individual piece.

“I shuffled and shuffled,” he said, “until I came up with the schedule.”

Times have changed. The problems faced by Bert Bell were child’s play compared to the complexities confronting Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of all pro football, as he begins preparations for the full activation and functioning of the NFL-AFL merger in time for the 1970 season.

Thus, it came as no surprise to the writer, during the course of an interview at the Commissioner’s new Park Avenue headquarters, to discover that Rozelle is sending computers into the game.

As I listened to him outlining the intricate puzzle to be solved, the recruiting of computers seemed as completely normal a precedure as a first-period punt in a fourth-and-eight situation at your own 20-yard line.

“What we accomplish in the next few months,” the Commissioner said, “is going to determine the whole shape and future of this game. It is going to determine whether or not we can maintain the continuity of our success and popularity.”

What he was saying, in a nutshell, is that the format now being drawn up will affect every pro football fan in the country—and that means millions of people. And I didn’t have to be a Perry Mason to deduce what was utmost in the Commissioner’s mind—his thoughts of baseball’s monumental failures and the avoidance of same.

He has separated the major problems into two categories:

1. The alignment patterns of the merged leagues according to conferences and divisions, and the subsequent determination of a sound and acceptable playing schedule.

2. The patterns to follow in television in order to avoid over-pricing and over-exposing the product.

Bert Bell had only 10 abacus pieces to shuffle around in his suite. Pete Rozelle has 26. As for television, Bert Bell had only a wiggly worm to deal with compared to today’s multitenacled monster.

Where Bert Bell had only a few strong-minded owners to placate—notably George Halas of the Bears, Tim Mara of the Giants and George Preston Marshall of the Redskins—Pete Rozelle has many, several of them far richer than all the NFL’s old-guard owners combined. And to further complicate the plot, there are the stresses and strains resulting from the NFL-AFL war and the $18 million in reparations to be paid by the AFL.

All these factors are bound to intrude on the solution to the twin-pronged problem of a successful merger.

For openers, Pete Rozelle formed a special six-man platoon of owners, three from each league. Its initial assignment was a full study of the various facets of team alignment and scheduling. Now serving are Carroll Rosen-bloom of the Baltimore Coifs, Tex Schramm of the Dallas Cowboys, Dan Reeves of the Los Angeles Rams and, on the American League side of the table, Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills, Lamar Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs and Billy Sullivan, of the Boston Patriots.

It might be noted that computers, and the use of same, are nothing new to these gentlemen in that they have employed them for several seasons now in the compilation of scouting reports on draft talent.

“The first question to which we have to have an answer,” Pete Rozelle said, “is simply this: Are we going to stay with an alignment of separate leagues under the same umbrella or are we . going to jumble and realign in new conferences and divisions?”

Only one thing is certain—it will be a one-league operation and its name will be the National Football League.

As now constituted, the NFL is working with two conferences, the Eastern and the Western, each with two divisions. The Century Division of the Eastern Conference is composed of the Cleveland Browns, New Orleans Saints, Pittsburgh Steelers and St. Louis Cardinals; the Capitol Division, the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins.

In the Western Conference, the Coastal Division has the Atlanta Falcons, Baltimore Colts, Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers; the Central Division, the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.

In the AFL, it’s the Eastern Division with the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Houston Oilers, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets; the Western Division with the Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.

“The majority of owners,” Pete Rozelle said, “are committed to the premise that the natural rivalries built up within the NFL and the AFL, as well as those created between the leagues in two years of preseason competition, must be preserved.”

That this is a tall order goes without saying. It is little wonder that Computer Sciences Corp., the largest software outfit in the industry, is being consulted as to ways and means of solving the problems which could take years if Rozelle and his merger-study committeemen were to lock themselves away in isolation a la Bert Bell.

Bell was forced to insulate himself against the imprecations of only a few owners seeking to hold onto prized, old rivalries at all cost. The Redskins and Giants had a long-standing feud going that packed Washington’s Griffith Stadium and New York’s Polo Grounds for years. It was one in which the enthusiasm of the fans in each community matched that being whipped up in college stadia across the land. The panoply attendant on each clash between the Redskins and Giants helped the pros bridge the gap between their presentations and the glamorous productions staged by the colleges.

George Preston Marshall was the master showman of the era. Each season when his Redskins played in the Polo Grounds, he brought along a marching band of over 100 pieces, completely attired in Indian apparel from headfathers to moccasins. George didn’t pay his bandsmen a red Indian-head cent, but he gave them that one big junket to New York and that was all they asked.

Commissioner Bell had two chances of disrupting the annual Giant-Redskin series—slim and none. And, of course, he never tried. Later on, entrepreneur Marshall also wanted to keep a home-and-home arrangement going with the neighboring Colts while the Giants insisted on similar treatment concerning the Cleveland Browns, with whom a heated relationship had developed.

For several years George Halas’ Chicago Bears had a crosstown rival in the Cardinals, adding to Bell’s scheduling headaches. Everybody wanted to play the Bears, for the Monsters of the Midway were gate attractions everywhere they went like the Packers of today are. Their T-formation attack, featuring the aerials of Sid Luckman and the ball carrying of such slashing runners as George McAfee, Ray Nolt-ing, Ray McLean, Joe Maniaci, Gary Famiglietti and Bill Osmanski catapulted the Halas legions into over half a decade of unprecedented success.

The dissolution of the old All-America Conference, which brought Cleveland and San Francisco into the NFL, created fresh rivalries—the aforementioned one between the Browns and the Giants and an ever hotter one between the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers on the West Coast.

But Bert Bell’s task still was a pink tea party in comparison to the one facing the Rozelle committee and its computers. Let’s take a look at some of the complexities that must be unraveled just in the area of natural rivalries alone that have developed.

The Jets and the Giants are going to want to play each other home-and-home, but the Giants will want to hold onto their lucrative series with the Cowboys and the older one with the Browns.

As for the Jets, they have a good thing going with the Buffalo Bills as well as with the Houston Oilers. Home-and-home, intra-Texas wars between the Oilers and the Cowboys are sure to pack the Astrodome and the new, in-the-works stadium in Dallas.

The Colts and Packers have a sizzling rivalry cooking and so have the Rams and 49ers, but each West Coast club will be demanding home-and-home rights to the Oakland Raiders, the current redhots of the AFL and owners of the great, young quarterback, Daryle Lamonica.

The tremendous turnouts for the first 11 NFL vs. AFL preseason tilts this year provided Rozelle and committee with a built-in barometer showing the value of interleague rivalries.

These 11 games pulled 458,098 fans, for an average of 41,045 per game. The top crowd was 47,462 for the St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Chiefs, an all-time attendance mark for Kansas City.

So there’s a Missouri rivalry for Pete Rozelle’s data processors to stuff into their computers, also a whole slew of miscellaneous facts which could have a bearing on the course to be followed in alignment and scheduling. For instance, Vince Lombardi, whose Packers have been rated the best bad-weather ballclub in the history of football, doesn’t believe the game should be played under a dome or on astroturf. He may insist his preferences be grist for the computer mills. All in all, it stacks up as the most complex conundrum ever tackled by a sport. It’s a cinch Rozelle and committee will have to take their computers behind locked doors with the job they have.

“In the final analysis,” the Commissioner said, “it may turn out that the study will show that our best bet is the * present four 4-team conferences in the NFL and the two fives in the AFL. But such an alignment would be utterly dependent upon our ability to work out a satisfactory interleague schedule. “Or we may jumble and completely realign,” he added. “At this juncture, we just don’t know but we’re going to find out,” said the man who, in nine years come this January, has led pro football to success undreamed of by the pioneers of the game.

The other major problem to be probed is television—in what direction to go with the fickle monster that has helped “make” pro football, perhaps more than any other factor, but which can break it even more quickly. “Despite reports to the contrary,” Pete Rozelle said—and reference was to a national wire service story that hit the nation’s sports pages during the training season —”we have had no warning about overexposure. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen.”

So, the threat, if any, will be dealt with as Rozelle has dealt with the menace of gamblers and fixers. He’ll use the ounce-of-prevention-worth-a-pound-of-cure approach, finding out ahead of time the possible TV trends of the immediate future as they apply to pro football.

The whole area of TV, in fact, is a continuing subject of study and one of the current plans being data-processed is a schedule of 14 Monday-night games. It would be used as a sort of escape valve to lower the cost pressure on the two major networks (CBS and NBC) now handling NFL and AFL telecasts and ease saturation by cutting the schedule of doubleheaders.

This, in turn, would slice the going rates the networks now must charge the sponsor which, this season, run to $70,000 a commercial minute at CBS for the top package and $28,000 a commercial minute at NBC for the corresponding AFL package. “CBS and NBC each has several packages to offer its sponsors,” the Commissioner said, at the same time picking up the phone to request the latest network TV sales figures from his television expert, Bob Cochran.

These disclosed the following situation prevailing, as of mid-August, at CBS:

Red Package—20 regular and postseason games—92 per cent sold.

White Package—7 doubleheaders, 3 night games and 2 Saturday games— 85 per cent sold.

Blue Package—5 preseason games —92 per cent sold.

These figures do not indicate overexposure and/or saturation, two dandy words that can mean anything the Madison Avenue boys want them to mean, although it is presumed their technical interpretation is a flooding of market areas with too much pro football.

If that happens, or the sponsors even pick up a hint that it might happen, then they could pull back or divert their advertising dollar to other time slots and in other directions. Of course, the economic situation may be such that the advertising dollar is in short supply anyway, in which case the networks would be forced to lower their fees and pro football its asking price for its high-octane product.

Thus, the proposed 14-game TV slate is one device that might be used to beat the overexposure and / or saturation problem.

“We might try our own independent network,” the Commissioner said, “or we might offer it to the major network that doesn’t carry our games (at present, ABC). Either way, it could accomplish several desirable goals, including our exposure to a whole new marketplace of fans.”

The polls disclose that TV sets across the nation are turned on of a Sunday afternoon by pro football and watched by men. But on Monday nights the ladies call the TV shots and they may rebel at another dose of gridiron fare.

There has been no indication of rebellion in the tests to date, however. The Monday-night ratings for last year’s Packer-Cardinal game at St. Louis, October 30, were astronomical in that the game attracted 10,360,000 viewers, a 42 per cent share of the audience and a phenomenal 18.5 rating.

Rozelle and committee were expecting even better showings for the two Monday-night pairings being offered this season, involving the Rams at St. Louis and the Packers at Dallas.

At the moment, the thinking is in terms of a 26-team league but there’s some talk of expansion and a separate study of expansion areas and TV markets. “There is little sentiment among the owners for immediate expansion beyond our present 26 teams,” the Com-missioner said. “But, in this business, the changes come suddenly and there has been speculation in some quarters plus support for several cities, notably Seattle, Portland, Birmingham and Phoenix.

“It could be,” he added, “the computers will advise us that a 28-team league provides more advantages than the 26-team format.”

It also could be that the Rozelle committee will ask the computers’ help on a study of CATV (Community Antenna Television), but the feeling of both Rozelle and Bob Cochran is that the influence of CATV is still too fractional for consideration at the present time. “Manhattan, for instance, is only wired for 20,000 homes,” Cochran said. “And the subscription system devised by Pat Weaver, formerly of NBC, received a big setback in California when voted down in referendum.” According to the latest figures, Pennsylvania, with its hills and valleys, probably has more CATV than any other area, but most projections point to 1975 as being the earliest date of effective influence.

Visionary though he is, and as deftly as he has guided pro football past the shoals of antitrust legislation, gambling scandals, talent wars, player boycotts and showdowns with networks, Pete Rozelle never dreamed he’d be faced with a job the magnitude of the one now confronting him.

Following the January 1960 meeting at which he was named Commissioner in Miami Beach—at the age of 33— Paul Brown, then of the Cleveland Browns, told him, “don’t worry, you’ll grow into the job.”

Pete Rozelle is still growing, but so is the job.

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