In the late fall of 1974, while I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio covering major league baseball, a letter on National Football League stationary arrived. Even though it was a form letter, it was personally signed by the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle – he was inviting me to cover the 1975 Super Bowl in New Orleans, Louisiana, saying my press credentials had been set aside. At that time, my sports writing had been confined to Major League Baseball and I was surprised because I had not requested press credentials for the game.
As hard as it is to believe today, the Super Bowl in those days was not even close to being the national holiday it has become. Looking back, it’s extraordinary that the commissioner of the NFL would be soliciting coverage from a not very celebrated baseball writer.
But, as I came to learn, this letter was very telling about the way Pete Rozelle did his job. Sunday’s Super Bowl game in Houston, Texas – with its gala events and massive money making machine – is due in no small part to the work of the finest commissioner of any sport, Pete Rozelle.
From my exposure to him, Rozelle was an impeccably tailored, courtly, urbane, understated genius: no detail escaped him, no opportunity for promotion eluded him and his ability to negotiate with hostile parties was nonpareil. In a room full of reporters Pete managed to connect on an individual basis with keen wit, perceptiveness and a total command of the facts. He knew how to build relationships with everyone. The letter I received from him is an example of the way he did business: no stone left unturned, no opportunity missed, he simply wanted more coverage for this game.
Just to demonstrate how much things have changed, the 1975 Super Bowl was viewed by 56 million; last year’s Super Bowl attracted an audience of 114.4 million. 30 second television commercials in 1975 went for $107,000; this year they are going for $5 million. The half time show this year will be performed by Lady Gaga; a college band did a tribute to Duke Ellington in the 1975 half time show.
Rozelle was commissioner of the League for almost 30 years: the Super Bowl was only one of his many accomplishments. He merged two leagues, fought through player strikes and negotiated numerous lucrative deals. In 1963, Sport Illustrated named his Sportsman of the Year. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985.
The game will not see his like again.
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