What I am about to relate to you is true, although the details from that evening fade in and out, like trying to remember a dream after you wake up. I took as many notes as I could while the memories were still fresh. What I write now is as factual as I can recall, but still, never having experienced what I am about to report leaves me questioning what actually happened.
It started when I received a text from my friend John, "Let's ponder some big questions, come on over" it said. To the new readers, my friend John is a mystic guy who dwells in a world I can't fathom. Sometimes I think he only visits this reality while he lives in another dimension. All I know is the air is charged with excitement and the sense of being connected to the truth exists around him. I had never been to John's place before and to now see it, I could only imagine.
It turns out John lives over by Riverside Park, his place overlooking the park pond. The living area looked extremely well lived in, with well worn but wonderfully exotic furnishings, sort of like seeing a tour of the world in one look. There was a wonderful picture on the wall of some ancient Bedouins crossing a mountain pass with a quote "There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way" written on it. Books were everywhere, "Being Nobody, Going Nowhere", "Cutting through Spiritual Materialism", "The Imitation of Christ". John saw me looking them over and handed me one. "If you want your head straightened out, read this one" he said. "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" was the title; I got shivers just holding it. "No thanks" I said handing it back. "Come on, let's go where we can think" he said.
John ushered me into his study. It was lined with bookshelves and the chair was facing the wall. He called it his thinking chair. On the wall was a white poster board with writing on it. I looked closer and in the center of the board was the name Johnny Unitas. From the name came lines and other names, such as Frank Gifford, and Pat Summerall. Another line connected the three into a box labeled national TV. Another line connected to Joe Namath. Other lines and names were listed and the title of the poster board said "Was Johnny Unitas the savoir of football?"
John spoke, "Terry, you are always asking me my thoughts on things, I thought we could work on meditation techniques so you can get to your own answers". It sounded interesting so I encouraged him. "OK, here is the premise", he said, "Your brain absorbs an incredible amount of information, most of it you are unaware of. If you just sit still and ask your mind to pull it all together, it can draw on all that knowledge and give you incredible answers, just ask the question, relax and follow the answer".
"I'll make some tea", he said, "You think up a question, a big question". So I pondered what I really wanted to know. Will the Jaguars move out of town? What is going on in the NFL? Then I had it, "What is the NFL planning in the next ten years", I shouted. "Good question", he answered as he returned with the tea. "But, sometimes to see the future, we must visit the past and plot the trajectory" John said. "Have a seat" as he pointed to the well worn thinking chair. I sat and he handed me a cup of tea. "Now, ask your mind to show you the path the NFL is on" he said, "And whatever thought comes to you, follow the thread".
I sipped the tea, relaxed, my eyes closed and I began to drift away into time and space. Whatever thought came to me I was to follow it, and the first thought was NFL October, 1958. Why? I don't know, but off I went. The thought image took me to every NFL stadium during game time. Some stadiums were packed with excitement. The LA Rams had 83,600 people, San Francisco had 52,500, the Cleveland Browns 61,500, Baltimore Colts 53,500, Detroit Lions 53,600 and the Chicago Bears had 45,000. Other stadiums resembled mausoleum, like the Chicago Cardinals with 16,500 people, Green Bay was quiet with 27,900, Steelers 23,400, Eagles 29,000 and the Washington Redskins 26,600. How different than today I thought, there are only 12 NFL teams and half of them barely alive, how could this be the NFL?
With the next thought I followed I was watching a 19 inch black and white television set along with almost everyone in America. We were all watching NBC and the NFL Championship game from Yankee Stadium, the Giants against the Colts. This was the first nationally televised football game in the history of the NFL. I saw Frank Gifford and Pat Summerall and then watched in amazement as Johnny Unitas lead an overtime victory in what had to be the greatest game I ever saw. I realized why Johnny Unitas was so famous and then how much of a marriage football and television had just become. I swear America fell in love with football on television that night.
The next thought placed me in a meeting led by Bert Bell, NFL Commissioner. The calendar said March 1959. Art Modell, Art Rooney, George Halas and Wellington Mara and a few others were there. "The first topic today is expansion" Bert said, "Any thoughts?" There was general discussion and a lot of talk about a new league before Bert spoke again. "Large expansion is too risky; half our teams are playing to half filled stadiums. My two teams, the Eagles and the Steelers aren't pulling in a lot of fans" he continued. "However, I am worried if we don't move into Texas we will be shut out, I am in favor of a team in Dallas". "I heard Max Winter is still upset we turned down his application for a team in Minnesota and might join the new league" Wellington said. Art Modell spoke, "If we expand into Dallas we could tell Max he can have his team in Minnesota" everyone agreed. "The second topic is television" Bert said. "We made $100,000 from the NFL Championship game and I think television is interested in a season long deal" he continued. "I am ok with television under one condition; in no way should a home game ever be televised to the home audience". Everyone agreed. As this thought began to dissolve, I couldn't help but wonder how the NFL we know today emerged from this group.
In an instant I was in another boardroom meeting same time, but with a young Lamar Hunt sitting at the head of the table. He was taking final role call for the new football league he was forming. "Ralph Wilson the Buffalo Bills" "Barron Hilton the Los Angeles Chargers", "Bud Adams the Houston Oilers". "Bob Howsam the Denver Broncos". "Billy Sullivan Jr. the Boston Patriots". "Harry Wismer the New York Titans". "Max Winter the Minnesota Vikings". "Welcome Gentlemen", he continued, "in front of you is a packet explaining the success plan for the American Football League, let's review".
Inside the packet, the first page was marked "A game experience designed for television" with the following bullet points:
• Colorful uniforms
• Moving camera angles
• Microphones on players
• Official clock on the scoreboard
• Two point conversion
On page two was marked "An exciting game played by the best players" with the following bullet points:
• No Discrimination, the black athlete is welcome in the AFL
• Fight for and sign the top players, especially quarterbacks.
• Throw the ball
On page three was marked "A league that thrives together" with the following bullet points:
• Shared revenue, all for one and one for all.
• Television split evenly with no exceptions.
I couldn't help but think this is the football I know, thank God for Lamar Hunt. As the meeting broke up Lamar Hunt leaned over to Barron Hilton and whispered "tell the Oakland folks to get ready, I don't trust Max Winter".
The next thought thread took me six months ahead, to October 11, 1959. I was sitting in end zone seats at a Steelers- Eagles game, two rows ahead of me was NFL Commissioner Burt Bell. The crowd erupts as Norm Van Brocklin scores the Eagles go ahead touchdown. Bert Bell jumps to his feet, grabs his chest and collapses dead on the spot. Wow! The NFL Commissioner died in his end-zone seats rooting for his team. What a way to go! As I stood there dumbfounded, the next image showed Pete Rozell being named the new NFL Commissioner. I slipped into darkness again.
When the next thought illuminated, it was January 1969. Once again Johnny Unitas was the center of focus as he again led his Baltimore Colts out on national television this time for Super Bowl 3. This was the game that launched the Super Bowl to be the major television event of every year. One thing about Johnny Unitas, he brought the excitement. Images were coming fast and furious now, it was 1970 and ABC introduced Monday Night Football with Howard Cosell. The three networks were paying $60 million a year to show NFL games each and every week. There were 26 professional NFL football teams and 10 million people paid to see NFL games live, an average of 55,000 per game. Lamar Hunt and Pete Rozell led the greatest 10 year expansion of the NFL to date. What if Burt Bell had lived? Would this game have happened? Everyone but the players were getting rich now. The thought began to dissolve and I wondered, where to next.
The next thought swept me into a seat next to Pete Rozell. We were in front of a Congressional hearing in 1972. The Congressmen were upset that they couldn't watch the Redskins home games and were passing a law mandating home football games be shown on local television. Pete Rozell was arguing hard that attendance was a key revenue source and if they televised home games it would kill attendance. The Congressmen would not budge but did agree to a 72 hour blackout sell-out rule. I never realized the rule was written by our Federal government just so they could watch their football team. I wondered how Thomas Jefferson would have felt, but didn't have time to drop by and ask. I did chuckle though as the thought began to dissolve.
My last thought took me to Washington DC in September 1970 where I sat at the side of Vince Lombardi as he lay on his death bed. I asked him what was the greatest advancement in football he ever saw and he replied "Without television, there would be no football in Green Bay today". No football in Green Bay, I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself. Wait a minute, what am I talking about, saw it for myself?
I jerked violently, my eyes wide open, I was back in John's apartment, but it took me a moment to realize it. I saw the paper chart on the wall with the caption "Was Johnny Unitas the savoir of football?" I looked over and John was smiling. "How long was I out?" I asked. "About 5 minutes" he answered. "Quick tell me what you saw and write it down before you forget." he said. I started writing but stopped and asked "What happened to me, and what did you put in that tea?" He smiled ‘Nothing in the tea, your mind already had those facts and you never knew it, you just concentrated for maybe the first time in your life". "John, I know how to concentrate and that was different" I shot back. "No, you never concentrated deep enough before", he replied, "remember me telling you about transcendental players?" I nodded. "They know how to concentrate, you just experienced a deep meditative concentration and that is all, now write it down and tell me" he said.
I told him about how Lamar Hunt fashioned football for television and how that sparked attendance. I looked at the chart on his wall and back to him in a puzzled look. "I was working on the same thoughts as you were when I took those notes" he replied. I told him how Johnny Unitas played the greatest game ever on national television and how consumed the nation was. "If that game wasn't so great, would all of this have happened?" I wondered out loud. "Maybe, maybe not", he said, "but, you must admit the passion Johnny had for the game, he transferred to the nation". I agreed and thought about what Vince Lombardi told me.
I picked up the cup of tea and sipped a bit. It was still hot, that whole journey took minutes. I still didn't have the answer as to where the NFL was going so I asked John what next. "Go back inside and remember what you already know" he said. I eased back in his thinking chair and once again drifted deep inside my mind. Thought threads were everywhere and I picked up on one that looked interesting and followed it.
It was 1989 and Paul Tagliabue was at a lectern with a giant screen behind him. I realized this was his first address to the owners as the new commissioner. The owners were anxious to hear his plans and wondered how anyone could fill the shoes Pete Rozell left. On the screen were the words "Labor Agreement". "Gentlemen", he started out, "we are fighting an attack strategy from the players union on multiple fronts being sued in as many courts as they can file in." He paused for a moment and then said ‘I believe in a couple of years we are going to have to sign a Collective Bargaining Agreement to gain labor peace and we better begin adjusting to this idea now." There was a murmur around the room, many of the owners had beaten the union before and wanted to keep fighting. It wasn't the best start but I commended his courage.
"We need this labor peace because we are about to harvest the crop my predecessor planted so wonderfully" he continued. Many of the owners seemed to like this, they had gotten very rich from Pete Rozell and Paul Tagliabue was singing Pete's song.
Behind him came up a chart of the United States with the top 50 metropolitan areas highlighted. He clicked something in his hand and the following areas on the map grew in size; Oakland, St Louis, Baltimore, Charlotte, Nashville and Jacksonville. "Gentlemen, these areas represent top targets for the NFL. I recommend we grow this league into 32 teams and blanket the top television cities in America" He paused, then continued "Television revenues are driven by local profits, not national programming and having coverage in all the top television markets gives us leverage, therefore I am proposing the expansion of 4 new teams."
He clicked again and a new slide came up, it showed the current television deal. It showed $1.4 Billion in TV revenue over 3 years spread over 28 teams. It broke that into $16.6 million per team per year.
He clicked again, the number $18 Billion over 8 years came up. The number 32 came up and then the words "$70 million per team per year by1998" came up. There was a collective gasp across the room. "Gentlemen, I am proposing in the next ten years we will have a quadruple increase in television revenue per team", he said as he paused to judge the reaction. After it sank in he continued, "We will do this initially by increasing content, an expanded playoff structure including an additional weekend of wild-card playoff games and a 16 week schedule played over 17 or 18 weeks with a rotating rest period". Many of the owners nodded approval. Any skeptics seemed swayed more by the money than the reality. The new Commissioner continued.
"Every team will bring in a minimum of $200 million in revenue with a labor agreement that caps player cost". "The value of your franchise will raise 4 fold as well". "We will ask $200 million per franchise for each expansion teams, and expect the new owners to justify it in increased valuation. That is $28.5 million per team bonus. On top of that, we will ask every city that wants a team to build a state of the art stadium for your use, generating another $40 million in gate receipts". He was hitting a stride now and could feel the room move to his side "We will continue to expand into Europe with the World League of American Football as our training ground. We will play NFL games in a European city to drive league interest up and in 10 years it will begin to rival soccer. Football world-wide will be American football. Television and franchise rights will expand world-wide".
It was the speech they wanted to hear and broke into applause. Even if half of it came true, it was to be a period of incredible revenue growth. The thought of the new stadiums for franchise teams paid for by tax payers didn't sit well with some of the owners. Some of them spoke openly about moving their teams to take advantage of the bidding wars they saw cities getting into. New stadiums for new teams, how about new stadiums for existing teams some of them mumbled. I could see Art Modell pacing back and forth. Al Davis looked like he had thoughts on his mind as well. Jerry Jones was up at the podium talking to Paul Tagliabue when the entire thought thread dissolved.
Things went black for awhile, no thought threads to follow. I waited patiently and then heard a door open and chairs rustling. It was 1993 and I was at the first television negotiation session between Paul Tagliabue and the guys from CBS. Jerry Jones was there as well. The CBS guys looked stern and there was no levity in the room. They indicated they were in no mood for anything except concluding business in their favor and were trying to posture as if they had the upper hand. "CBS is the only network that understands football but $290 million per year, two year deal is all we are offering", one of them spoke. "We were thinking $375 million per year for four years" Jerry Jones responded. The CBS guys mouths dropped open and in a show of force they got up and walked out. The next image was Rupert Murdock shaking Paul Tagliabue's hand and announcing that FOX and the NFL would be a very profitable partnership.
The next thought thread carried me into later that year with Jerry Jones and Paul Tagliabue having a drink in a Dallas hotel near the airport. Jerry had a giant grin on his face as he shook the Commissioners' hand. "Did you hear the news" he said. "Television stations in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, Tampa, Dallas, Austin, Phoenix, have switched from CBS to FOX so they won't miss out on showing NFL games. Also San Diego, St Louis, Birmingham, Kansas City, Green Bay, Mobile and High Point NC have switched as well " Paul smiled, "Television is all about local revenue and the NFL brings in the local revenue, Murdock was a smart man". Jerry Jones was practically running in place with excitement, "The CBS network is crumbling without NFL games to show, FOX is eating their lunch all because of our deal. Wait till they come begging back in 1998, the cost of televising the NFL is going through the roof!"
It was now the owners meeting of 2000 and Paul Tagliabue was at the same podium. Each of the owners had two reports, one labeled "The State of the NFL, 2000" and the other "An Analysis of the top 50 metropolitan markets in the United States". I quickly leafed through the top 50 markets report and remembered as much as I could before Paul began to speak. The screen behind him lit up again. "Gentlemen, here is where we are today. Television revenue is $18 billion over 8 years, $70 million per team per year" he paused as the applause swept through the room. 16 million people attend football games live, an average of 62,500 per game. There are new stadiums in Oakland, Cleveland, Baltimore, Nashville, Jacksonville, Charlotte and St. Louis. The next expansion team will be in either Los Angeles or Houston. Houston will probably win since the LA government structure is too hard to deal with". Again applause before he continued, "We have a labor agreement coming up, but with capped player salary, all teams should remain profitable" No applause this time, some of the owners were not sure that was true. "Our expansion into Europe isn't taking root as I expected, however the value of your franchises has each reached $800 million dollars" That drew huge applause and the thought dissolved. As it did, I thought about how ridiculous Paul Tagliabue sounded in 1989 and how brilliant he looked ten years later. This ten year period rivaled Pete Rozell's best ten year period.
I was getting tired and things weren't as clear now, but one more thought image captured my attention. It was March 2006 at the owners meeting in the same hotel near the Dallas airport. Paul Tagliabue presided over the meeting. There was a lot of heated discussions and resentment going around. The old days of one for all and all for one seemed to be fading away. Paul Tagliabue spoke "Gentlemen, we are making almost $4 billion annually in television revenue; we can't afford to have a strike". Ralph Wilson stood and spoke "I don't like this agreement, I don't understand the local revenue sharing, and I am worried I can't afford to keep a team in Buffalo at these labor rates" Mike Brown from Cincinnati agreed. In the end they voted 30-2 to ratify a new labor agreement but entered the stipulation that they could exit from the agreement in 2010. I could hear Paul Tagliabue mutter under his breath, "Do what you want after I retire". As the image dissolved I couldn't help but think about the 1959 NFL when the same divide existed between well funded teams and the others. I thought about Vince Lombardi saying without television there would be no football in Green Bay. I wondered what the next miracle would be to ease this current divide.
This time when I opened my eyes, there was no jerking or surprise, I just gently eased back to where I was. I started taking notes immediately while John brought a couple of Bass beers. "John, television saved football but now television can't afford to be separated from it" I said. I told him how FOX killed CBS and how NBC tried to leave football in 1998, and how they all came back later. I told him how the shared revenue model was breaking down and how player costs were climbing.
"So, now we can finally figure out the possible answer to our original question, where is the NFL going in the next ten years?" John asked. I had forgotten what started all of this, but he was right. "OK, let's see where this goes" I replied.
"First, do you see teams moving from city to city" he asked. I thought about it. All of the major cities had a team except Los Angeles. The economy is different; no city has money to build a stadium and bribe a team to come. All the new stadiums are being privately funded. Even LA is talking private funded stadium. If a team moved to LA, I don't see it kicking off a domino effect. California is broke and there are no cites that bid on a new NFL franchise without a team. "John, a team may move to LA but that is all I see in terms of movement". He nodded, "The threat of moving is just about dead". "What about the Jaguars" I asked. "Well, they are the third best local television market, and the 20th best attended team with a stadium deal that isn't that bad" he said, "Other than LA, where would they go?" He was right; there is nowhere for most NFL teams to go in the United States. Maybe Canada I thought but he read my mind. "The experiment in Toronto is still ongoing but it is a good thought" he said, "but, would the Canadians abandon the Argonauts?" he asked. I didn't know.
"The dream of Europe looks like it fizzled out as well" I thought out loud. "You mean Global Domination didn't work?" he replied sarcastically. "I guess not" I smirked.
"Television looks maxed out to me" I said. "$4 billion a year is a lot in this economy" he said, "but as you saw, they are afraid of not having the NFL. You are right about one thing, there won't be a four times growth in revenue not unless television earns more money." he said. "And the only way to do that is to increase content" I jumped up surprised at my logic, "the 18 game season!" "They won't get an 18 game season without a new labor contract" he replied. "Which is why they voted to exit the Collective Bargaining Agreement" I said proud of myself. "That and the local revenue sharing issue" he replied. "Some teams get huge naming rights and local sponsors and endorsements that others don't" he said. "The smaller market teams want in on that but can't generate it on their own" he explained. "If the NFL doesn't stick together on revenue, they will have problems" he stated as if it was a matter of fact. "But, some owners paid huge sums for their teams and don't want to share it with say, Oakland, who they view as horribly mismanaged" I replied. He nodded.
"Which brings us to the next five years" he said. "Here is the other problem. Television revenue always paid for the player salaries, but it won't much longer. The economics of football is changing and we could see teams lose money if they don't change the structure". Oh my God I thought, there is no way a football team could hold its value if it began losing money. If the value of an NFL franchise began to fall, it could lead to chaos. Owners would sell out as quickly as they could, and the new owners may not be as congenial, slashing costs, raising prices. John read my mind. "You are right, they need each other and they need to control cost and they need a new 18 game schedule. It is a very challenging period for the NFL". "So, what will happen" I asked. "You tell me, you took the trip through time" he replied.
I thought about it for a long time. They need to control cost, so the rookie salary cap is coming. They need to slow the growth of player cost, so the pool of revenue they share has to shrink. They need more games which raise the player cost, so television may move to new venues. The Super Bowl can't be pay per view; it is the event that draws the big revenue now. They need revenue sharing, rookie salary caps, player revenue sharing adjustments and new sources of revenue such as new stadiums. Finally it hit me, "John, the next ten years they will want to hold on to what they got and not lose ground. They will fight just to ensure no one goes under and protect their investments. They will learn to share revenue and make sure everyone is whole, the owners, the players, television and most of all the fans". I couldn't believe what I had just said.
"I think you are right. There is no miracle coming, just hard work. They are renewing television contracts now and locking in their revenue, bracing for a tough labor fight. In the end, everyone, the players, the owners and television will learn they need each other. But even more than ever, the NFL needs the fans and you will see them reach out to the communities they exist in. The golden age of the NFL fan is returning, the excitement from the 1960's must return". I didn't know what that meant but it was 3:00AM and I was spent. As I staggered home, I continued to think, owners that don't hold their fan base have nowhere to go. They need us and they need the excitement to return. I wondered if that was what Gene understood as well. The excitement must return, that phrase played over and over as I fell asleep. When I woke the next day I read my notes over. As usual, I don't understand but I can't wait to see how it all unfolds.