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The Sports Business Landscape in the Last Days of JFK

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

November 25, 2013


On November 22, 1963, and in the weeks following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on that fateful day, Americans stopped whatever else they were doing to gather around the television for the first time in our collective history. On this 50th anniversary of his death, much is now being made of Kennedy as America’s first “Made for TV” president, and the “Must See TV” era of appointment viewing he – deliberately or no – ushered in.


Sports, of course, has always been at the forefront of real time TV viewing, and that was no different in 1963 than it is today. It’s just a lot easier now – in ’63, multichanneled ESPN, video games, and the ability to watch a live sporting event on a handheld device were simply, like the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” released four and a half years later, nothing more than science fiction folly.


But as the landscape of television has changed, so has the business that is sports kept pace. As we pause to reflect on how the events that unfolded in Dallas on an otherwise unremarkable late fall day have altered lives during and since, it’s staggering to look at how the sheer numbers have multiplied, and how sports continues to be a major component in our global response to tragedy to this day.


In 1963, the vast majority of people viewed baseball, limited college and pro football, hockey, and golf on a small black and white TV or more likely, followed their favorite teams on the radio. The NBA on TV was virtually nonexistent, and global events – the Olympics, Wimbledon, the Open Championship – were viewed on tape delay sometimes days after the fact. It’s hard to remember that the NFL was ever anything other than the $9 billion, gold standard juggernaut it is today. But in the early 1960s, it was far from America’s national pastime.


In 1961, as noted by David Harris in his excellent book The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL, at the end of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle’s first year on the job, 34% of the nation told the Gallup Poll they considered baseball their favorite sport, and only 21% named football. By 1972, 36% named football and only 21% baseball, and NFL consumption was fast becoming a central requirement for participation in American culture.


In the year before Rozelle was hired, the NFL had staged 72 games in front of 3,140,000 paid spectators. In 1973, the league presented 182 games viewed from the stands by over 10 million fans.


In 1961, NBC was awarded a two-year contract for radio and TV rights to the NFL Championship Game for $615,000 annually; NBC followed that up on May 23, 1963, with a deal for exclusive network broadcasting rights for the 1963 NFL Championship Game for $926,000. The first league-wide TV contract Rozelle negotiated in 1962 was been worth $326,000 a year to each of the franchises. The contract completed with the 1973 season was worth $1.7 million a year to each of twice as many teams.


Contrast that to the NFL’s latest slate of deals: $42 billion worth of rights deals with NBC, CBS, Fox, and ESPN over the course of the pacts, signed in 2011, and an additional five-year, $1 billion deal with satellite provider DirectTV that expires next year (and will be renewed for a multiple of its current value). In the 1950s and 1960s, the average NFL player received about $6,000 per season. In comparison, a modern day NFL rookie, under the new rookie wage scale, will average around $ million, which top draft picks such as Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck are pulling in closer to $22 million.


And when Lambeau Field (then City Stadium) opened in 1957, it cost $960,000, far less than a luxury single family home today. By 1966, when the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum opened up, the price tag was $25.5 million – but still a drop in the bucket compared to the $1.6 billion for New York/New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium and $1.2 billion for Levis Stadium, under construction about 40 miles down the road from Oakland today.


In the 1963 World Series, the Dodgers swept the New York Yankees. The Sunday daytime game was seen by an estimated 20 million viewers; it wasn’t until 1972 that the World Series was switched to lucrative nighttime windows. That year, the World Series finale was viewed by an estimated 61 million people.


The 1963 World Series was particularly star-studded, with the Dodgers featuring pitcher and league MVP Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, and Maury Wills. The Yankees fielded Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra. The game was broadcast on NBC and featured the voice and image of Vin Scully – still, of course, a beloved part of the Dodgers organization to this day.


Jack Nicholas won both the 1963 Masters and PGA championship, but Arnold Palmer was that year’s money leader, winning a total of $128,230. That’s about equal to what Lee Westwood and John Senden each pocketed for tying for 15th place at the 2013 U.S. Open. Tiger Woods led the PGA Tour money list in 2013 at $8.55 million (and that doesn’t count his endorsement income).


And finally, as the global sporting world readies for this weekend’s Pacquiao vs. Rios fight – also viewed as a healing measure in Pacquiao typhoon-torn Philippines – it’s eye-opening to remember that on September 25, 1962, 600,000 spectators spent $4 million to see Floyd Patterson defend his heavyweight title against contender Sonny Liston in a fight at Chicago’s Comiskey Park and in 260 theaters across the country.


Patterson was KO’d in the first round, as he was in their Las Vegas rematch 10 months later in July, 1963; winner Liston would go on to fight Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) in one of the most anticipated fights in the sports’ history. In contrast, September’s Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Saul "Canelo" Alvarez junior middleweight fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas shattered the all-time record for highest-grossing pay-per-view fight of all time, generating $150 million in revenue from 2.2 million pay-per-view buys.


Pacquiao vs. Rios may well, once again, make sports business history by breaking that record.

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