Alvin "Pete" Rozelle, a masterful promoter, innovator and deal-maker who was commissioner of the National Football League for almost 30 years until his retirement in 1989, died last night at his home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. He was 70.
The cause of death was brain cancer. He had undergone surgery for the cancer in December 1993.
"He'll forever be remembered as the standard by which all sports executives are judged," New York Giants owner Wellington Mara told the Associated Press. "He did more for professional football and the NFL than any other sports executive has done."
As creator of the Super Bowl -- the most-watched single event in television history -- Rozelle was perhaps the most influential nonathlete in the history of American sports. Under his leadership, the NFL expanded from 12 to 28 teams (there now are 30) and replaced baseball as the country's most popular sport, if TV ratings are any indication.
A former public relations executive known for his smooth demeanor and perpetual suntan, Rozelle took a mom-and-pop operation based in suburban Philadelphia and turned it into a glamorous, multi-billion dollar industry, headquartered on two floors of a Park Avenue skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.
He began in 1961 by successfully lobbying Congress to authorize single-network television contracts by pro sports leagues, a triumph that protected the NFL from antitrust TV lawsuits and led to a revenue-sharing plan that ensured financial prosperity for all NFL teams -- from Washington to Green Bay to Los Angeles. Rozelle also sought a measure of equality on the playing field, and he often boasted that in the NFL any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. "Parity Pete," he was called.
Rozelle's greatest triumph came in the summer of 1966 when he came to Washington, settled into an apartment at the Watergate and began lobbying Congress to grant the NFL a limited antitrust exemption that would allow it to merge with the fledgling American Football League. That exemption ultimately led to the Super Bowl. In 1970 Rozelle also helped develop "Monday Night Football," a televised game that, like the Super Bowl, became an American institution. Rozelle's leadership was controversial at times. In 1963, he angered many Americans by allowing NFL games to be played two days after President Kennedy was assassinated. Rozelle later called this decision the biggest mistake of his professional life. In the early 1980s, Rozelle was criticized for not acknowledging that illegal drug use by NFL players was a problem that needed to be addressed. "My personal opinion is that this is not a major problem for us," he said in a 1980 interview. Rozelle later admitted he was slow to recognize the use of cocaine and muscle-building anabolic steroids. He noted, however, that his authority to curb drug use was limited because the players' union vehemently opposed drug testing. Rozelle devised the Super Bowl as a January, postseason showcase, pitting the champions of the rival NFL and AFL. The first game in January 1967 was known as the AFL-NFL World Championship because Rozelle considered Super Bowl a "corny cliche." In that game -- witnessed by 61,946 fans in cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum -- the NFL's Green Bay Packers defeated the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. The game was played before thousands of empty seats, a disappointment to Rozelle, who had fretted all along that the top ticket price -- $12 -- had been set too high. "Our goal from the first was to make this more than a game, to make it an event . . . even if it wasn't a competitive game," Rozelle told the Los Angeles Times in January of this year, before the 30th Super Bowl, where tickets sold for $350. "We wanted people to have some fun." Rozelle often recalled with relish that the Super Bowl "took off" in 1969 when the AFL New York Jets, led by a flashy, cocky, long-haired quarterback named Joe Namath, beat the seasoned Baltimore Colts of the NFL. The Jets' victory brought instant respect to the AFL -- and to the Super Bowl. The next year, Super Bowl IV set a record for TV viewers, surpassing even the first moon walk by Neil Armstrong. Raised in suburban Los Angeles, Rozelle began his career in 1948 as an undergraduate sports publicist at the University of San Francisco. He learned the football business as a publicist and general manager of the Los Angeles Rams. He was 33 when he was named NFL commissioner, replacing Bert Bell, who died while watching a game in 1959. Rozelle was a compromise choice after 23 ballots. But he moved decisively to upgrade the 12-team league, at a time when college football was more popular and the average NFL franchise was worth a mere $2 million. One of Rozelle's first actions was to move the NFL's offices from a small building outside Philadelphia to New York, a short stroll to the headquarters of the major TV networks. Today, fortified by the league's billion-dollar TV contracts, NFL franchises are each worth in excess of $100 million. Rozelle unsuccessfully tried to hold back tears when he announced his retirement at the NFL's annual meetings of club and league executives in 1989. Asked to assess his tenure as commissioner, Rozelle said at the time, "I did my best."
Rozelle lamented that player strikes and litigation -- two lawsuits involving the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders -- had taken much of the fun out of his job.
"You go through life once," he said of his decision to quit his $1 million-a-year job. " . . . I wanted more free time . . . time to travel and do other things . . . to have some fun." In the years since his retirement, Rozelle and his wife, Carrie (former wife of the late Ralph Kent Cooke, eldest son of Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke), both had operations to remove brain tumors.
Rozelle remained a consultant to the NFL throughout his retirement, working at an office near his home in Rancho Santa Fe, a fashionable area of San Diego County. In addition to his wife, Rozelle is survived by a daughter, Anne Marie; and two grandchildren. CAPTION: Pete Rozelle transformed the NFL into America's top spectator sport.