Fifty-five years ago, fans across the United States had the choice of two networks to watch the first Super Bowl. A giant exception was in the host city of Los Angeles, where fans didn’t even have one network to tune into.
Super Bowl I — officially called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game — pitted the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs against the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, just months after the two leagues had announced a merger. The game fell far short of a sellout at cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, even with the blackout.
In a visit to L.A. about two weeks before the big game, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle made clear that the league would black it out even if it sold out, in keeping with NFL policy. The blackout applied to a 75-mile radius around the stadium, shutting out 15 million potential viewers.
Rozelle suggested that some fans were waiting to make sure the game wouldn’t be televised locally before buying tickets. “This is the reason that I want to make clear, in a nice way, that we are not going to televise here,” he said.
Angelenos didn’t take kindly to missing out on the broadcast. “In a way, I am sorry I worked so hard to bring the Super Bowl game to Los Angeles, because more people here would see it if they were somewhere else,” Mayor Sam Yorty said.
The L.A. City Council unanimously passed a resolution calling the blackout “an outright snub to the residents of the City of Los Angeles,” and a stockbroker sued to block the blackout in federal court.
In a deposition in that case, Rozelle testified that lifting the blackout would be unfair to fans who had purchased tickets at $12, $10 or $6 (which would be a relative bargain even in today’s dollars — $100, $83 or $50).
A federal judge refused to lift the blackout, concluding it was legally justified, even as he said it was discriminatory against residents of Southern California.
Today, of course, the Super Bowl is a massive TV event, and blacking it out would be unthinkable — as unthinkable as the game not selling out. In fact, ticket prices for Sunday’s Super Bowl at SoFi Stadium in L.A. between the Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals were averaging $7,500 as of Friday, according to SeatGeek.
But a half-century ago, Rozelle was convinced that televising games locally would destroy attendance and turn pro football into a “studio show.” He didn’t relax the policy until the early 1970s, when Congress introduced legislation to ban blackouts in professional sports, including the NFL.
After meeting with key members of Congress in October 1972, Rozelle agreed to an “experiment” that would lift the blackout for that season’s Super Bowl in Los Angeles if it sold out 10 days before the game. The game did sell out, allowing TV viewers in the L.A. market to watch the Miami Dolphins cap an undefeated season by beating Washington’s football team, 14-7, in Super Bowl VII.
One of the lawmakers, Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), called the league’s concession “the tip of the iceberg,” adding that legislation might still be needed.
It wasn’t just Congress bringing the heat. President Richard M. Nixon, a football fanatic, was annoyed that the NFL still wasn’t televising other playoff games in the home market — including a big postseason showdown between the Packers and Redskins at RFK Stadium, which was sold out and blacked out in the D.C. market.
On the eve of that December 1972 game, Nixon instructed Attorney General Richard G. Kleindienst to tell Rozelle that if he lifted the home blackout for playoff games, the president would veto any legislation to ban blackouts for all games.
On a recorded White House telephone call, Nixon told Kleindienst to relay this message to Rozelle: “If you make the move, for these playoff games, we will block any — any — legislation to stop anything else. I will fight it personally and veto any — any — legislation. You can tell him that I will veto it.”
Nixon ended the call with a melodramatic exhortation: “Now see if you can work that out and tell him this would be the greatest move he could ever make. He'd be a hero to the nation.”
In a story at the time headlined “Super Matchup: White House vs. N.F.L.,” the New York Times reported that the NFL thought the blackout policy was getting attention from Washington because of the local team. “Some football people believe the interest of the Nixon administration and some congressmen in abolishing blackouts has grown in direct proportion to the rise in the fortunes and the popularity of the Washington Redskins,” the paper reported. “As the Redskins have become better and tickets thereby harder to obtain, officials feel, the politicians have resented not being able to see the games.”
Washington finished first in the NFC East that year with an 11-3 record and wound up winning the NFC championship game before running into the juggernaut Dolphins.
The NFL rejected the Nixon administration’s offer to lift playoff blackouts in exchange for a veto of broader legislation. So in September 1973, just before the following season, Nixon signed into law the kind of bill he had offered to veto. The law prevented network TV blackouts of professional sports games that are sold out 72 hours ahead of time — delighting fans but irritating some football executives and coaches.
“They can’t run the Senate,” griped Atlanta Falcons Coach Norm Van Brocklin. “I don’t know how in the hell they can run somebody else’s business.”
Phil Hochberg, a longtime sports communications lawyer who wrote five law review articles on broadcasting and sports in the 1970s and ’80s, told The Washington Post that NFL blackouts of postseason games, especially the Super Bowl, “provided substantial congressional impetus” for the 1973 law.
That law eventually expired, but the NFL agreed to make it a league policy, before suspending blackouts altogether in 2015 under renewed scrutiny from Congress, as well as the Federal Communications Commission.
If football fans don’t have to worry about a Super Bowl blackout again, they’ll also never have a choice of networks on which to watch the game. At the time of the first Super Bowl, the NFL and AFL were carried by rival networks — CBS and NBC, respectively — so Rozelle came up with a Solomonic solution, allowing both networks to broadcast Super Bowl I, which Green Bay won, 35-10. CBS provided the video feed that both networks used, but each network had its own audio broadcasters to call the action.
“We had earphones plugged into our NBC truck, but it didn’t matter what we asked for or wanted,” Curt Gowdy, NBC’s play-by-play announcer for the game, recalled in a 1993 interview. “CBS didn’t pay any attention to us. CBS controlled the picture. I might as well have called the game on a monitor from Billings, Montana.”
Actually, Montanans had a better view of the game than most fans in L.A.