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Rubin, Rozelle, the Redskins, and Super Bowl Blackouts

Posted by Jason Lisk on February 5, 2010

Super Bowl XLIV will be viewed by people from all over the world, by people using a variety of media, and by anyone who wants to take the time to witness it. Once upon a time, though, the Super Bowl couldn’t even be seen in the city that hosted the event. It may seem archaic now, but the NFL refused to televise the game in the city that played host until they were forced to change by outside forces. Thirty-nine years ago, in Miami for Super Bowl V, a battle took place between a lawyer named Ellis Rubin and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle before the Colts and Cowboys ever took the field.

Ellis Rubin started his campaign the previous summer, knowing that the Super Bowl would be coming and that Rozelle would stand his ground. Rubin had already won a victory against local blackouts when he successfully challenged the Orange Bowl (the game, not the stadium) blackout policy. He began drumming up local support against the blackout and sending correspondence to the NFL, but Rozelle wouldn't budge.

Before I go further, though, perhaps we should take a quick and incomplete look further back in history at the origins of the blackout policy. The NFL first broadcasted a game in the late '30s, but television deals were locally handled and inconsistent. In 1950, the Los Angeles Rams (along with the Redskins) became the first team to broadcast all of their games on television, including home games. The 1950 Rams were a very good team that had star power in both Bob Waterfield and Norm Van Brocklin, and they reached the NFL Championship game before losing to the Browns. Nevertheless, the Rams' attendance figures dropped by 110,000 compared to the home games from the previous season. This result had a strong influence on the owners, and led them to believe that a blackout policy of all home games was an absolute necessity. Bert Bell instituted a league-wide blackout policy, which was challenged in court by the Justice Department. The NFL won a victory in federal court in 1953 affirming the blackout policy, and it was the policy that was still in place when Rubin challenged Rozelle in January of 1971. The NFL would not televise games in the "home market" for a game, even if the game was a sellout.

Pete Rozelle insisted that a local blackout of the Super Bowl was necessary, even though all the tickets had been sold, because any adverse weather could cause ticketholders to stay home and watch the game. He based this in part on Super Bowl I, which was played in Los Angeles and did not sell out. In retrospect, using Los Angeles as an indicator of typical football fan behavior may not have been ideal.

Getting back to Super Bowl V, the initial challenge by Rubin was unsuccessful. That game was blacked out in Miami even though all the tickets were sold (just like they have been for every Super Bowl besides the first one). Miami residents did not get to see the Colts and Cowboys battle in a generally uninspiring contest, just like they had missed the Jets' miracle over the Colts two years earlier. Rubin wasn't done though. A year later, he went to New Orleans to again lead the charge to have the game between his hometown Dolphins and the Cowboys televised locally in Louisiana. Again, Rozelle refused to budge, and again, he failed in court.

A year later, Rubin didn't need to intervene at the Super Bowl again, because a larger force stepped in. By 1972, the Washington Redskins had become a pretty good team under George Allen, having made the playoffs the previous season for the first time in 26 years. They had also become the hot ticket in town, and games were regularly sold out. It was one thing when the common man had to drive more than 75 miles outside of town to see a game that he couldn't get a ticket for. It was something else entirely in Washington, when congressmen and executives and even President Nixon, a devout football man, could not see a game on TV. On Wednesday, December 20, 1972, just prior to the Redskins first home playoff game since the 1942 NFL Championship, Walter Cronkite reported that attorney general Kleindeinst had asked commissioner Rozelle to lift the blackout, and Rozelle had said no. As a result, Kleindeist was going to ask Congress to revisit the NFL's anti-trust exemption.

The Redskins would ultimately reach the Super Bowl by defeating the Packers and Cowboys while congressmen had to listen on the radio. At Super Bowl VII in Los Angeles, Rozelle finally blinked and the NFL decided to lift the blackout of the Super Bowl on an "experimental basis" for the matchup between the Redskins and the undefeated Miami Dolphins. It was too little, too late for the NFL. As we have seen recently on other sports issues, Congress can move quickly on a bipartisan measure with broad public support when it affects sports. Before the 1973 season had kicked off, Congress passed Public Law 93-107, which eliminated the blackout of games in the home market so long as the game was sold out by 72 hours before game time. NFL owners and commissioner Rozelle, eager for Congressional intervention twelve years earlier, predictably predicted Bengals and Bears living together and the end of the world as we know it, after Congress forced a change in their blackout policy.

Fast forward thirty-nine years later, and the NFL's thought process seems almost incomprehensible to the fans from a generation that have grown up with 239 cable channels and easy internet access. Who would have guessed that actually making your product widely available would have led to a dramatic increase in popularity over time? While the NFL has evolved over the years, the story of a Miami lawyer who liked both the limelight and the little man shows us that it's usually not the establishment that changes itself for the better. Sometimes, it requires a push from the rebel with a cause.