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How Branch Rickey’s Failed Continental Baseball League Created Today’s NFL – JFK and the NFL

Newly-elected President Kennedy posed for first pictures at his White House desk, January 21, 1961, before plunging into a busy round of conferences. Photo: AP Photo/Bill Achatz

Today marks the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The NFL owes much of the league’s success to President Kennedy.

Television money is an essential part of business for sports in the United States. Kennedy signed the Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 into law on September 30 which flipped the sports business. The law allowed leagues to group all of its teams into one entity and sell that one entity to the highest bidder in an auction between TV networks.

In 1961, it was just CBS and NBC that had the money and the wherewithal to fund a sports league. NBC had Major League Baseball at the time and that was only because Major League Baseball had an antitrust exemption and could pool 16, them 18 and 20 franchises as one to sell to a network. The NFL, the NCAA, the NBA and the NHL could not do the same although the NBA and NHL had TV contracts but no one seemed to notice.

The jolting of the NFL and TV came from the most unlikely of places. Branch Rickey’s Continental Baseball League which never got off the ground. Rickey sent his baseball plans to Dallas businessman Lamar Hunt who was more interested in bringing an NFL team to Dallas than fronting a baseball team in a new league.

Hunt never got the NFL team and formed the AFL and borrowed Rickey’s TV plan which called for all teams to share national TV money equally. Hunt’s American Football League cut a deal with the struggling American Broadcasting Company which allowed the AFL’s eight teams to share TV money. NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle saw what happened and urged his owners to share TV money. Rozelle lobbied Congress to allow shared equally TV money.

The Sports Broadcast Act of 1961 was the most important piece of legislation in the history of American sports.

By Evan Weiner For The Politics Of Sports Business

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, Evan Weiner.

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