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Run to Glory and Profits

The Economic Rise of the NFL during the 1950s

David George Surdam

Publication Year: 2013

The National Football League has long reigned as America’s favorite professional sports league. In its early days, however, it was anything but a dominant sports industry, barely surviving World War II. Its rise began after the war, and the 1950s was a pivotal decade for the league. Run to Glory and Profits tells the economic story of how in one decade the NFL transformed from having a modest following in the Northeast to surpassing baseball as this country’s most popular sport.

To break from the margins of the sports landscape, pro football brought innovation, action, skill, and episodic suspense on “any given Sunday.” These factors in turn drove attendance and rising revenues. Team owners were quick to embrace television as a new medium to put the league in front of a national audience. Based on primary documents, David George Surdam provides an economic analysis in telling the business story behind the NFL’s rise to popularity. Did the league’s vaunted competitive balance in the decade result from its more generous revenue sharing and its reverse-order draft? How did the league combat rival leagues, such as the All-America Football Conference and the American Football League? Although strife between owners and players developed quickly, pro-football fans stayed loyal because the product itself remained so good.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page

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p. 4-4

Copyright Page

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p. 5-5


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pp. v-7

List of Tables

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-13

As always, writing the acknowledgements is one of this author’s favorite tasks. Many people have assisted me in the preparation of this book.George Rugg, curator of the Joyce Sports Collection at Notre Dame University, was instrumental in providing team scorecards and other infor-mation. Jon Kendle, researcher at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Archives ...

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pp. 1-10

The National Football League (NFL) has longed reigned as America’s favorite professional sports league, having surpassed Major League Baseball (MLB) and prevailed against the National Basketball Association (NBA). Success may have spoiled the NFL, as the league has exhibited pompous and arrogant behavior. During the 1976 bicentennial celebrations, the NFL sponsored ...

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1. The Usurpers: The AAFC Challenge

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pp. 11-38

...NFL owners could congratulate themselves for having survived World War II intact, if just barely so. The 1945 championship game garnered the top gross gate receipts in the history of the championship with 32,178 fans contributing $164,542.1 Although nfl owners claimed chronic losses, the pent-up wartime demand for entertainment induced hopes for better days. ...

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2. Prosperity and Its Drawbacks

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pp. 39-57

The NFL’s success against the AAFC should have ushered in an era of prosperity. Prosperity, though, was not without risk, including the risk that prosperity would attract interlopers. The NFL would face threats to its hegemony within a decade of defeating the AAFC. The Canadian Threat Major League Baseball had withstood a challenge from Mexican millionaires right after World...

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3. Measures of the NFL’s Popularity

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pp. 58-71

After a harrowing fifteen years of economic woes and real (not football) war, NFL owners looked forward to a prosperous peacetime economy in 1946. The owners had reason to hope for a surge in the demand for professional football. What happened to NFL gate receipts, salaries, and profits during the postwar years? Since gate receipts were the primary source of ...

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4. Profits and Losses

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pp. 72-100

The NFL owners’ public pronouncements regarding profits were almost uniformly grim for many seasons. NFL owners reported chronic losses before and during World War II. They claimed they remained in business because of their love of the game. Although profit figures can be manipulated (both legally and illegally), we can deduce some general trends from ...

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5. The Perils and Triumphs of NFL Ownership

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pp. 101-119

Owning an NFL team might seem to be a glamorous experience. A capitalist manufacturing door knobs or cardboard boxes may be the envy of her industry, but outside of trade journals she reaps scant public acclaim. Owning a championship sports team (even if it is not profitable) brings the owner publicity and, starting in the late twentieth century, a Gatorade or ...

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6. Antitrust Adventures

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pp. 120-142

A legacy of the NFL’s struggle with the aafc was the publicity surrounding player rights, territorial rights, and other antitrust issues. Prior to the AAFO-NFLife, the NFL attracted scant attention from Congress or from the Department of Justice. Professional football’s internecine strife and resulting prosperity came with an unanticipated cost: federal scrutiny. ...

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7. Competitive Balance and Its Sources

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pp. 143-168

In the battle for football fans’ patronage, NFL owners first had to convince the public that their brand of football was the best. They did so both by innovating with respect to the rules and by boasting of having the best football players. However, the owners struggled to persuade the public In addition to demonstrating top quality, all sports leagues have to worry ...

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8. The Player Draft

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pp. 169-188

Bert Bell maintained before Congress that, at a minimum, the NFL owners wanted an antitrust exemption for their player draft. Bell believed the exemption was necessary to ensure his holy grail, competitive balance. Detroit scout Bob Nussbaumer’s statement, made when the Lions had had a run of success but were beginning to deteriorate, must have rung in ...

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9. Gate Sharing

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pp. 189-204

The way in which competing teams split up the gate receipts from their game is a fundamental issue in professional sports. Many people believe that gate-sharing exists to redress inequalities in revenue. There is a strong presumption that New York teams end up paying out more to the Green Bays of the league than they receive from such teams, but this is only a ...

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10. Gilded Peonage

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pp. 205-224

Professional athletes needed their consciousness raised. Baseball players revolted against the owners periodically, as they did during the short-lived Players’ National League of 1890. The years immediately following World War II saw a spike in players’ efforts to fight for their rights. Perhaps never in professional sports history was a tougher crowd of players collected; ...

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11. Television

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pp. 225-254

After World War II a new sense of anxiety gripped the entertainment industry. To be sure, nascent anticommunist hysteria was simmering, but the specter of television perplexed professional team sports owners, the motion picture industry, and the radio industry. These three mass entertainment forms had followed each other and, in some cases, had augmented ...

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12. Innovation

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pp. 255-278

By the 1940s Major League Baseball had an established product and team owners were loath to tinker with the game on the field. Not until the early 1970s, when American League owners worried about a dearth of offense, did they make a radical change to the playing rules in the form of the Football was in a state of flux after World War II, both at the collegiate ...

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13. Integration

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pp. 279-294

The players in today’s nfl are predominantly African American, but it wasn’t always so. Imagining an nfl history without the likes of Jim Brown, Night Train Lane, O. J. Simpson, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice, Lawrence Taylor, Tony Dungy, and legions of others is impossible. African Americans have greatly enriched professional football. Sad to say, professional football has ...

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Conclusion: The NFL’s Rise to Prominence

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pp. 295-302

The AFL’s debut served to point out the NFL's success in establishing foot-ball as America’s second most popular professional team sport during the 1950s. Pundits began whispering that the sport was even about to overtake Historians sometimes use the “Great Man” approach to history, in which history is determined to a significant extent by the actions and personali-...

Appendix of Tables

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pp. 303-342


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pp. 343-402


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pp. 403-408


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pp. 409-433

E-ISBN-13: 9780803248533
E-ISBN-10: 0803248539
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246966

Page Count: 448
Publication Year: 2013