- Run to Glory and Profits: The Economic Rise of the NFL during the 1950s by David George Surdam
David Surdam’s Run to Glory and Profits offers an engaging and detailed look at one of the most important periods in the growth of the National Football League (NFL). Focusing on the years between 1946 and 1960, Surdam argues that the rising prominence of the NFL in the landscape of American sports leagues was “not inevitable” but was instead the result of innovation and effective, if not always united, leadership.
While Run to Profits and Glory is not the first book to examine this era of the NFL’s history, its financial focus offers a unique contribution to the field. Surdam is an economist, and his training and interests manifest themselves throughout the volume, most importantly in the questions the book seeks to answer. What caused the league’s prosperity? What were the reasons for its separation from other leagues, most particularly the All-America Football Conference and Major League Baseball? To what extent were the commonly cited causes of the NFL’s success, especially competitive balance and television, the actual reasons?
Surdam presents his data and often-provocative conclusions in a series of topical chapters that walk readers through the most important economic topics and debates regarding the league’s formative years. Throughout his discussion of the NFL’s growth Surdam compares its development to that of other leagues. For example, in his chapter on the NFL’s “Innovations,” [End Page 150] Surdam points out that as the NFL’s high-scoring games fueled a growth in football’s popularity during the 1950s, Major League Baseball was mired in a “scoring drought” and witnessed the decline of its most important team, the Yankees, in the early 1960s, thus creating an opportunity for the NFL to capture baseball’s fans’ wandering eyes (p. 256). The NFL owners were, in this analysis, more willing than their baseball counterparts and the leaders of college football to “differentiate by introducing new rules” to boost both excitement and scoring. Instituting these new rules and practices (sudden death overtime, more aerodynamic footballs to facilitate passing plays, jersey numbers, gamefilm exchanges, free substitution, and others) always involved a cost-benefit analysis on the part of the owners and were the “unsung factors in the league’s growing popularity” (p. 278).
Although this volume covers many topics addressed elsewhere (integration, interleague competition, competitive balance, the influence of television and radio, etc.), Surdam’s approach and use of sources distinguish it from other works. He productively mines league correspondence, commissioners’ testimony before Congress, legal documents related to several disputes, and all types of financial information to test both historians’ assumptions and economists’ models. It is in his discussion of the league’s and individual teams’ profitability that his economic approach pays the greatest dividends. Surdam’s ability to incorporate the precise details of ticket prices, media deals, stadium lease arrangements, attendance figures (both paid and unpaid), pension responsibilities and other variables into his assessments enables him to present a comprehensive look at the finances and decisionmaking priorities of league owners and officials during this critical period of the NFL’s development.
While readers will find the arguments and data presented in Run to Profits and Glory interesting and worthy of serious consideration, they will also discover dozens of anecdotes and facts that make reading this book enjoyable. Most substantively, the book provides informative character studies of Commissioner Bert Bell and the league’s most prominent owners in order to analyze their decisions and to scrutinize their public justifications and rationale for their actions, particularly regarding antitrust issues argued before Congress. Many readers will also be interested to learn that a majority of NFL owners voted to eliminate the point after touchdown in the 1950s in order to reduce the number of balls they had to purchase (they lacked a supermajority needed for the rule to pass). Among many other topics, Surdam also discusses the introduction...