Modell deserves some thanks for pioneer work on TV coverage

Media Watch

November 27, 1997|By Milton Kent

Today, of course, is a day to express gratitude for the things that are most important in life, to give thanks, if you will, hence the name of the day. And it's a good thing that it's Thanksgiving Day, for Gratitude Expression Day probably wouldn't work all that well on a greeting card.

But if you're a person who loves to watch football on television, every day in general, and today in particular, is a day to give thanks to Ravens owner Art Modell.

With 32 years as chairman of the NFL's television committee, Modell has been as instrumental as anyone at shaping the very policy that makes it possible for good folks like you to enjoy today's heaping helping of gridiron fun, including Fox's Chicago-Detroit offering (Channel 45, 11: 30 a.m. pre-game show) and the Tennessee-Dallas dust-up on NBC (Channel 11, 3: 30 pre-game show).

Modell retired from the committee after the last contract in 1993. But he is certain to have some input, on an advisory basis, on the new deal now being negotiated. And, if the owners are smart, they'll listen to him. After all, it's hard to ignore a man who, with some help from former commissioner Pete Rozelle and current czar Paul Tagliabue along the way, has brought, by his count, over $9 billion into the league's coffers over the years and helped make football the most popular of all American sports.

"It was a great run and I enjoyed it enormously. I made great friends and I found the results very rewarding," Modell said.

Modell, who was a producer in New York during the nascent days of television in the late 1940s and early 1950s, bought the then-Cleveland Browns in 1961, and was an obvious confidant to Rozelle, who had become commissioner the year before.

Before they could come up with such staples as the network doubleheader and "Monday Night Football" (more on that later), Modell and Rozelle had to first persuade Dan Reeves, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara and George Halas, chieftain of the Chicago Bears, to surrender their network arrangements in order to sell one league package to the networks.

They then had to get Congress to waive key portions of the antitrust law to allow the NFL to act as a cartel, and while, as Modell puts it, it took "tremendous persuasion," everything got done, and the league had what was then and remains to this day the most comprehensive television policy in all of sports.

The next most significant television venture was the creation of "Monday Night Football" in 1970. Then-ABC Sports President Roone Arledge, whose network was mired in third place, approached the league about a special package of games.

Oddly enough, the Monday night slate was to be a Friday night schedule, but after word leaked out about the plan, Congress made it clear that it would not allow the NFL to intrude upon either Fridays and Saturdays, days that traditionally belonged to high schools.

Modell, whose Browns played in the first "MNF" game against the New York Jets, said he and others were "dubious" about whether the public would accept games on Monday night, but the series, now in its 28th season, is the longest running current prime-time show on the air, and shows few signs of slowing down.

However, Modell decided to leave the television committee after the last negotiations, which saw CBS, the league's original carrier, leave after nearly four decades of telecasts, in favor of Fox, which won the rights to NFC games with a $1.58 billion bid over four years.

"It hurt me deeply when we dropped CBS because we were with them all those years," said Modell. "It was overwhelming [the Fox offer]. Anyone in his right mind would have been insane to reject it. But with different owners and different values and different strategies, I thought it was time to throw in the towel."

But before he did, Modell did as much as any player to make the National Football League the king of all TV sports, so between kickoffs today, be sure and hoist a drumstick in his honor, eh?

A day at the races

In the latest move to make itself a full-spectrum sports department, Fox has giddily announced that it has grabbed the rights to its first horse race, next spring's Santa Anita Derby, away from ABC, which had carried the race since 1981.

The 60-year-old derby, one of the important races for 3-year-old thoroughbreds leading into the Triple Crown series, will take place April 4 at 5 p.m. from the Arcadia, Calif., track. Fox, which did not name its announcers or production team, already carries four programs from Santa Anita on two of its regional sports cable channels.

Other holiday offerings

Just as some folks prefer other meats beside the turkey as the centerpiece of their Thanksgiving spread, there are those who'd just as soon tune into other things today.

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