March 8, 1971: Forty years ago today, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier met for the first time at Madison Square Garden in what was billed as “The Fight of the Century.” Both were undefeated heavyweight champions, and Ali had just returned to boxing since his suspension as a conscientious objector of the Vietnam War. While the fight stood for many things which transcended the world of sports, Ali-Frazier was also notable for its impact on sports broadcasting.
However, American viewing access to the fight was held in monopoly by the fight’s sole promoter, Jerry Perenchio. While over fifty countries purchased broadcast rights to the telecast and reporters from all over the world translated and commented from the ringside, the only way to view the fight in the United States was to attend it in person or pay a reported $20-40 to watch the fight on closed circuit television. As a result, Republican members of Congress–including amateur boxer Charles Sandman Jr. of New Jersey, former pro quarterback Jack Kemp of New York, former major league pitcher Wilmer “Vinegar Bend” Mizell of North Carolina and two-time Olympic decathlon gold medal winner Bob Mathias of California–introduced a bill which would prohibit media monopolies of major sports events. According to Sandman, the passage of his bill and a complementary bill proposed by Les Aspin of Wisconsin, “No one type of media, like closed circuit television in the recent case of the Frazier-Ali heavyweight boxing championship, will be permitted to monopolize the right of the public to witness these events.”
This legislation was one of many items which have been proposed since the early 1970s attempting to overturn the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which exempted certain professional sports from antitrust laws. The battle continues: In 1995, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont helped pass legislation which narrowed baseball’s antitrust exemption, and in 2006, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania sought to overturn exemptions for the National Football League. A December 2010 Supreme Court decision curtailed the NFL’s efforts to establish broader antitrust exemption, which could impact the collective bargaining process with players that is currently the subject of a potential lockout.