The NFL and AFL Merger
Every Sunday in the fall, life stops for millions of football fans in the US and around the world. Sundays are owned by the National Football League. Fans are glued to their TV sets watching their favorite teams and players. The league (which also plays single games on Monday and Thursday) is by far the most popular televised sport in the country. It averages about 67,000 paid spectators at every game making it the most attended sports league per game in the world.
It is an exciting game of controlled violence, strategy, speed, athleticism, guts and attrition. Thirty-two teams battle for 16 weeks with the 12 best going to a single elimination playoff tournament which culminates in the Super Bowl in early February.
The NFL is a model of a well run league that other sports organizations look up to.
But it wasn’t always that way. The NFL began life as the American Professional Football Association in 1919 in an automobile show room in Canton, Ohio. The intention of the founders of the league was to standardize rules and schedules and organize a rag tag group of independent professional football teams. At the beginning it ranked behind college football and way behind professional baseball in terms of popularity (shrewd owners attempted to exploit this, naming their teams after the local MLB franchise-Boston Braves, Brooklyn Dodgers, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Giants) But as each decade passed the league got more and more popular. In 1957, the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts played the only overtime championship game in NFL history. The Colts beat the Giants in the what many have called the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. The NFL had never been more popular and with the 1960s on the horizon, the future of the National Football League was very bright. What would happen in this decade would shake the NFL to it’s core and it would emerge as the modern NFL. Strong, innovative, exciting and the most popular sports league in the world.
The Birth of the American Football League
In 1959,Texas Oilman Lamar Hunt attempted the move struggling Chicago Cardinals of the NFL to his hometown of Dallas, Texas. When that was rejected by the owners of the Cardinals, He approached NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell to inquire about an expansion team in that city. Bell did not want to tamper with the leagues new found success, and rejected him. The NFL had a “no expansion” policy at the time Also, The city of Dallas had a team which failed midway through the season in 1952.
Undaunted, Hunt contacted other investors and proposed a whole new league. By August of 1959, the “American Football League” had 6 franchises including one in Minneapolis-St Paul. While Bell publicly gave his approval of the new league, behind the scenes it was a different story. Efforts were made to sabotage the league before it played it’s first game. First the NFL reversed it’s “no expansion policy” and awarded an NFL franchise to the group from Minneapolis. The group withdrew their AFL franchise The Vikings began play in the NFL in 1961. To add insult to injury to Hunt, the NFL awarded a franchise to another group in Dallas. The Cowboys began play in 1960.
The fledgling league added franchises in Oakland and Buffalo. In November 1959, they reluctantly awarded the eight and last franchise to Boston and a group headed by Billy Sullivan. Professional football had failed five times in the past in Boston.
In it’s history, the National Football League had withstood the challenges of 4 rival leagues (three were named the “American Football League”)- But the 4th AFL had something the first 3 did not have-TV money. Before the league began play, they signed a 5 year deal with ABC for $2,125,000 a year to broadcast their games. The revenue was shared among the teams allowing the individual franchises to sign players. In 1960 the AFL and NFL held separate college drafts. Competing for the same pool of players, the AFL was able to sign half of the players that had been first round draft picks of NFL teams. In total the AFL was able to sign 75% of it’s draft picks that year.
The league began play with a night game on Friday, September 9, 1960 when the visiting Denver Broncos defeated the Boston Patriots 13-10 and the first AFL Championship was won by the Houston Oilers who defeated the L.A. Chargers 24-16 on January 1, 1961.
The AFL and NFL Battle
In the first few years of the new league, the NFL did all it could to undermine the AFL. CBS, which broadcast their games, were forbidden to announce scores or report on players who played in the AFL. Sportswriters who were deemed “loyal” to the NFL wrote stories downplaying the new league. When the NFL found out the rival league was looking to expand into Atlanta, they offered a franchise to the group that was planning on an AFL team. They accepted the NFL offer and withdrew from consideration with the American Football League . The Atlanta Falcons began play in the NFL in 1966.
In what was a watershed moment, in January 1964, NBC and the AFL signed a $36 million contract to broadcast the games. This gave the new league more money to compete with the NFL for players. The player battles that occurred between the two leagues in the first few years became more heated. In the 1965 drafts, University of Kansas running back Gale Sayers was drafted by the Chicago Bears of the NFL and the Kansas City Chiefs. The Bears were successful in signing Sayers, but had to pay much more money than they wanted to. University of Alabama quarterback, Joe Namath was drafted by both the New York Jets and the St. Louis Cardinals. Namath signed with the Jets for the whopping sum of $427,000 and would come back to haunt the NFL. These events were cited by analysts as being a factor in the eventual merger of the two leagues.
At the time, convention wisdom had it that the NFL was far superior to the AFL in talent. While that may have been true in the early 1960s as the decade wore on, it became evident that the new league was closing the gap. Many people even believed that the AFL was a more exciting game to watch than the NFL. While the NFL was run oriented and relied on strategic advances down the field, (“three yards and a cloud of dust”), the passing oriented AFL relied on long passing plays and high scoring games. The Green Bay Packers had their highly effective but staid “Green Bay Sweep” but fans would rather see the passing attack of the Chargers or Jets.
Looking back, it is evident that NBC would not have paid $36 million dollars to broadcast the AFL games if there was not a large audience for the action. Ironically, it was a gaffe by NBC that really showed how much the country liked the AFL brand of football.
On November 17, 1968, the New York Jets were at Oakland against the Raiders. The Jets led 32-29 with several minutes left to play. Because of penalties and injuries, the game had run long. At promptly 7:00 PM, the network pulled the plug on the game to broadcast the children’s movie “Heidi” on time and in it’s entirety. While this may have pleased a few little girls, it enraged football fans across the country. NBC in New York and their affiliates were jammed with calls which caused blown fuses at switching stations and tied up telephone traffic across the country for hours. To make matters worse, the Raiders scored 2 touchdowns in the last minutes to win 42-29. After that all networks changed their policy. Never again would a long running football game be cut off. To this day, prime time broadcasting on Sunday night does not begin until the football game is over.
The Merger and the Super Bowl
By late 1965, the battle between the two leagues was endangering their future. AFL President and Oakland Raiders General Manager, Al Davis, had raised the stakes in the bidding war by signing players directly from NFL rosters. More moderate owners sought a solution before one or both leagues was in serious financial trouble. In a series of clandestine meetings in Dallas, team owners and GMs from both league met and proposed a merger between the two leagues. On June 8, 1966 the merger was announced.
It was to be put into effect over four seasons. Starting in 1967, the two leagues would hold a common draft. Interleague play in the pre season would begin in 1968, with the two leagues would come together to form one in 1970.
Another detail of the merger called for the creation of a game at the end of the season where the 2 winners of the separate leagues would square off to decide the ultimate champion of Pro Football. The game was given the rather mundane title of “The AFL-NFL Championship Game” As the story goes, after it was officially named, Lamar Hunt, came upon his daughter playing with a “Super Ball” in his backyard. He began to call the game the “Super Bowl”. The name stuck, and it was informally known by this until it was officially named the “Super Bowl” in 1968. (that “Super Ball” is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio)
The first two Super Bowls seemed to confirm the opinion that the NFL had superior talent. In the first Super Bowl, the heavily favored Green Bay Packers totally outclassed the AFL Champion, Kansas City Chiefs. A year later the Packers dispatched the Oakland Raiders with ease.
Super Bowl III in January 1969 featured the heavily favored Baltimore Colts against the New York Jets. Held in the Orange Bowl in Miami, Jets playboy quarterback, Joe Nameth was heckled all week long by fans who did not believe the Jets stood a chance against the Colts. Sick of the constant brickbats, he responded to one heckler by “guaranteeing” a Jets victory. That comment made national headlines. He was criticized and laughed at from coast to coast. However at the end of the game he was the one laughing as the Jets earned a hard fought 16-7 victory over the powerhouse Colts. To prove that the AFL’s victory was not a one time fluke, the next year the Kansas City Chiefs knocked off the favored Minnesota Vikings.
That Super Bowl, played on January 11, 1970 was the last game that an AFL team ever played. For the start of the 1970 season the AFL joined the NFL. The AFL teams became the American Conference and the NFL teams, the National Conference. Because the AFL had less teams in it than the NFL, three NFL teams, The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Colts and the original Cleveland Browns were given financial incentives to join the AFC. The Steelers, perennial cellar dwellers, took that money and built a team that would win four of the last six Super Bowls in that decade. The Baltimore Colts would win the first post merger Super Bowl by knocking off the Dallas Cowboys.
The NFL emerged from the 1960’s stronger than ever. If it weren’t for the AFL, Bert Bell and the NFL may have kept their “no expansion” policy at precisely the time when they should have expanded. The powers of the AFL, realized that there was a larger market for professional football than the NFL realized. The merger gave them a presence in those markets. Using revenue sharing the entire league has remained healthy and lucrative and in the 52 years since the AFL started, not a single team has failed. The Cardinals, Browns, Rams, and Colts may have moved, but that wasn’t because they were losing money, it was because their new cities offered them greater profit. Since the merger four professional football leagues have come and gone. The four were the WFL, USFL, XFL and UFL. None of these leagues directly challenged the NFL like the AFL did in the 1960sTo do so would have been foolhardy. The NFL is a juggernaut that will only get stronger. They know what their millions of fans world wide want and they for the most part give it to them. Now if they only broadcast games every night of the week, I’d be happy.