The AFL–NFL merger was the merger of the two major professional American football leagues in the United States at the time: the National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL). It paved the way for the combined league, which retained the "National Football League" name and logo, to become one of the most popular sports leagues in the United States. The merger was announced on the evening of June 8, 1966. Under the merger agreement, the leagues maintained separate regular season schedules for the next four seasons from 1966 through 1969, and then officially merged before the 1970 season to form one league with two conferences.
Since its inception in 1920, the NFL fended off several rival leagues. Before 1960, the most important rival was the All-America Football Conference (AAFC), which began play in 1946. The AAFC differed from the NFL in several ways, and the AAFC's perennial champions—the Cleveland Browns—were considered to be one of the best teams in professional football during that time.
However, due to the AAFC's poor financial situation, the league disbanded after the 1949 season. Three AAFC teams—the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the original version of the Baltimore Colts—were absorbed into the NFL in 1950. The league was briefly known as the National-American Football League during the offseason, but reverted to the traditional name of "National Football League" by the time the 1950 season began.
Emergence of the AFL
After the NFL absorbed the AAFC, it went unchallenged by rival leagues until 1960. In 1959, Lamar Hunt, son of Texas oil magnate H. L. Hunt, attempted to either gain ownership of the Chicago Cardinals with Bud Adams and move them to Dallas, or own an NFL expansion franchise in Dallas. In 1959, the NFL had no teams south of Washington, D.C., and only two teams west of Chicago (the 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams, both in California). The league, however, was not interested in expansion at the time. Rebuffed in his attempts to gain at least part ownership in an NFL team, Hunt conceived the idea of a rival professional football league, the American Football League. In September 1959, Hunt was approached by the NFL about an expansion team in Dallas, but by then Hunt was only interested in the AFL. The new league had six franchises by August 1959 and eight by the time of opening day in 1960: Boston (Patriots), Buffalo (Bills), New York (Titans), Houston (Oilers), Denver (Broncos), Dallas (Texans), Oakland (Raiders), and Los Angeles (Chargers). While the Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, and Dallas teams shared media markets with NFL teams (the Rams, Giants, 49ers, and the expansion Dallas Cowboys, respectively), the other four teams (Boston, Buffalo, Denver, and Houston) widened the nation's exposure to professional football by serving markets that were absent an NFL team, exposure that widened in subsequent years via the relocation of two of the original eight franchises (the Chargers to San Diego in 1961 and the Texans to Kansas City in 1963).
From small colleges and predominantly black colleges (a source mainly ignored by the NFL), the AFL signed stars such as Elbert Dubenion (Bluffton), Lionel Taylor (New Mexico Highlands), Tom Sestak (McNeese State), Charlie Tolar and Charlie Hennigan (Northwestern State of Louisiana), Abner Haynes (North Texas State), and a host of others. From major colleges, it signed talented players like LSU's Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon, Arkansas's Lance Alworth, Notre Dame's Daryle Lamonica, Kansas' John Hadl, Alabama's Joe Namath, and many more. The AFL also signed players the NFL had given up on: so-called "NFL rejects" who turned out to be superstars that the NFL had mis-evaluated. These included Jack Kemp, Babe Parilli, George Blanda, Ron McDole, Art Powell, John Tracey, Don Maynard, and Len Dawson. In 1960, the AFL's first year, its teams signed half of the NFL's first-round draft choices.
The AFL introduced many policies and rules to professional football which the NFL later adopted, including:
- A 14-game regular season schedule, which the NFL adopted in 1961 (increased from 12 games), exactly one year after the AFL's inaugural season. The AAFC in the late 1940s had a 14 game schedule.
- Players' last names on the jersey back (adopted by the NFL in 1970)
- A flashier, exciting style of play, as opposed to conservative-style NFL game plans
- The introduction of the two-point conversion to pro football, conforming to the college rule adopted in 1958
- Official time on the scoreboard clock, as opposed to it being kept by on-field officials
- One network television broadcast package for league games, first with ABC from 1960 through 1964, then with NBC
- The sharing of gate and television revenues by home and visiting teams
Competition between the two leagues
At first, the NFL ignored the AFL and its eight teams, assuming the AFL would consist of players who could not earn a contract in the NFL, and that fans of professional football would not waste their time watching them when they could watch the NFL. The NFL also had the media advantage: For example, in the 1960s, Sports Illustrated's lead football writer was Tex Maule, who previously worked with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle when Rozelle was the general manager of the L.A. Rams and Maule was the team's public relations director; Maule "was certainly an NFL loyalist," and several sports reporters took his deprecatory columns about the AFL as fact. Another example was Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, a close friend of Rozelle (Schramm hired Rozelle as Rams' GM), who was influential in NFL coverage by its national TV partner, CBS, including the network's employment of former NFL players as game announcers and the absence of AFL scores and reports on the network.
However, in spite of this bad press, and unlike the NFL's previous rivals, the AFL was able to survive and grow, and began to prosper in the mid-1960s after the relocation of the Chargers and Texans to non-NFL markets, the sale and rebranding of the New York Titans (to the Jets), and the Jets' signing of University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath to an unprecedented $427,000 contract. The league's financial survival was also buoyed by NBC's $36 million, five-year contract to televise AFL games beginning in 1965.
As the rivalry between the leagues intensified, both leagues entered into a massive bidding war over the top college prospects, paying huge amounts of money to unproven rookies in order to outbid each other for the best players coming out of college. The bidding wars escalated in the mid-1960s, with the respective drafts held on the same day in the late fall. Because of the intense competition, teams often drafted players that they thought had a good chance of signing, instead of selecting the best available players. For example, 1965 Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett, a running back from USC in Los Angeles, was expected to sign with an NFL team, so he was not taken in the 1966 AFL draft until the 20th (final) round. Selected by the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Rams with the 18th overall selection of the 1966 NFL Draft, Garrett surprisingly shunned the NFL and signed with Kansas City; he helped lead them to the AFL title as a rookie. The previous year, the Chiefs used their first round pick on Gale Sayers, who signed with the NFL's Chicago Bears.
Once a player signed with a team, be it from the AFL or NFL, there was tacit agreement between the leagues to honor each other's player contracts and not sign players who were under contract with a team in their rival league. The unwritten agreement was broken in May 1966 when the NFL's New York Giants signed Pete Gogolak, the first professional soccer-style placekicker, who had played out his option in 1965 with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. The NFL's breach of trust resulted in retaliation by the AFL: Oakland Raiders co-owner Al Davis took over as AFL Commissioner in April 1966, and he stepped up the bidding war after the Gogolak transfer, signing notable NFL players, including John Brodie Mike Ditka, and Roman Gabriel, to contracts with AFL teams, but after the merger agreement in June, they wound up staying in the older league. Both leagues spent a combined $7 million signing their 1966 draft picks.
The merger agreement
Contrary to common belief, it was not the AFL, but the NFL that initiated discussions for a merger between the two leagues, as it was fearful that Davis' "take no prisoners" tactics would seriously reduce its talent base. Tex Schramm, the general manager of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys since 1960, secretly contacted AFL owners, led by Lamar Hunt of Kansas City, and asked if they were interested in a merger. The talks were conducted without the knowledge of Davis, the new AFL commissioner. On the evening of June 8, 1966, the collaborators announced a merger agreement in New York. Under the agreement:
- The two leagues would combine to form an expanded league with 24 teams, to be increased to 26 teams by 1969, and to 28 by 1970, or soon thereafter. Those teams were the New Orleans Saints in 1967, the Cincinnati Bengals in 1968, and the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976. The Atlanta Falcons and the Miami Dolphins were already established and set to start play for the 1966 season, before the merger was announced in June.
- All existing franchises would be retained, and none of them would be moved outside of their metropolitan areas.
- AFL "indemnities" would be paid to NFL teams which shared markets with AFL teams. Specifically, the New York Giants would receive payments from the New York Jets, and the San Francisco 49ers would get money from the Oakland Raiders. The shared markets issue was part of earlier, informal merger talks (held as early as 1964), talks the AFL rejected when the NFL wanted the Jets and Raiders relocated (to Memphis and Portland, respectively).
- Both leagues would hold a "Common Draft" of college players, effectively ending the bidding war between the two leagues over the top college prospects. (The first such draft occurred in mid-March 1967.)
- The leagues would maintain separate regular season schedules through 1969 (though some preseason games during that time featured AFL-vs-NFL matchups). The leagues also agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game, matching the championship teams of each league, beginning in January 1967; the game that would eventually become known as the Super Bowl.
- The two leagues would officially merge in 1970 to form one league with two conferences. The merged league would be known as the National Football League. The history and records of the AFL would be incorporated into the older league, but the AFL name and logo would be retired.
The features of the merger depended on the passage of a law by the 89th U.S. Congress, exempting the merged league from antitrust law sanctions. When NFL Commissioner Rozelle and other professional football executives appeared before the Congress' Subcommittee on Antitrust, chaired by New York congressman Emanuel Celler, two points were repeatedly made:
- Rozelle promised that if the merger was allowed, no existing professional football franchise of either league would be moved from any city as a result.
- Stadiums seating less than 50,000 were declared to be inadequate for professional football's needs, thus compelling teams in stadiums with capacities under that number to expand their current stadiums (most notably the expansion of the Denver Broncos' Mile High Stadium in 1968) or move to newer, larger homes — most notably the Chicago Bears' move from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field in 1971, and the opening of new stadiums for the New England Patriots (Schaefer Stadium in 1971), Kansas City Chiefs (Arrowhead Stadium in 1972), and Buffalo Bills (Rich Stadium in 1973). (The Minnesota Vikings stayed at Metropolitan Stadium, the only sub-50,000 capacity stadium after the merger, until the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome opened in 1982.)
Eventually, Congress passed the new law to permit the merger to proceed. Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs and Senator Russell Long were instrumental in passage of the new law, and in return, Rozelle approved creation of the expansion New Orleans Saints franchise less than one month after the bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
As 1970 approached, three NFL teams (the Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers), agreed to join the ten AFL teams (the Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins had joined the original Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers) to form the American Football Conference (AFC). The other thirteen NFL teams (Atlanta Falcons, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Los Angeles Rams, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins) became part of the National Football Conference (NFC). Since then, the Super Bowl has featured the champions of the AFC and NFC. Both are determined each season by the league's playoff tournament.
Although the AFC teams quickly decided on a divisional alignment, the 13 NFC owners had trouble deciding which teams would play in which divisions. The NFL had recently gone to four divisions of four teams each in 1967. Many NFC teams were attempting to avoid placement in a division with the Cowboys and/or the Vikings, and were trying to angle their way into the same division as the Saints, the weakest team in professional football at the time. The 49ers and Rams, both in California, were guaranteed to be in the same division as the only NFC teams west of the Rocky Mountains. It was settled after various combinations were drawn up on slips of paper, put into a hat, and the official NFC alignment was pulled out by Rozelle's secretary. Of the five plans considered, the one that was put into effect had Minnesota remaining in the Central Division and Dallas playing in the NFC Eastern Division, preserving the Vikings' place with geographical rivals Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay, and the Cowboys' rivalry with the Eagles and Giants. It also put the two newest NFC franchises, the Saints and Falcons from the Deep South, with the 49ers and Rams. The Falcons had already been playing the California teams in the NFL Coastal Division, but the Saints were in the NFL Capitol Division (with Dallas, Washington, Philadelphia) of the Eastern Conference and now faced two trips to the West Coast per season.
Meanwhile, all three of the major television networks signed contracts to televise games, thus ensuring the combined league's stability. CBS agreed to broadcast all games where an NFC team was on the road, NBC agreed to broadcast all games where an AFC team was on the road, and ABC agreed to broadcast Monday Night Football, making the NFL the first league to have a regular series of national telecasts in prime time. The NFL would likely not have been able to retain both CBS and NBC had it not done the AFC-NFC setup.[by whom?]
Many observers believe that the NFL got the better of the bargain; Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis and New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin resisted the indemnity payments. Long-time sports writer Jerry Magee of the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote: "Al Davis taking over as commissioner was the strongest thing the AFL ever did. He thought the AFL–NFL merger was a detriment to the AFL."
However, other observers consider those scenarios far-fetched. The NFL had a richer television contract at the time of the merger, in large part because of market exclusivity in such leading population centers as Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore, plus Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, which were rapidly increasing in population and would emerge as media strongholds in the 1970s. On the other hand, the AFL had teams in cities that were not among the nation's leading media markets, such as Miami, Buffalo, and Denver (all of which at the time had no other major league teams), and Kansas City (which at the time had only a failing – and ultimately relocated – baseball team). Some of these American Football League fans were disappointed because they wanted their league to continue. Those feelings were reinforced when American Football League teams won the final two AFL-NFL World Championship games after the 1968 and 1969 seasons.
The old-guard NFL at first dominated the merged league, winning the great majority of games pitting old-line NFL teams versus former AFL teams in 1970 and, to a lesser extent, in 1971. Furthermore, the old guard NFL had five of the eight playoff berths and both berths in Super Bowl V following the 1970 season, and six of the eight playoff berths following the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Eventually, the AFC teams caught and passed the NFC during the mid- to late-1970s.
Even then, NFL proponents claimed that the three NFL teams that joined the AFL to form the AFC were largely the reason. While the Colts and Browns were respectable playoff contenders during this period, AFL fans accepted the Steelers because of the team's dominance throughout the league, winning four Super Bowls in a six-year span. Before the merger, the Steelers had long been one of the NFL's worst teams, only posting eight winning seasons, and just one playoff appearance, since their first year of existence in 1933. They also finished with a 1-13 record in 1969, tied with the Chicago Bears for the worst record in the NFL. The $3 million relocation fee that the Steelers received for joining the AFC after the merger helped them rebuild into one that could actually compete with the other "old NFL" teams.
Nevertheless, the merger paved the way for a new era of prosperity for the NFL. Since 1970 there essentially has been only one major professional football league in the United States. Other leagues such as the XFL, WFL, USFL and UFL, have never been a serious challenge to the NFL, folding after one, two, three and four seasons, respectively.
Four more NFL teams that were not specified in the merger agreement would be established between 1995 and 2002:
- The Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars were awarded franchises in 1993 and began play in 1995
- The Baltimore Ravens started play in 1996, as a result of the controversy stemming from Art Modell's attempt to relocate the Browns to Baltimore. Subsequent legal actions saw a unique compromise in which he was only allowed to take the players, coaches, and front office staff to Baltimore (even then, not all of them made the move), and the Browns' team colors, uniforms, and history would remain in Cleveland, inherited by the resurrected Browns franchise in 1999.
- The Houston Texans joined in 2002, after Houston was left without the NFL for five years following the Oilers' move to Nashville, Tennessee, where they eventually became the Tennessee Titans. The Texans' establishment necessitated a realignment of the league into 8 divisions of four teams each, which allows every team to play every other team at least twice over an 8-year span (once at home, once on the road).
Proliferation of new stadiums
A league rule passed as a result of the merger required all NFL teams to use stadiums that seated over 50,000 spectators. At the time, several teams had stadiums that were not up to that standard (see above). Most either built a new stadium by 1971 or, in the case of Chicago, moved to an existing stadium in the metro area that met the requirement. The Buffalo Bills situation would prove to be a pattern for later teams; Buffalo interests were very slow to come to an agreement on a new stadium, and it was only after Bills owner Ralph Wilson began arranging for a move to Seattle (a tactic that would later be used by many other teams in their quests for new stadiums in their hometowns, later using cities such as Los Angeles and San Antonio) that Western New York finally agreed to build Rich Stadium, which opened in 1973.
The Super Bowl has been used as an incentive by the league to convince local governments, businesses, and voters to support the construction, seat licenses and taxes associated with new or renovated stadiums. Therefore, the league has and continues to award Super Bowls to cities that have built new football stadiums for their existing franchises, though all outdoor Super Bowls continued to be played in warmer climates. This was the case until, in 2010, the NFL announced that the new Meadowlands stadium would host the 2014 Super Bowl.
Only five Super Bowls since 1984 have been played in stadiums used by three of these expansion teams; four of these games were played in Florida, and one game was played in Texas.
In some cases, cities have been selected as provisional Super Bowl sites, with the construction or renovation of a suitable facility as a major requirement for hosting the actual game. In the past, New York City and San Francisco have each received provisional site awards. In both cities, the league moved the game to a different site when public funding initiatives failed. The most recent provisional site award went to Kansas City for a Super Bowl to be played in 2015 in Arrowhead Stadium, but Kansas City has since withdrawn their request because the funding for the new roof has failed.
The Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Seattle Seahawks, Arizona Cardinals, and Indianapolis Colts are all teams who have recently received a significant amount of public financing to either construct or upgrade the stadiums in which they currently play.
The state of Louisiana has been making cash payouts to the New Orleans Saints since 2001 in order to keep the team from moving. The state received over $185 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources to repair and renovate the Superdome following damage from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Louisiana then began a five-year, $320 million renovation project for the stadium in 2006.
In addition, Saint Louis and Baltimore also publicly financed stadiums for the purpose of luring the former Los Angeles Rams and the first incarnation of the Cleveland Browns to their current locations.
Similar moves in other sports
Entrepreneurs interested in other sports in North America would follow the AFL's example in competing with the established "major" leagues.
- Baseball: In 1959, the Continental League was proposed by William Shea as a third major league for baseball scheduled to begin play in the 1961 season. Unlike predecessor competitors such as the Players League and the Federal League, it sought membership within organized baseball's existing organization and acceptance within Major League Baseball. The league disbanded in August 1960 without playing a single game, as the other two leagues didn't want the extra competition. However, in order to stop the new league, each league allowed that they would be adding two new teams each, three of which ended up in the prospective CL cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Houston, and New York City. All proposed CL cities, except Buffalo, would later be granted MLB teams.
- Basketball: In 1967, the American Basketball Association was formed with the explicit intent of merging teams with the National Basketball Association. In 1976, four of the six remaining teams of the ABA—the Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs—were merged into the NBA. All the teams, except for the Nets who have been relocated between New Jersey and New York, before moving to Brooklyn, have remained in their present locations since entering the NBA. In 1975 and 1976, the ABA proposed a championship game between the leagues at the end of the season much like the NFL-AFL championship, but the NBA turned each offer down. Today, except for Virginia, Kentucky, Pittsburgh, St. Louis and any temporary locations ABA teams played in (including teams that were regional teams), all former ABA cities now have NBA teams.
- Hockey: In 1972, the World Hockey Association formed to compete with the National Hockey League. The two entities merged in 1979, with four of the six remaining teams—the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and the Winnipeg Jets—joining the NHL. However, only one of these former WHA teams, the Oilers, is still in its original market. The Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995, the Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes in 1996, and Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes in 1997. The NHL eventually returned to Winnipeg in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers became the current-Winnipeg Jets.
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