The AFL–NFL merger of 1970 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). The merger 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.
Since its inception in 1920 when Akron won the National Title, 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, it disbanded after the 1949 season. Three of its teams, the original version of the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland Browns, and the San Francisco 49ers, 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 oil millionaire H. L. Hunt, attempted to either gain ownership of the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) 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, now the St. Louis Rams). The league, however, was not interested in expansion. 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. The new league established teams in eight American cities: Boston (Patriots), Buffalo (Bills), New York (Titans), Houston (Oilers), Denver (Broncos), Dallas (Texans), Oakland (Raiders), and Los Angeles (Chargers). While New York, Los Angeles, and Oakland shared markets with NFL teams, the other teams widened the nation's exposure to professional football — the Chargers moved to San Diego after one season.
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 remain contemporary, including:
- The two-point conversion (conforming to the college rule), although it was eliminated after the merger, then reinstated in 1994
- Official time on the scoreboard clock
- Players' names on jerseys
- One network television broadcast package for league games, first with ABC and later 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, whose previous job had been as public relations director for Pete Rozelle, the general manager of the NFL's Rams. Maule "was certainly an NFL loyalist," and several sports reporters took his deprecatory columns about the AFL as fact. In another example, another former Rozelle employee, Tex Schramm, was CBS's director of sports during the period when that network refused to give AFL scores. Many play-by-play and color announcers on CBS were former NFL players.
However, in spite of this bad press, and unlike the NFL's previous rivals, the AFL was able to survive and grow. After the league's Los Angeles team moved to San Diego (in 1961) and the Dallas team moved to Kansas City (in 1963), the league began to prosper. The New York team (now called the Jets) began to draw record crowds, aided by the signing of quarterback Joe Namath to an unprecedented $427,000 contract. NBC paid the AFL $36 million in 1965 to televise its games, ensuring the league's financial survival.
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.
Because of the intense competition, teams often drafted players that they thought had a good chance of signing with them instead of selecting the best players. For example, 1965 Heisman Trophy winning running back Mike Garrett was expected to sign with an NFL team, so no AFL team picked him in the 1966 AFL draft until the 20th (final) round, where he was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs. Garrett surprisingly shunned the NFL and decided to sign with Kansas City. Once they were signed, however, there was tacit agreement to honor the other league's contracts and not sign players who were under contract with a team in their rival league.
The unwritten agreement was shattered in early 1966 when the NFL's New York Giants signed Pete Gogolak, the first professional soccer-style placekicker, who was already under contract and playing with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. The breach of trust by the NFL resulted in retaliation by the rival league. When Oakland Raiders co-owner Al Davis took over as AFL Commissioner, he began stepping up the bidding war, immediately signing eight starting NFL quarterbacks, including John Brodie and Roman Gabriel, to contracts with AFL teams. 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. Schramm, now general manager of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys, secretly contacted AFL owners and asked if they were interested in a merger. The talks were conducted without the knowledge of Davis, the AFL commissioner. By June 8, 1966, the collaborators announced a merger agreement. Under the agreement:
- The two leagues would combine to form an expanded league with 24 teams, which would be increased to 26 teams by 1969, and to 28 teams by 1970 or soon thereafter. Those teams would ultimately be 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 set to start play for the 1966 season before the merger was announced.
- All existing teams 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.
- Informal merger talks, held as early as 1964, were rejected by the AFL when the older league wanted the Jets and Raiders relocated—to Memphis and Portland, respectively. Memphis is now part of the market area of the Tennessee Titans, itself a relocated AFL team — they were the Houston Oilers. Meanwhile, Portland is claimed as part of the Seahawks' fanbase.
- Both leagues would now hold a "common draft" of college players, effectively ending the bidding war between the two leagues over the top college prospects.
- While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the leagues agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game, matching the championship teams of each league, beginning in January 1967, a 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 its name and logo would be retired.
The features of the merger depended on the passage of a law by the 89th United States Congress, exempting the merged league from antitrust law sanctions. When Rozelle, now NFL Commissioner, 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.
- Stadiums seating less than 50,000 were declared to be inadequate for professional football's needs, thus compelling the Chicago Bears to move out of Wrigley Field in favor of Soldier Field in 1971, and the hasty construction of both Schaefer Stadium for the Boston Patriots (which opened in 1971 after the Patriots played one season at Harvard Stadium) and Rich Stadium for the Buffalo Bills (which replaced 46,000 seat Buffalo War Memorial Stadium in 1973). The Minnesota Vikings remained at Metropolitan Stadium (49,000) until the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome was built 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. As of Super Bowl XLV, former AFL teams have won 12 Super Bowls, pre-merger NFL teams have won 31, and two games were won by teams created after 1970 (the Baltimore Ravens in XXXV, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in XXXVII - the Carolina Panthers and Seattle Seahawks also each made a Super Bowl, but lost).
Although the AFC teams quickly decided on a divisional alignment, the 13 NFC owners had trouble deciding which teams would play in which divisions, as most 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 were guaranteed to be in the same division as the only NFC teams west of the Rocky Mountains. (The Rams later moved to St. Louis, Missouri in 1995 and are now east of the Rockies, but remain in the NFC West with the 49ers.) 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 playing in the NFC 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 Redskins. It also put the two franchises from the Deep South, the Saints and Falcons, 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 Eastern Conference and now faced with two trips to the West Coast per season; this would later be fixed in the 2002 realignment when the Falcons and Saints were placed in the new NFC South along with the Panthers and Buccaneers.
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.
|This section may contain original research. (August 2011)|
Many observers[who?] believe that the NFL got the better of the bargain. 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."
Many AFL fans[who?] held the belief that had Al Davis been given the opportunity to continue his efforts, the NFL would have been compelled to offer much more favorable terms to its rival, perhaps even accepting a permanent baseball-style "two league system" where the AFL could retain its unique rules and identity. Some have even suggested that Davis could have led the newer league to a position of dominance over the NFL, or even cause the older league to fold outright.
However, other observers[who?] 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's 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[who?] 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 Super Bowl berths 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 and the United States Football League (USFL) have never been a serious challenge to the NFL, folding after one and three 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 both began play in 1995, having been awarded in 1993
- 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. In the end, 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' history would remain in Cleveland — they restarted 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
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 continue to be played in warmer climates. This continued to be the case until, in 2010, the NFL announced that the new Meadowlands stadium will 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.
In addition, the following areas have used public funds to build new stadiums to retain or regain franchises: Kansas City, St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Denver, Houston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Tampa, Seattle, Phoenix and Indianapolis.
Similar moves in other sports
Enterpreneurs interested in other sports in North America would follow the AFL's example in competing with the established "major" leagues.
- 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.
- 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 with a future move to Brooklyn pending, have remained in their present locations since entering the NBA. In 1975 and 1976, the ABA proposed a champion 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, and any temporary locations ABA teams played in (including teams that were regional teams), all former ABA cities now have NBA teams.
- 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 at the present. 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.
- Full Color Football: The History of the American Football League.
- Sherrington, Kevin (2011-02-01). "Dallas meeting in '66 saved Steelers from stinking". Dallas Morning News. http://www.dallasnews.com/sports/super-bowl/the-game/20110201-sherrington-dallas-meeting-in-66-saved-steelers-from-stinking.ece. Retrieved 2011-02-06.
- NFL Record and Fact Book (ISBN 1-932994-36-X)
- Total Football: The Official Encyclopedia of the National Football League (ISBN 0-06-270174-6)
- The AFL: A Football Legacy from SI.com (accessed September 7, 2005)
- John Steadman's Baltimore News-American column on the AFL–NFL merger (accessed September 7, 2005)
- Rozelle's pledge to Congress gets swept under rug by Jerry Magee, San Diego Union-Tribune, February 22, 2004
- Should Congress Stop the Bidding War for Sports Franchises? (Hearing before the Subcommittee on Antitrust, November 29, 1995)