The National Football League has been the dominant organisation in American professional football from its birth in 1922 to the present day when it is described by Forbes magazine as the most lucrative sports league in the world.
In its early days, the league was very much the junior partner to college football and also had to compete with baseball as a spectator sport. Pro football teams were formed and then disappeared on a regular basis. The most stable component in pro football was the NFL, but some teams still folded in the economic climate when sports had to fight for every dollar.
Rival football leagues found it difficult to get off the ground and survive. It took a determined Texan oil millionaire to focus on turning his dream into reality. Lamar Hunt decided to form his own league after being rejected by the NFL in a bid to purchase a franchise with them.
Hunt sold the idea to fellow Texas oilman Bud Adams and together they launched the organisation to create a league that would begin playing in 1960. The new American Football League was officially named on August 22 in Dallas and attempted its first draft in November.
Like all their predecessors, the infant league was given little chance to continue for long. The fact that the AFL managed to get their teams in place with coaches and players ready for their first season is a tribute to the tenacity and planning attributes of the owners. Their intentions were obvious and with financial support in place, the determination convincing.
The swinging sixties were boom years and as the economy improved, more disposable income found its way into the hands of sports fans eager to spend it on entertainment.
Much to the dismay of the senior league, the AFL prospered while also breaking the control the NFL held over its players. Higher salaries were one way the AFL could entice the better players to cross over. When in 1965 NBC handed a $36 million television contract to the AFL, the auction prices rose.
A year later, Al Davis became commissioner and declared war on the NFL while encouraging the AFL owners to sign as many players as possible away from the rival league. Joe Namath was one player to benefit, receiving a huge $427,000 salary from the Jets.
The NFL suddenly realised they were in a battle. Team owners, who held tight fiscal control over their players, decided it was in their interest to arrange a peace treaty.
The Vikings coach Norm Van Brocklin saw how difficult the talks would be saying, “One thing you can say about Al Davis, he’s got a lot of action.” Using the hard-nosed Davis as the AFL’s broker was just a ruse. He hated the NFL and wanted nothing to do with them, but Lamar Hunt used him as a threat.
Hunt conducted the consultations in secret with Tex Schramm, the president of the Dallas Cowboys. Talks began in March 1966 and an agreement finally reached on June 8 that year.
A joint statement was issued, “The NFL and AFL today announced plans to join in an expanded major professional football league. It will consist of 26 teams in 25 cities with expectations of additional in the near future.”
Because of the existing commitments within the two leagues, a four year transition period was necessary. Pete Rozelle was confirmed as the commissioner and during the changeover period, the two leagues would continue to administer their own intra-league activities.
Chicago Bear’s George Halas said he was delighted that efforts to bring about a peaceful relationship had been successful, before adding, “I have advocated the sensible course of peace for a long time.”
Although the reconciliation was sold as a merger, the AFL had to pay an $18 million joining fee. As the ticket price to joining an exclusive club that grew into the multi-billion industry it is today, I guess that was Mickey Mouse money.
Even after the merger announcement, plenty of challenges needed resolving. The biggest problem was the disparity of teams in the proposed two conferences. The American Football Conference had 16 teams and the National Football Conference 10.
Three teams were required to move from the AFC to the NFC to ensure each conference was balanced at 13 teams, so a $3 million inducement was given to encourage teams to make the changeover. The teams also needed to be divided into geographical divisions.
The merger guaranteed the success of the league and laid the foundation for the successful sporting empire that it became.
Baltimore Colts (from NFL), Cleveland Browns (from NFL), Pittsburgh Steelers (from NFL), Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, Kansas City Chiefs, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders.
Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles , Minnesota Vikings, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Rams, Atlanta Falcons, New Orleans Saints.