The AFL–NFL merger of 1970 was the merger of the two major American Professional 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 and powerful 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 the best team 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 AFLEdit
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 gain ownership of the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) to 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). 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); the latter five widened the nation's exposure to professional football.
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, Jack Noonan, 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
- The Sunday doubleheader of televised games.
- Multiple and mobile cameras for TV broadcasts, as opposed to the NFL's single camera, fixed at the 50-yard line
- "Miking" of players for sound during games
- Soccer-style placekicking
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 agreementEdit
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 NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle or AFL commissioner Al Davis. 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 & 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.)
- 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 and the hasty construction of Schaefer Stadium for the Boston Patriots, which opened in 1971 after the Patriots played one season at Harvard Stadium).
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 XLIV, former AFL teams have won 12 Super Bowls, pre-1970 NFL teams have won 30, and one game was won by a team created after 1970 (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in XXXVII).
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. An apocryphal story is that 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. However, some quarters believe that the owners of the Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh franchises agreed to move when they were offered substantial indemnities, to be paid by the AFL owners. 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.
Meanwhile, all three of the major television networks signed contracts to televise games, thus ensuring the combined league's stability. In the case of interconference play, 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.
Many observers 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 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 consider those scenarios far-fetched, since the NFL had a slightly richer ($1 million per team versus the AFL's $900,000 per team) 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. 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 had no other major league teams), and Kansas City (which 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 Super Bowl berths following the 1970 season, and six of the eight playoff berths following the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Of course, the "old NFL" had sixteen teams in competition, versus ten "old AFL" teams. 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 begrudgingly accepted the Steelers because of the team's dominance throughout the league, winning four Super Bowls in a six year span. (Ironically, before the merger, the Steelers had long been one of the NFL's worst teams, and in fact had a 1-13 record in 1969, tied with the Chicago Bears for the worst record between both leagues.) With a few notable exceptions such as the Raiders and Dolphins, this essentially made the AFC dominated by an "old NFL" team instead of an AFL team. 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 and the United States Football League (USFL) have never been a serious challenge to the NFL, folding after one and three seasons, respectively.
With the merger, rather than a World Championship game, the Super Bowl became an NFL championship game. During the first four, the loyalty of fans whose teams were not in the game was clear, as evidenced by the hundreds of Buffalo Bills fans who met the New York Jets at the Buffalo airport for their first post-Super Bowl III visit to play the Bills, and the standing ovations the Jets received in opponents' stadiums in other former AFL cities. Though the Super Bowl is now one of the world's greatest one-day sporting events, the intense inter-league rivalry no longer exists.
Proliferation of new stadiumsEdit
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 almost all outdoor Super Bowls continue to be played in warmer climates.
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 had 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, and Seattle.