June 8, 2010

1966: Merger of NFL and AFL Announced

By 1966, it was becoming increasingly apparent that the American Football League was not going to fold like its three predecessors of the same name and that, most significantly to the owners of National Football League teams, it would continue to drive up the cost of new talent. In 1965, Alabama QB Joe Namath had been signed to a stunning (for the time) three-year, $426,000 contract by the New York Jets (he had also been drafted by the NFL’s Cardinals). 1966 saw LB Tommy Nobis, first draft choice of the expansion Atlanta Falcons, sign a $600,000 deal, and it cost the Green Bay Packers approximately a million dollars to sign HB Donny Anderson and FB Jim Grabowski, the presumed heirs to the aging Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor, respectively.

In April, the first discussions regarding a possible merger of the leagues commenced between Tex Schramm, the president/general manager of the Dallas Cowboys, and Lamar Hunt, founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. These background talks occurred while tumult broke out. First came the resignation of AFL Commissioner Joe Foss and his replacement by Al Davis, Oakland’s head coach/general manager who was far more inclined to engage in a no-holds-barred conflict with the older league. Then the NFL’s New York Giants signed veteran free agent placekicker Pete Gogolak away from the AFL’s Buffalo Bills, an act that now put competition for veterans on the table along with the ongoing and costly battle for talent coming out of the colleges.

The escalating strife nearly derailed the merger efforts. But on June 8, 1966 at the Warwick Hotel in New York City the NFL’s Commissioner Pete Rozelle (pictured at top), flanked by Schramm and Hunt, announced that a merger between the two leagues had been reached. Due to contractual issues, the merger was to be phased and reach completion in 1970.

- First, a game would be held between the champions of the two leagues following the 1966 season. This, more than any other provision, immediately excited pro football fans. It was decided later that the game, which of course would eventually come to be called the Super Bowl, would be played at a pre-determined neutral setting.

- Second, beginning in 1967 a common draft would be held among the teams of the two leagues (this may have dismayed college players looking forward to competing bids for their services, but came as a relief to owners looking to get player costs back under control). Also in ’67, there would be interleague preseason games.

- Finally in 1970, the AFL would be completely absorbed into the NFL, with teams playing a common schedule. Pete Rozelle would be commissioner of the entire edifice – much to the chagrin of Al Davis, who had been kept out of the merger negotiations (and, as a result, felt betrayed by his fellow owners).

In addition to the phased merging of the leagues, other points were agreed to:

- All existing franchises were to be kept, and in their current locations. While initially there had been discussion regarding the relocation of the Jets and Raiders, it was decided that there would be less danger of legal repercussions if they remained where they were, in proximity to NFL teams.

- As a result of not moving franchises, the AFL agreed to pay the NFL $26 million dollars (split between the Giants and 49ers) for the right to impinge on their territory.

- Each league agreed to add an expansion franchise no later than 1968 (the New Orleans Saints joined the NFL in 1967 and the Cincinnati Bengals rounded out the AFL in ’68).

- Television coverage would continue to be split between CBS (for the NFL) and NBC (the AFL), an arrangement which continued beyond the merger.

There had been dissenting voices among owners from both leagues – not surprisingly, teams that shared the same territory (the Giants and Jets in New York City, and the 49ers and Raiders in the Bay Area). The NFL clubs wanted the AFL teams to relocate, and the AFL teams objected to paying for the right to remain where they were.

Whatever the feelings of the dissenters at the time, the agreement reached in 1966 set the framework that continues to exist. From 13 teams in 1960, the NFL grew to 26 clubs with the merger in 1970 (the enlarged entity was broken up into the National Conference – the existing NFL – and the American Conference – the absorbed AFL).

In order to maintain equilibrium, since there were 16 NFL teams and 10 in the AFL by 1969, three existing NFL teams – the Browns, Colts, and Steelers - transferred to the American Conference. While the AFL lost its identity, there was satisfaction in that, unlike when the All-America Football Conference merged with the NFL in 1950, all of the franchises were accepted into the older league. And after losing badly in the first two Super Bowls, the AFL won the last two prior to the merger so as to make a statement that the younger teams were fully ready to compete with the older clubs.