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.
Due to the AAFC's poor financial situation, however, the league disbanded after the 1949 season. Three AAFC teams—the Cleveland 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. The Browns would go on to shock NFL loyalists by dominating the older league and winning a championship in their first NFL season.
After the NFL absorbed the AAFC, it went unchallenged by U.S. rival leagues throughout 1950s. The only other professional football leagues in operation were the leagues that would merge to form the Canadian Football League in 1958. The Interprovincial Rugby Football Union (forerunners of the CFL's Eastern Conference) managed to achieve a modest following in the U.S. after landing a contract with NBC (the AFL's future television partners).
A key difference between 1950s and today was that the Eastern Canadian season started at around the same time as the NFL's—Canadian teams at this time typically played two games per week so as to finish the season before the harsh Canadian winter set in. This arrangement allowed for NFL teams to travel north of the border for preseason contests with the CFL's Eastern clubs. NFL teams handily won most of these contests. The other major Canadian league (the Western Interprovincial Football Union, forerunners of the CFL Western Conference) was mostly ignored by the NFL, partly because it was still seen to be inferior even to the Eastern Canadian teams, but mainly because it would have been unfeasible to travel to Western Canada for a preseason game at a time when professional sports teams travelled by rail, and also because by this time the Western Conference was already moving toward an earlier start to its season.
All of the professional leagues including the NFL were gate driven enterprises, thus, although the NFL enjoyed a noticeable financial dominance over the game it was quite modest by modern standards. In any event, the Canadian league enforced strict limits on the number of American players on their rosters while the dominance of ice hockey in Canada kept the Canadian football talent base small. This meant that NFL owners did not need to significantly outspend Canadian teams in order to dominate the game on the field. In the absence of a players union or another U.S. league, NFL owners' main concern was to make their league as profitable as possible. Teams spent as little as possible on player salaries.
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 two teams south of Washington, D.C. and two teams west of Chicago (the San Francisco 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 City (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. In the following years, this additional exposure was widened 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), and the addition of two expansion franchises (the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals).
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:
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.
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 diminish the older league's profitability and/or drastically 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:
Following the agreement, American Football League owners created the office of AFL President with a mandate to administer the league's day-to-day business in a semi-autonomous manner, much like the way the constituent leagues of Major League Baseball operated at the time. The owners had hoped Davis would continue to serve in that role, but Davis (already furious with the owners of both leagues for negotiating a merger without consulting him) flatly refused to consider serving as a subordinate to Pete Rozelle. After Davis resigned as AFL Commissioner on July 25, 1966, Milt Woodard (who was assistant commissioner under Foss and Davis) was appointed to serve as President of the AFL.
Although Pete Rozelle had not initiated the merger negotiations, he quickly endorsed the agreement and remained in his post as NFL Commissioner. Although he was not formally invested with any new title(s), Rozelle was often referred to as the football commissioner or commissioner of football in the media during the four years following the merger agreement. The pre-existing office of NFL President continued effectively unchanged following the agreement. Then occupied by Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, the NFL presidency was (both before and after the merger agreement) essentially an honorary title that operated in a manner similar to the way in which the league presidencies of MLB operate in the 21st century.
Implementation 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:
Eventually, Congress passed the new law to permit the merger to proceed. The terms of the merger called for the NFL and AFL to add one team each prior to the 1970 season. 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.
The tenth and final AFL franchise was awarded to former Cleveland Browns owner and coach Paul Brown in Cincinnati. Brown had been seeking a way back into the NFL after being forced out of the Browns organization by Modell. Brown had not been a supporter of the AFL prior to the merger announcement, but quickly realized the AFL was probably his only viable path back into NFL after the older league awarded its sixteenth franchise to New Orleans. Also, Cincinnati was not going to have a 50,000 seat stadium ready until 1970. Brown paid $10 million for his franchise (400 times the 1960 franchise fee of $25,000), famously stating "I didn't pay ten million dollars to be in the AFL."
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. One early proposal would have put the two California teams together with the three Northeast teams—the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins—reminiscent of the Western Conference's Coastal Division which had put L.A. and S.F. together with Baltimore and Atlanta from 1967–1969. The final five proposals were as follows:
PLAN 1: East: NYG, PHI, WAS, ATL, MIN; Central: CHI, GB, DET, NO; West: LA, SF, DAL, STL.
PLAN 2: East: NYG, PHI, WAS, MIN; Central: ATL, DAL, NO, STL; West: LA, SF, CHI, GB, DET.
PLAN 3: East: NYG, PHI, WAS, DAL, STL: Central: CHI, GB, DET, MIN; West: LA, SF, ATL, NO.
PLAN 4: East: NYG, PHI, WAS, STL, MIN; Central: CHI, GB, DET, ATL; West: LA, SF, DAL, NO.
PLAN 5: East: NYG, PHI, WAS, DET, MIN; Central: CHI, GB, DAL, STL; West: LA, SF, ATL, NO.
These five combinations were drawn up on slips of paper, put into a fish bowl (other sources say a flower vase), and the official NFC alignment—Plan 3—was pulled out by Rozelle's secretary. Of the five plans considered, the one that was put into effect was the only one which had Minnesota remaining in the Central Division and Dallas playing in the Eastern Division. This preserved the Vikings' place with geographical rivals Chicago, Detroit, and Green Bay, and the Cowboys' rivalries with the Redskins, Eagles and Giants. It also was the only one of the final five proposals in which there were no warm weather cities in the Central Division. More controversially, the new alignment put both of 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. The Rams were expected to dominate the West, but the 49ers won the division in its first three seasons before the Rams won the next seven titles.
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 end 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.
Nevertheless, despite the AFL triumphs in Super Bowls III and IV, the old-guard NFL was still widely expected to dominate the merged league over the course of an entire season. In 1970, these predictions were proven to be more or less correct, since out of 60 regular season games pitting old-line NFL teams versus former AFL teams, former AFL teams won only 19 while losing 39 (two games ended in ties). Only Oakland managed to post a winning record against old-line NFL opposition, going 3-2. Nevertheless, out of the three NFL teams to join the AFC, only the Colts managed to secure a playoff berth. The Browns and Steelers both missed out due to a stunning second-half performance by the Cincinnati Bengals, who overcame a 1-6 start and their two old-guard division rivals to secure the first-ever NFL playoff berth for a third year expansion team. Ultimately however, it was the Colts who were triumphant—they defeated both the Bengals and Raiders to become the first team to represent the AFC in a post-merger Super Bowl, where they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 to win Super Bowl V—the franchise's last NFL championship in Baltimore.
Even the undefeated Miami Dolphins were slight underdogs to the old-guard Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII; Miami won 14-7 to cap the only perfect championship season in NFL history. Not until Super Bowl VIII in 1974 was a former AFL team favored to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy, with the Dolphins trouncing the Minnesota Vikings, 24-7, to repeat as champions.
Each of the first 29 games on Monday Night Football featured at least one team from the old-guard NFL; the first nationally-televised prime time game between two former AFL teams was Oakland at Houston on October 9, 1972.
Eventually, the AFC teams caught and passed the NFC during the mid- to late-1970s. But even then, NFL proponents claimed that the three NFL teams that joined the AFL to form the AFC were largely the reason. Altogether, these teams played in each of the first three AFC Championship Games, and in eight of the first ten games out of which they won five.
However, while the Colts and Browns were respectable playoff contenders during this period, it was the Steelers who dominated the league, winning four Super Bowls in a six-year span in the 1970s. From the perspective of AFL proponents, this was not a continuation of "old NFL" dominance—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 (where they were shutout) 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 (along with winning a coin-flip tiebreaker against the Bears for the number one pick in the 1970 NFL draft, which ended up being future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw) helped them rebuild into one that could actually compete with the other "old NFL" teams.
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.
While the Buccaneers joined the AFC in 1976, the Seahawks joined the NFC. The 1976 expansion teams switched conference before their second season in the league, becoming the first NFL teams to change conferences after the merger.
Four more NFL teams that were not specified in the merger agreement would be established between 1995 and 2002:
In total, out of the first 47 AFC Championship Games, sixteen have featured two former AFL teams and 45 have featured at least one former AFL team—the only exceptions being the 1995 championship game between the Steelers and Colts, and the 2008 game between the Steelers and Ravens. Out of the first 46 post-merger Super Bowls, former AFL teams have won 12, lost 21 and did not participate in the remaining 13. The latter 13 games have all involved one of the three "old guard" organizations that joined the AFC in 1970, with the Steelers playing in eight, the Colts in three (one representing Baltimore and two representing Indianapolis) and the Ravens in two. The Browns, Jaguars and Texans have yet to reach the Super Bowl.
In spite of Rozelle's promise that there would be no re-locations involving teams in existence at the time of the merger, by the end of his tenure as commissioner in 1989, three franchises had moved to a different market from where they were based in 1970. As of 2016, six NFL franchises (the Raiders, Colts, Cardinals, Rams, Oilers/Titans and Chargers) have been involved in post-merger re-locations while an additional franchise (the Browns) temporarily suspended operations as an alternative to re-location. Of the five teams that have re-located since the merger, two (the Raiders and Rams) have returned to the cities they played in at the time of the merger and the other three teams remain in their new cities. Broken down by where they played in 1969 and 1970:
The Rams' return from St. Louis to Los Angeles ended a interval lasting 21 years in which there was no NFL team in L.A. - the longest such period involving any NFL city of the post-merger era, and resulted in St. Louis replacing Los Angeles as the only 1969 NFL city without a current NFL team. The NFL has not simultaneously fielded teams in all sixteen of its 1969 markets since the Colts relocated to Indianapolis after the 1983 season. It had fielded teams in all ten 1969 AFL cities from the 2002 season (when the Texans joined the league) until the conclusion of the 2016 season (when the Chargers returned to Los Angeles, leaving San Diego without an NFL team).
Neither Portland nor Memphis (the cities that were due to receive AFL franchises via relocation in the 1964 merger proposal) have received an NFL franchise as of 2017. Memphis in particular has made repeated bids for an NFL team (including the Memphis Hound Dogs and the Memphis Grizzlies court case), but all have failed. Memphis would later serve as a temporary home to the Tennessee Oilers for the 1997 season following their departure from Houston. The agreement was originally slated to last for two seasons, but lackluster fan support in Memphis caused the arrangement to be cut short.
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, with the exception of Super Bowl XLVIII played in the new Meadowlands stadium.
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 withdrew their request because the funding for the new roof failed in an April 2006 referendum.
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, Indianapolis Colts, and Minnesota Vikings 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, St. 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. The Rams returned to Los Angeles following the 2015 season.
Entrepreneurs interested in other sports in North America would follow the AFL's example in competing with the established "major" leagues.
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