By Evan Weiner
March 29, 2009
1:30 PM EDT
(New York, N. Y.) --- Is North American ready for more professional football leagues? That question will be answered shortly as there are investors ready to put $30 million into a new fall football league, the United Football League. There could be more after that as well. The National Football League has had many competitors come and go, three American Football Leagues, the All American Football Conference, the World Football League and the United States Football League all failed although the NFL took one team from one of the AFLs back in the 1930s, the Cleveland Rams, three AAFC teams, San Francisco, Baltimore and Cleveland along with 10 AFL teams into the fold. Three other teams, Dallas, Minnesota and Atlanta were formed as the result of the AFL, New Orleans received an expansion team in 1966 because Congress would not okay the NFL-AFL merger without a New Orleans team and the WFL forced the NFL owners into an expansion in 1974 to Tampa and Seattle. In the 1990s, relocation issues forced the NFL to add a 31st and 32nd team in Cleveland and Houston.
The NFL doesn’t add teams unless prodded. The UFL doesn’t figure to pose much of a threat to the NFL’s dominance but the NFL also brushed the fourth version of the American Football League aside. The NFL owners showed a remarkable lack of understanding of their product in the 1950s.
The most successful rival to the NFL was the fourth incarnation of the American Football League (AFL IV). Formation of AFL IV began in 1959, led by Dallas Texans Owner Lamar Hunt. Hunt had previously applied for expansion franchises in Dallas, and had also tried to buy the Chicago Cardinals with the idea of moving them to Texas, but the NFL rejected both of his offers. After attempts to create an NFL team failed, Hunt began to organize a rival league, AFL IV.
NFL attendances had increased 60 percent from 1950 to 1960, growing from an average of 25,000 per game in 1950 to over 40,000 per game by 1960. Many NFL owners were calling for expansion to absorb the increase in demand, and were interested in adding franchises in Houston, Dallas, Miami, Minneapolis, and Buffalo. However, with a unanimous vote of all NFL owners required under NFL rules, and with two owners in opposition of expanding, no expansion occurred, perhaps to the detriment of the NFL. Had the NFL expanded, AFL IV may never have existed.
In 1959, Lamar Hunt lined up six owners for the new AFL. A number of future AFL IV owners had repeatedly petitioned the NFL for expansion teams or tried to purchase existing teams (such as the Chicago Cardinals, which were forced to move once the NFL decided they could not share the Chicago market, the second biggest in the country, with the Bears). Clint Murchison tried to buy the San Francisco, Washington, and Chicago franchises to no avail. William H. Sullivan, among the first to conceive of putting luxury boxes into a stadium in 1958 (and knock down Fenway Park in the process in order be a dual use stadium for the Red Sox and an NFL team), failed to bring a team to Boston.
Hunt's first move was to meet with K.S. (Bud) Adams in Houston, as Hunt believed a Dallas-Houston rivalry would be important for the new league. The first meeting was held in Chicago in 1960, and consisted of Hunt representing his Dallas franchise; Bob Howsam, with a Denver franchise; Bud Adams, with a Houston franchise; Barron Hilton, with a Los Angeles franchise; Max Winter and Bill Boyer, with a Minneapolis franchise; and Harry Wismer, owner of the New York City franchise. Buffalo, owned by Ralph Wilson, became the seventh franchise, and Boston, owned by William H. Sullivan, became the eighth team.
“I think there was an opportunity, the sport needed to grow. It had gone through a consolidation period and we had seen the 1958 great championship game between the Giants and Colts,” recalled Hunt. “There was great national interest in the game and there were a lot of cities frankly that were growing, and not all of them had great stadium facilities. But it was beginning to happen. The public was beginning to perceive that this game had a national appeal.”
In response to the threat of a rival league, the NFL tried to push forward an agenda of four expansion teams, one of which would be in Dallas, but was vetoed by one owner, George Marshall of the Redskins. Hunt talked with George Halas about the potential for the NFL expanding to include the six teams that he had lined up for his new league, but Halas informed him that the NFL limited expansion to four teams, and would not accept the offer.
“When the AFL started, admittedly it was a new league and everybody thought it would fold immediately,” said Jack Kemp, a backup quarterback with the NFL’s New York Giants. “I would say in 1960, the NFL was the Gold Standard and the American League was the fledgling rookie league. But I loved it, it created a lot of jobs and a new enthusiasm for football fans.”
During the fall of 1959, AFL IV held its first organizational meeting in Minneapolis and considered the entry of a Minnesota team into the league. The Minnesota owners were also conducting negotiations with the NFL to become an expansion franchise, and when news of this leaked, the Metropolitan Stadium Commission of the Twin Cities withheld its approval of a stadium deal with AFL IV to see if it could get a more desirable NFL team instead. This resulted in the Minnesota owners pulling out, and AFL IV assigned the franchise to Oakland.
In early 1960, the NFL changed its bylaws to require a 5/6th vote to approve league expansion, but retained its unanimous vote requirement for expanding into an existing team’s territory. A unanimous vote led to Clint Murchison being awarded a franchise to operate the Texas Rangers franchise in Dallas for the 1960 season, which later became the Dallas Cowboys. The Cardinals were also permitted to relocate to St. Louis for the 1960 season. Soon after, Minnesota was granted a franchise for the 1961 season.
Even though NFL owners were trying to throw Hunt a roadblock in his efforts to establish both the AFL and his Dallas franchise, the NFL did not go out of its way to make the Rangers (Cowboys) a very competitive team. Since the draft had finished before the franchise was awarded to Dallas, the team was instead given the chance to select three of the worst nine players on the 12 existing NFL teams. As a result, Dallas started a scouting system that brought in many free agents, such as Cornell Green, Don Perkins, and Drew Pearson.
The expansion fee paid by Dallas and Minnesota was $600,000, paid over three years. These fees were quite low given the revenues of teams at the time, with some NFL franchises sold for greater than twice the expansion fee. In comparison, expansion fees for AFL teams were a mere $25,000. As a result of these actions, the AFL sued the NFL for violating the antitrust laws by trying to prevent the AFL from existing by moving NFL teams into markets where the AFL was planning to operate.
For the 1961 season, there were 14 NFL teams and 8 AFL IV teams. In general, AFL IV was establishing itself in mid-sized markets (e.g., Houston, Buffalo, Denver), but because of the importance of television network contracts, it needed to be present in the larger television TV markets of New York, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area. In its initial years, teams in AFL IV shifted locations as they found markets in which they could compete financially. For instance, in 1961 the Los Angeles franchise moved to San Diego, Oakland restructured its ownership, and Denver was sold. In 1962, AFL IV decided against expanding after considering the entry of Kansas City, New Orleans and Atlanta. Hunt, in his own life and death struggle with the ailing Cowboys, decided to move the team to Kansas City if the city guaranteed season ticket sales, expanded Municipal Stadium, and constructed an office and practice facility for the team. Hunt moved the team that year, naming the team the Chiefs after the nickname (“Chief”) of Kansas City Mayor H. Roe Bartle, who fashioned the offer.
The biggest off-field business move for AFL IV happened on March 28, 1963, the day a five-man syndicate led by David (Sonny) Werblin purchased the bankrupt New York Titans for $1 million (to become the Jets). The syndicate included Leon Hess, who owned the Jets until his death in 1999. The club was so financially unstable that players could not even guarantee they would get paid. Alex Kroll, a player for the team, remembered what became a normal routine, the Friday afternoon mad dash to the Irving Trust bank to get money.
“It got to the point where the Irving Trust, which was the bank of the New York Titans would only allow one branch office to cash checks and only one teller. When the lady gave you money for your check she'd scratch off that amount of money from the total amount the Titans had,” he recalled. “If you were a lineman like I, and got there after the quarterbacks and the flankers, you were likely to get nothing.” One Friday, the Titans coaches surreptitiously left practice and left the players on the field to get their checks and beat the players to the Bank (the players later got paid).
The New York Jets played in a brand new stadium starting in 1964, but their lease would not allow them to play or practice at Shea Stadium until the Mets (baseball) were finished. The Jets eventually built a training complex at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York but that came after the team held its practices at Riker's Island prison. Practicing in a prison called for some unusual precautions, such as not chasing a ball out of bounds (where the prisoners were), and checks under the bus and in the luggage compartments for prisoners. Before the Jets were able to secure Rikers Island Prison as a practice facility, the team searched Queens for an empty field to practice on, with the players having to remove garbage and glass from the fields so the team could practice.
The Raiders played in San Francisco in 1960 and 1961, then in Oakland in 1962-1965. Before Davis joined the Raiders, the team lost 25 of 28 games in 1961 and 1962, improving to 10-4 in Davis' first year in Oakland. When the Oakland Coliseum opened in 1966 Davis had left the team to run AFL IV.
AFL IV both competed with and improved the NFL, expanding the presence of professional football. “The AFL jerked the game of pro football forward rapidly into an era where all of a sudden instead of there being 12 teams, in one year's time there were 21 teams,” recalled Hunt. “Before 1960, you had two West Coast cities in the NFL and the rest concentrated in the northeast. The AFL changed all of that. Suddenly you had pro football in cities that didn't have it before, Dallas, Denver, Houston and Buffalo…. There was a need for a second football league…. There was a need, a natural opening for it. The AFL was very fortuitous, it had perfect timing.”
This was the first rival league where television income played a critical role it its survival. Before it began play in November 1959, AFL IV approved a cooperative television plan whereby the league office negotiated the television contract and equally divided proceeds among member clubs. In 1960, AFL IV signed a network contract with ABC for $2 million per year for the first five years, which amounted to $250,000 per team per year, approximately 15% less than received per team in the NFL. This was quite high given the uncertainty surrounding the success of the new league. Part of the success of the league in attaining coverage was due to New York Titans owner Harry Wismer, who was also a noted sportscaster of the time. Wismer got AFL IV game coverage on the Associated Press and United Press International wires and helped the league land a contract with ABC. In 1963, NBC was awarded exclusive network broadcasting rights for the 1963 AFL Championship Game for $926,000, and later signed a five-year, $36 million television contract with the AFL IV to begin with the 1965 season.
At the time, the NFL was under a court-ordered injunction, as a result of United States v. NFL, that prevented it from signing a league-wide contract with a network. After operating under local contracts for the 1960 and 1961 seasons, the NFL pooled its television rights and sold them to CBS following the passing of an act by Congress that exempted league-wide television agreements in sports from antitrust laws (see discussion of Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961), for $4.65 million annually for the league. By 1969, television income had risen to $1.6 million per team in the NFL and $900,000 per team in the AFL.
While AFL attendances were quite high, they were never as close to NFL attendances as was the AAFC. However, the television revenues were large enough to keep the AFL profitable, and the AFL was generally considered a well-financed league. There were some league failures, with Denver and New York failing to draw fans. Despite having a good team, Los Angeles played before just 8,000 fans when it played in the Western Division championship at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Moreover, the AFL lacked a major league presence that might have helped it to succeed. Houston played on a dirt field in a high school stadium, and the Boston Patriots played in different stadiums on Friday nights so the team would not compete with New York Giants telecasts in New England on Sunday afternoons.
Exposure was the key that allowed this fourth American Football League to survive. Wismer was the conduit between the AFL owners and the media decision makers.
"It was pretty good but not equal," according to Hunt."We certainly had good inroads and the media, interestingly, really wanted the AFL to succeed, a lot of them did.
"That's not always true; I think sometimes in a new league like Major League Soccer, I think the media is very ho-hum about it because they have plenty to cover.
"Harry was very important, a battler and fighter and helped make things happen that would not have happened otherwise."
Despite the news coverage, and ABC exposure, the league had trouble spots. Oakland played its games in San Francisco at Kezar Stadium, Denver was a laughing stock, Boston was constantly looking for a stadium and the New York Titans weren't drawing people to the Polo Grounds. Los Angeles has playing before thousands upon thousands of empty seats despite having a good football team.
The AFL and NFL slugged it out between 1960 and 1966. No other rival league lasted that long.
As a result of the escalating competition between the leagues, George Halas decided he had had enough with the war with the AFL, and pushed for a merger to end it. Tex Schramm and Lamar Hunt had already devised a comprehensive plan before Halas came to them with the merger proposal. Congress approved the NFL-AFL merger when an anti-trust exemption was added as a rider to an anti-inflation tax bill. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the bill into law, thus creating a newly expanded NFL. The AFL and NFL announced their merger on June 8, 1966, with the two leagues consolidating to form the American Football Conference and the National Football Conference of the NFL.
Under the merger agreement, the two leagues combined to form an expanded league with 24 teams, to be increased to 26 in 1968 and to 28 by 1970 or soon thereafter. All existing franchises would be retained, and no franchises would be transferred outside their metropolitan areas despite a proposal to move the Jets to Los Angeles, the Rams to San Diego, the Chargers to New Orleans and the Raiders to Portland or Seattle. While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the leagues agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game beginning in January 1967, and to hold a combined draft, also beginning in 1967. Official regular-season play would start in 1970 when the two leagues would officially merge to form one league with two conferences. Rozelle was named Commissioner of the expanded league.
“It was the right thing to do,” said Hunt. “It consolidated the sport. It assured the continuity of every team in both leagues. There were some teams that were pretty weak financially at that point. Some teams going out of business generally accompanied previous mergers in sports. We assured that every team would stay in business. We assured the addition of new teams in Cincinnati and New Orleans. It gave the public the Super Bowl. It also provided the teams and the league with a common draft, which provided for an equal dissemination of playing talent.”
Terms of the agreement included AFL payments to the NFL of $18 million (over 20 years), much of which went to the San Francisco 49ers ($8 million) and the New York Giants ($10 million), whose territories were being invaded. The AFL also agreed to pay the NFL the $7.5 million it received from the Cincinnati expansion fee.
No other rival football league has equaled Hunt’s success. The UFL has tough sledding ahead. Between college football and the NFL, there seems to be enough football today unlike 50 years ago and throw in the recession that will make the UFL’s road even tougher.