How The AFL Made The NFL What It Is Today

How The AFL Made The NFL What It Is Today

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How The AFL Made The NFL What It Is Today

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It’s impossible to watch the NFL in 2022 without knowing the history of the league. Before ESPN, the NFL Network, or Super Bowl Sunday, the league was popular, if not a bit stuffy. 

In 1960, the eight charter members of the American Football League were established with two divisions of four teams. The Western Division would feature the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos, Los Angeles Chargers, and the Dallas Texans. The Eastern Division was represented by the Boston Patriots, New York Titans, Buffalo Bills, and the Houston Oilers. 

The Foolish Club

Texas oil magnates Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, Jr. were refused entry into the NFL in 1959. In response, they contacted other businessmen in hopes of forming a rival to the established NFL. They conceived an idea for an eight-team professional football league. The American Football League became their vehicle. 

Via Word Press

The other six members of the “Foolish Club” were Harry Wismer of the New York Titans, now the New York Jets, Bob Howsam Denver Broncos, Barron Hilton Los Angeles Chargers, Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Buffalo Bills, Billy Sullivan Boston Patriots, now the New England Patriots, and a group of eight investors led primarily by F. Wayne Valley and, briefly, Chet Soda Oakland Raiders, now the Las Vegas Raiders, who replaced the Minneapolis team. They called themselves the “Foolish Club” because of their seemingly foolhardy venture in taking on the established NFL. 

Via NY Daily News

The first game in AFL history was played on Sept. 9th, 1960 between the Denver Broncos and the Boston Patriots before 21,597 fans and no TV audience at Boston University’s Nickerson Field, a game won by Denver 13-10. It was a Friday night event primarily because most in the New England market were Giants fans and the Patriots didn’t want to go up against the NFL team’s TV broadcasts on Sundays. Also, they did not want to compete against Harvard or Boston College on Saturdays. When it was all said and done, gate receipts from the were carried in a shoe box to the bank. Ticket prices were all of $5.00. In contrast, the average cost for a game ticket to the Thursday Night NFL opener between the Buffalo Bills at the Los Angeles Rams was $953.00. If you could find one just before kickoff at SoFi, a single game ticket could be had for $187.00. 

Going Head To Head With The NFL

The American Football League would hold its first draft (33 rounds) on November 23–24, 1959, in Minneapolis, MN. They would repeat another 20 rounds on December 2nd. 

The AFL got its first big name, when they were able to sign Billy Cannon from LSU. Cannon, the 1959 Heisman Trophy winner signed with the Houston Oilers for $100,000.00 after initially signing a contract to play for the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. The contract with the Rams was for $50,000.00. Houston would file a lawsuit claiming that Los Angeles general manager Pete Rozelle had unduly manipulated Cannon. The court upheld the Oilers contract, and with Cannon, Houston would appear in the AFL’s first three championship games, winning two. The league also tried to sign Gale Sayers. Ultimately, he would end up in Chicago with the Bears.

There were some moments of trepidation regarding some of the charter members. The Raiders had been playing in the San Francisco Bay area and were struggling with attendance in the area of 9,600 paid admission. The franchise would lose $500,000.00 until Bills owner Ralph Wilson floated them a loan for $400,000.00 to keep them solvent. This would eventually force a move from San Francisco to Oakland. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Chargers would make a move south to San Diego. 

Trouble was also brewing in New York as the Titans had only a bit more luck than what was happening with the Raiders. Owner Harry Wilmer was unable to make payroll expenses forcing the league to step in and take over ownership. The Titans would eventually be sold to a five-person ownership group headed by Sonny Werblin on March 28, 1963. In April of that year, the new owners changed the team’s name to the New York Jets. Also in that same year, the Dallas Texans would relocate to Kansas City and on May 26th, the Texans would become the Chiefs. The move from Dallas was due to the fact that the Cowboys, who has been given a franchise by the NFL in 1960. Not wanting to develop a profit issue with two teams in the same city, the move became necessary.

Recognizing a good thing when they saw one, the AFL and ABC would sign a TV deal worth $2.125 million per year over five seasons for the entire league beginning in 1964. A deal with NBC valued at $36 million would begin at the start of the 1965 season. This would bring much needed revenue to the maverick league as they went after and were able to compete for NFL players. Steelers legendary owner Art Rooney was quoted as saying to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle after receiving the news of the AFL’s new TV deal that, “They don’t have to call us ‘Mister’ anymore”.

The single biggest moment in the history of the AFL, came when the New York Jets and the St. Louis Cardinals would both draft a quarterback from Alabama. On January 2nd, 1965 Namath signed a deal to play for the Jets with a contract worth $427,000.00 plus a new car. At the time it was the highest amount of money ever paid to a college football player, and is cited as a significant contributing factor to the eventual merger between both leagues. 

Early in 1965, Atlanta would turn down an opportunity to join the AFL. Instead, the Falcons would begin play in the NFL in 1966. Miami mayor Robert King High was looking to bring a professional football team to the Miami area. The AFL would expand at a meeting held on June 7th, and on August 16th the AFL’s ninth franchise was officially awarded to Joe Robbie and television star Danny Thomas. The Miami Dolphins joined the league for a fee of $7.5 million and started play in the AFL’s Eastern Division in 1966. The American Football League would add its tenth and final team on May 24, 1967, when it awarded the league’s second expansion franchise to Paul Brown and an ownership group from Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Brown had intended to join the NFL, he agreed to join the AFL when he learned that his team would be included in the NFL once the merger was completed. The Cincinnati Bengals would begin play for the 1968 season, finishing last in the Western Division.

The league had a great product on the field. However, many had doubts that the AFL could even win a football game against the established NFL. On January 15th, 1967 that question was answered. 

The Green Bay Packers and the Kansas City Chiefs would square-off in Los Angeles, CA for what was then called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game”. In later years, this game would be referenced as Super Bowl I. The final was 35-10 with the takeaway being that the AFL was an inferior league. One year later, the AFL-NFL Championship Game would go very similarly to what happened the previous time the two leagues played. This time, the Packers would dismantle the Oakland Raiders 33-14. 

A Merger For The Ages

Finally, the AFL would break through, putting to bed the perception they were an inferior league. On January 9th, 1969 in the Orange Bowl, the signature star for the AFL Joe Namath, would lead the New York Jets to a win in Super Bowls III against the heavily favored Baltimore Colts 16-7. Namath had called his shot earlier in the week when he made a bold statement saying, “We’re going to win Sunday, I’ll guarantee you.” To this day, it is considered one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. The two leagues would officially merge by 1970, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would remain as commissioner.

Before the beginning of the 1970 season, the AFL played its last game as a league. In the Houston Astrodome the Western All-Stars, led by San Diego Chargers quarterback John Hadl, defeated the Eastern All-Stars, 26–3. A rookie running back from USC now playing for the Buffalo Bill named O. J. Simpson carried the ball for the last play in AFL history. Hadl would be named the game’s MVP.

Finally, Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams would get their teams in the NFL. Refused in 1959, they were now a part of the establishment in 1970. For their part, their venture has done well post merger. The American Football League has won three combined Super Bowls with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders. In Denver, the Broncos have won another three. The Kansas City Chiefs have been to four Super Bowls winning two. The Houston Oilers never went to a Super Bowl, but did get there when the Titans lost to the St. Louis Rams. The Cincinnati Bengals are 0-3 on Super Sunday, but look to be a team who will have their shot to lift a Lombardi Trophy sooner rather than later. Buffalo went to four, losing each appearance, but like the Bengals, the future is very bright. The Miami Dolphins were a dominant team shortly after the merger. They would win five conference titles and two Super Bowls, including having a perfect season in 1972.

The San Diego Chargers got to one Super Bowl but would lose their one appearance. The Charter team, Boston/New England Patriots have lifted the Lombardi Trophy six times, losing five others. Their 11 Super Bowls appearances show that the American Football League was finally a league and conference, not just capable of competing with the NFL, but ultimately beating them at their own game. 

The “Foolish Club” had a dream and realized it. The idea that they could build a league to rival the NFL was realized when the best Super Bowl the AFL ever won was Super Bowl III. When the New York Jets beat a blue blood, Baltimore Colts. They are inferior no more. 

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