NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The merger of the National Football League with the American Football League ended a costly rivalry and created a sports and entertainment colossus.

Summary of Event

On June 8, 1966, National Football League (NFL) Commissioner Pete Rozelle called a press conference to announce one of the most significant developments in the history of professional sports—the merger of the NFL and the rival American Football League (AFL). The merger, which was consummated in 1970, ended years of mutually harmful competition over fans, players, and revenues and allowed the league to develop into one of the most popular and profitable in professional sports. Football;professional National Football League American Football League National Football League-American Football League merger[National Football League American Football League merger] [kw]NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant (June 8, 1966)[NFL AFL Merger Creates a Sports Industry Giant] [kw]Sports-Industry Giant, NFL-AFL Merger Creates a (June 8, 1966)[Sports Industry Giant, NFL AFL Merger Creates a] [kw]Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant, NFL-AFL (June 8, 1966) Football;professional National Football League American Football League National Football League-American Football League merger[National Football League American Football League merger] [g]North America;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] [g]United States;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] [c]Sports;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] [c]Business and labor;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] [c]Popular culture;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] [c]Organizations and institutions;June 8, 1966: NFL-AFL Merger Creates a Sports-Industry Giant[08910] Rozelle, Pete Hunt, Lamar Schramm, Tex Halas, George

Organized football was first played in the United States almost one hundred years prior to Rozelle’s announcement, when students from Princeton University in New Jersey traveled upstate to Rutgers University on an autumn afternoon in 1869. The game had been evolving as a combination of soccer and rugby, but it was so unregulated and violent at first that the sport’s followers were few. Within a few years, however, other universities and local clubs began to field teams of their own, and the sport soon gained a passionate blue-collar following. In 1895, the game was first played with paid players when a team from Latrobe, Pennsylvania, hosted a game with a team from nearby Jeannette.

Nevertheless, professional football in America was still on shaky ground, as a lack of money caused team after team to switch towns or disband. The need for some kind of organization for the professional game was obvious, and on September 17, 1920, representatives from seventeen teams gathered in a Canton, Ohio, automobile showroom to found the American Professional Football Association. One year later, the association became the National Football League, and with the renowned Jim Thorpe Thorpe, Jim serving as honorary president, the league quickly grew to twenty teams in 1923. By this time, professional football had already begun to establish itself as a major form of entertainment, and team owners and promoters tried to capitalize on this by packing up their teams for national tours featuring their star players.

The NFL grew slowly, with many teams failing and many more changing cities and owners, but fan interest in the sport increased every year. Fan interest eventually grew strong enough that several alternative professional football leagues were established to compete with the NFL. The first competitor, the original American Football League, was founded in 1926 and featured the legendary Red Grange, but the new league was unable to last beyond the first season.

Two more attempts to get the league going were made in 1936 and 1941, but neither effort had much more success in the face of the NFL’s relatively well-established fan base and larger size. The All-American Football Conference (AAFC), founded in 1946 and dominated by Paul Brown Brown, Paul and his Cleveland Browns Cleveland Browns , lasted through four seasons, though it also managed to lose a total of $11.5 million over that same period. The AAFC, however, was successful enough to force a partial merger with the NFL; three of the league’s franchises—the Browns, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Baltimore Colts— were taken in by the NFL, while the four remaining AAFC franchises went out of business. Finally, in 1959, Lamar Hunt, recently rebuffed in his attempt to buy the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals, met with broadcaster Harry Wisner Wisner, Harry and several others to discuss forming yet another competitor to the NFL.

The creators of the new American Football League held their first official meeting on August 14, 1959, in Dallas, Texas, with Joe Foss Foss, Joe (a former governor of South Dakota and a World War II hero) serving as the league’s first commissioner. The eight-team league initially had only two clear plans: It would print the names of AFL players on the backs of their jerseys, and it would actively pursue television []Television;sports broadcasts contracts. Indeed, television proved to be the difference in fostering the development of the latest NFL competitor; television exposure could generate additional fan interest, while the money from network contracts could provide each team with the cash needed to attract top players to the fledgling league.

Despite active searching by the new league, the American Broadcasting Company []American Broadcasting Company (ABC) was the only network initially interested. Moreover, ABC was able to discuss a possible deal only as a result of the Gillette []Gillette Company Company’s recent move of its $8 million advertising contract to the network in 1959. Gillette, whose radio and television advertising []Television;advertising had helped boost its share of the U.S. razor-blade market to more than 60 percent in 1959—up from 16 percent in the 1930’s—moved its money to ABC primarily to sponsor boxing coverage. The extra money, however, enabled ABC to take a chance on the new football league. On June 9, 1960, ABC and the AFL announced an $8.5-million, five-year contract for coverage of the games.

At the same time, the NFL was watching its revenues decline and the number of teams in the league drop to thirteen from a high of twenty-two. In order to deal with the situation, the owners gathered to elect a new commissioner. After some twenty-six deadlocked votes, they eventually named Rozelle to the post. Rozelle, a former public-relations manager for the Los Angeles Rams, immediately set to work obtaining a new league-wide television contract. On January 10, 1962, Rozelle signed the NFL’s first national television contract, giving the Columbia Broadcasting System Columbia Broadcasting System;sports programming (CBS) the rights to NFL games for the 1962 and 1963 seasons for $4.65 million—or about $350,000 for each team.

From its inception, the AFL fostered a more exciting brand of football, featuring flashy, pass-oriented offenses. In addition, the new league was happy to show fights on television and installed the two-point conversion rule in order to bring even more drama to close games. The AFL’s style quickly attracted interest, and it was not long before the AFL and NFL were competing fiercely for fans, players, and television contracts. In 1964, the NFL signed a new $27.2-million pact with CBS, and a disappointed National Broadcasting Company National Broadcasting Company;sports (NBC), not wanting to miss out on professional football entirely, immediately signed on with the AFL.

The NBC contract worked out to about $850,000 annually per team, which compared nicely with the $1 million a year that the NFL teams received. The money allowed the AFL to be even more competitive in going after top college players. The competition became so intense that the two leagues spent a combined $7 million to sign their draft choices in 1966. At first, a gentleman’s agreement prevented the two leagues from pursuing each other’s veteran players, but by 1966, militant factions had pushed the NFL and the AFL to the brink of all-out war. Al Davis Davis, Al , the new commissioner of the AFL, went so far as to form a league fund to attract NFL players.

Although only one veteran player actually jumped leagues, the potential costs of a bidding war were clear to owners on both sides. Consequently, when powerful owners Tex Schramm of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys and Lamar Hunt of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs ran into each other in the Dallas airport in April of 1966, they retired to Schramm’s limousine, discussed the struggle between the leagues, and finally reached a tentative agreement to merge.

On June 8, 1966, after several secret bargaining sessions over the structure and parity of a merged football league, the deal was announced by Rozelle, stunning the sports world. The two leagues would merge in stages to form two separate conferences, the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC), with a common draft and a league championship. The AFL paid an $18.5-million special indemnity to the NFL, and three NFL teams agreed to switch to the AFC, bringing the two leagues into parity both on the television screen and on the football field. On October 21, 1966, the U.S. Congress passed special legislation exempting the agreement from antitrust laws, and the merger was declared effective.

Significance

The merger of the NFL and the AFL, though it was not completed until combined scheduling arrived in 1970, immediately and effectively eliminated the destructive economic competition in which the two leagues had become involved. The professional competition between the leagues remained and even became fiercer, but the merger also freed team owners from the problems of economic competition and left them with a virtual monopoly in each respective city.

Professional football players, however, were not as pleased with the merger, which severely restricted their prospects for salary growth. With no competing league to escape to and with the “Rozelle Rule” (which required teams that hired away a free-agent player to compensate the player’s original team with a high draft choice or top players) in effect, NFL players were effectively tied to the same teams for the majority of their careers. Such a situation perhaps benefited the league as a whole, since stable player rosters helped build and maintain fan loyalty and since the league was spared costly trades and player shuffling, but it kept player salaries down and led to an eventual breakdown in player-management relations. Over the course of the 1970’s and 1980’s, it became clear that the merger had helped owners to hold down salaries for many years. Although the rise of the World Football League in the 1970’s and the United States Football League in the 1980’s provided brief periods of competition for the NFL, both rival leagues went out of business within a few seasons.

Another important consequence of the merger was its effect on the relationship between professional football and television. Television and football virtually grew up together. In a little more than twenty-five years, television helped change football from a barely respectable blue-collar sport into a major form of entertainment, while football at the same time helped television to reach enormous numbers of fans. By the 1970’s, the NFL had become the first major professional league to derive a majority of its income from television. A 1978 contract provided each team with $5 million a season, and a 1982 deal gave each team $15 million a year for five years.

With the ability of television to provide the entire nation with a look at the latest star running back, fan interest—and, consequently, advertising money—grew even further. With no other football league to compete with the NFL on Sundays, the league and its individual teams prospered greatly, teaming with television to sell cars, razor blades, insurance policies, and myriad additional products and services.

Professional football and television became such a lucrative combination that eventually ABC, unwilling to be left completely out of the professional football picture, reached an agreement with Rozelle to broadcast Monday night games beginning in 1970. The deal was a huge success for both parties and provided clear proof of professional football’s popularity.

A final element of the merger that had far-reaching implications (and that was almost an afterthought in the merger negotiations) was the creation of a new league championship Super Bowl competition at the end of each season. Initially called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, the contest, quickly dubbed the “Super Bowl,” was the first major sporting event created and staged with television viewers as the primary audience. This became immediately clear during the first Super Bowl on January 15, 1967, when the second-half kickoff had to be repeated because one of the two networks covering the event had been in commercial. The game consistently set new audience records, with nearly half of the television sets in America tuned in, and it quickly turned into a media extravaganza marked by weeks of buildup, scores of interviews, and innumerable feature stories.

As the popularity of the game increased, Super Bowl advertisements became more and more valuable. The cost of a thirty-second Super Bowl commercial skyrocketed from $90,000 in 1973 to more than $1 million. With such revenues, the networks could use the latest technologies during the game, such as the instant replay, the reverse-angle camera, and the “telestrator,” a chalkboard-type device that could show motion in diagrams of plays. Some of the new technologies premiered during Super Bowl broadcasts. These innovations made games even more interesting to watch, thus attracting even more viewers and advertising dollars. Football;professional National Football League American Football League National Football League-American Football League merger[National Football League American Football League merger]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brock, Ted, and Larry Eldridge, Jr. Twenty-five Years: The NFL Since 1960. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985. Provides a general overview of the modern NFL, with interesting sections on famous moments and players in the game. The closing chapter contains humorous quotations concerning the game.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coenen, Craig R. From Sandlots to the Super Bowl: The National Football League, 1920-1967. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Comprehensive, scholarly study of the first forty-seven years of NFL history, including the NFL’s war with the AFL and the eventual merger of the two leagues. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, David. The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL. Toronto, Ont.: Bantam Books, 1986. Detailed history of the NFL.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neft, David S., and Richard M. Cohen. The Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of Professional Football, from 1892 to the Present. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Contains extensive statistics and team listings. Useful as a reference source.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Patton, Phil. Razzle Dazzle: The Curious Marriage of Television and Professional Football. Garden City, N.Y.: Dial Press, 1984. Interesting, easy-to-read chronicle of television, football, and the people involved in the development of the two enterprises.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rathet, Mike. The Rutledge Book of Football. New York: Rutledge Press, 1981. Has a good opening chapter on the early days of football and the establishment of the NFL.

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