The AFL-NFL merger of 1970 was the merger of the two major professional American football leagues in the United States at the time: the National Football League and the American Football League). It came as a result of an intensely competitive war between the two leagues. The merger paved the way for the combined league, which retained the "National Football League" name and logo, to become one of the most popular and powerful sports leagues in the world. This event is often referred to as the beginning of the modern era of professional American football.
After its inception in 1920, the NFL fended off several rival leagues. Prior to 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 the best team in professional football during that time. However, due to the AAFC's poor financial situation, it disbanded after the 1949 season. Three of its teams, the original version of the Baltimore Colts (who folded following the 1950 season), plus the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers, 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.
Emergence of the AFL
After the NFL absorbed the AAFC, it went unchallenged by rival leagues until 1960. Lamar Hunt, son of oil millionaire H. L. Hunt, rebuffed in his attempts to gain at least part-ownership in an NFL team, conceived the idea of a rival professional football league, the American Football League. The league established teams in eight American cities: Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, New York Titans, Houston Oilers, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and Los Angeles Chargers. Though they had allowed a few black players to play, the NFL maintained an unwritten quota system, and had ignored the plethora of small colleges which had sprung forth to accommodate the rush of "GI Bill" students after World War II. Many of these small colleges were predominantly black, so many valuable football talents were largely ignored by the NFL. The AFL signed stars from small colleges, 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's 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 misevaluated, including Jack Kemp, Babe Parilli, Ron McDole, Art Powell, John Tracey, George Blanda, Don Maynard, and Len Dawson. The AFL instituted many policies and rules that today are considered an integral part of professional football:
- The two-point conversion (conforming to the college rule)
- Official time on the scoreboard clock
- Players' names on jerseys
- One network television broadcast package for league games, first on ABC and later with NBC
- The sharing of gate and television revenues by home and visiting teams.
The NFL had none of these features before the American Football League came into being. Additionally, the AFL played a more wide-open game, with long passes and reverses; and it promulgated colorful uniforms, team logos and playing field decoration.
War between the two leagues
At first, the NFL ignored the AFL and its eight teams. They assumed the AFL would consist of nothing but "NFL rejects," and fans would not waste their time watching them when they could watch "the real thing." But unlike the NFL's previous rivals, the AFL was able to survive and grow. After the AFL's Los Angeles team moved to San Diego (in 1961) and the Dallas team moved to Kansas City (in 1963), the league started to prosper. The New York team (rechristened the Jets) began to draw record crowds, aided by the signing of quarterback Joe Namath. Namath and New York agreed to a $427,000 contract, something completely unprecedented at the time. And by 1965, NBC paid the AFL $36 million to televise its games, ensuring the league's financial survival. As the rivalry between the leagues intensified, both leagues resorted to "dirty tricks" to sign players, and to "baby-sit" prospective draft picks to keep them away from the other league's representatives. The leagues entered into a massive bidding war over the top college prospects, paying huge amounts of money to unproven rookies in a desperate attempt to outbid each other for the best players coming out of college. Because of the intense competition, teams often drafted players that they thought had a good chance of signing with them instead of selecting the best players. For example, 1965 Heisman Trophy winning running back Mike Garrett was expected to sign with an NFL team, so no AFL team picked him in the 1966 AFL Draft until the 20th (final) round, where he was selected by the Kansas City Chiefs. However, Garrett surprisingly shunned the NFL and decided to sign with Kansas City. But still, once they were signed, there was tacit agreement to honor the other league's contracts and not sign players who were under contract with a team in their rival league. But that tacit agreement was shattered in early 1966, when the NFL New York Giants signed Pete Gogolak, the first professional soccer-style placekicker, who was already under contract and playing with the AFL's Buffalo Bills. That breach of trust by the NFL loosed the "dogs of war." When Al Davis of the Oakland Raiders took over as AFL Commissioner, he began stepping up the bidding war, immediately signing eight starting NFL quarterbacks, including John Brodie and Roman Gabriel, to contracts with AFL teams. Meanwhile, both leagues spent a combined $7 million signing their 1966 draft picks.
The merger agreement
The intense rivalry led to serious merger talks between the two leagues. By June 8, 1966, they announced a merger agreement. Under the agreement: The two leagues would combine to form an expanded league with 24 teams, which would be increased to 26 teams by 1969, and to 28 teams by 1970 or soon thereafter. All existing teams would be retained, and none of them would be moved outside of their metropolitan areas. AFL "indemnities" would be paid to NFL teams which shared markets with AFL teams. Specifically, the New York Giants would receive payments from the New York Jets, and the San Francisco 49ers would get money from the Oakland Raiders. Both leagues would now hold a "common draft" of college players, effectively ending the bidding war between the 2 leagues over the top college prospects. While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the leagues agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game, matching the championship teams of each league, beginning in January 1967. (This game would later be rechristened the Super Bowl.) The two leagues would officially merge in 1970 to form one league with two conferences. The merged league would be known as the National Football League. The history and records of the AFL would be incorporated into the older league, but its name and logo would be retired. The features of the merger depended on the passage of a law by the 89th United States Congress, exempting the merged league from antitrust law sanctions. When NFL commissioner Pete 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: Rozelle promised that if the merger was allowed, no existing professional football franchise of either league would be moved from any city Stadiums seating less than 50,000 were declared to be inadequate for professional football's needs (thus compelling the Chicago Bears to move out of Wrigley Field, for example). Eventually, Congress passed the new law to permit the merger to proceed. As 1970 approached, three NFL teams (Baltimore Colts, Cleveland Browns, and Pittsburgh Steelers), agreed to join the ten AFL teams (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. As of Super Bowl XLI, former AFL teams have won 12 Super Bowls, pre-1970 NFL teams have won 28, and one game was won by a team created after 1970 (Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII). Although the AFC teams quickly decided on a divisional alignment, the 13 NFC owners had trouble deciding which teams would play in which divisions. It was settled after various combinations were drawn up on slips of paper, put into a hat, and the official NFC alignment was pulled out by Rozelle's secretary. Of the five plans put into the hat, only the one that was drawn had Minnesota playing in the NFC Central Division. 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.
Many observers believe that the NFL got the better of the bargain. 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.'
A few devoted AFL fans held the belief that had Al Davis been given the opportunity to continue his efforts, the NFL would have been compelled to offer much more favorable terms to its rival, perhaps even accepting a permanent baseball-style "two league system" where the AFL could retain its unique rules and identity. Some have even suggested that Davis could have led the newer league to a position of dominance over the NFL, or even cause the older league to fold outright. However, most observers consider those scenarios far-fetched since the NFL had a far richer television contract at the time of the merger, in large part due to market exclusivity in such leading population centers as Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, Washington and Baltimore, while the AFL had teams in cities that were not among the nations leading media markets, including cities such as Miami, Buffalo and Denver, which had no other major league teams, and Kansas City which 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. The old-guard NFL at first dominated the merged league, winning the great majority of games pitting old NFL teams versus old AFL teams in 1970 and, to a lesser extent, in 1971. Furthermore, the old guard NFL had five of the eight playoff berths and both Super Bowl berths following the 1970 season, and six of the eight playoff berths following the 1971 and 1972 seasons. Eventually, the AFC teams caught and passed the NFC during the mid- to late-1970s. Even then, NFL proponents claimed that the three NFL teams that joined the AFL to form the AFC were largely the reason. While the Colts and Browns were respectable playoff contenders during this period, AFL fans especially hated the Steelers because of the team's dominance throughout the league, winning four Super Bowls in a six year span. (Ironically, before the merger, the Steelers had long been one of the NFL's worst teams, and in fact had a 1-13 record in 1969, tied with the Chicago Bears for the worst record between both leagues.) With a few notable exceptions such as the Raiders and Dolphins, this essentially made the AFC dominated by an "old NFL" team instead of an AFL team. Nevertheless, 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 and the United States Football League (USFL) have never been a serious challenge to the NFL, folding after one and three seasons, respectively.