1970 AFL-NFL Merger
The AFL-NFL Merger of 1970 involved the merger of the two major
professional American football leagues in the United States during the
time: the National Football League (NFL) and the American
Football League (AFL). It came as a result of an intense competitive
war between the two leagues. The merger paved the way for the combined
league to become the most popular and most powerful sports league in
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, including:
- Crowds at many AAFC games were generally larger than those at NFL
- The AAFC actively recruited black players, forcing the NFL to change
its "no blacks" policy which it had reverted in 1932
- The AAFC's perennial champions, the Cleveland Browns, were
considered by many to be the best team in professional football during
However, due to the AAFC's poor financial situation, it was eventually
absorbed into the NFL in 1950.
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,
Buffalo, New York, Houston, Dallas, Denver, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
The AFL immediately took advantage of the NFL's shortcomings. The NFL
had settled into to a methodical, grind-it-out brand of football,
influenced by legendary but hide-bound founders such as George Halas, who
were still coaching and administrating teams as they had in the 1920s.
Though they had opened the door a crack to black players, they maintained
an unwritten quota system, and 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 a valuable source of talent was largely ignored by
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' 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, 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
- Official time on the scoreboard clock
- Players' names on jerseys
- Network television broadcasting league games, first on ABC and later
- The sharing of gate and television revenues by home and visiting
The NFL had none of these features before the American Football League
came into being. Additionally, the AFL played a more exciting, wide-open
game, with long passes and reverses; and it promulgated colorful uniforms
and team logos.
War between the two leagues
Unlike the NFL's previous rivals, the AFL was able to survive and grow.
After the AFL's Dallas team moved to Kansas City, it started to prosper.
The New York team began to draw record crowds, aided by the signing of
Namath. And by 1965, NBC paid the AFL $36 million to televise its games,
insuring 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. But still, once they were signed, there was tacit
agreement to honor the other league's contracts.
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 signed
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
The merger agreement
The intense rivalry led to serious merger talks between the two
leagues. And by June 8, 1966, they announced a merger agreement. Under the
- 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 (it actually took until 1976).
- 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.
- Both leagues would now hold a "common draft" of
- While maintaining separate schedules through 1969, the leagues
agreed to play an annual AFL-NFL World Championship Game beginning in
January, 1967 (which would eventually be known as the Super Bowl).
- The two leagues would officially merge in 1970 to form one league
with two conferences. The merged league would still be known as the
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
- Rozelle promised that if the merger was allowed, no existing
professional football franchise of either league would be moved from
- Stadiums seating 50,000 were declared to be adequate for
professional football's needs.
Eventually, Congress passed the new law to permit the merger to
As 1970 approached, three NFL teams, the Baltimore Colts, the Cleveland
Browns, and the Pittsburgh Steelers, agreed to join the AFL teams to form
the American Football Conference (AFC). The other NFL teams became part of
the National Football Conference (NFC). However, the teams' owners had
trouble deciding which teams went into which divisions. It was settled
after various combinations were drawn up on slips of paper, put into a
hat, and the official alignment was pulled out by Rozelle's secretary.
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 NFC games, NBC agreed to broadcast all AFC games,
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 very small minority believe that had Al
Davis been given the opportunity to continue his efforts, the NFL would
have folded, or capitulated to join the AFL, rather than the AFL losing
its identity. That action was bitter for thousands of American Football
League fans who 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 (Jets) and 1969 (Chiefs) seasons.
Despite Rozelle's pledge to the 89th United States Congress, several
teams have moved since the merger, from a few miles, to hundreds of miles
and across several states: New York Giants, New York Jets, Buffalo Bills,
Baltimore Colts, Oakland Raiders (twice), St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles
Rams, Cleveland Browns, Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans (twice) and
Boston/New England Patriots. Those teams moved to new stadiums built to
attract them, paid for by public funds, except for the Patriots' new
stadium. In addition, the following areas have used public funds to build
new stadiums to keep or regain franchises: Kansas City, St. Louis,
Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Minnesota, Houston, Pittsburgh,
Philadelphia, Washington, DC, and Chicago.
Nevertheless, the result of the merger paved the way for a new era of
prosperity for the NFL. Since 1970,
the NFL has only been challenged twice. The WFL of
1974-75 and the USFL
of 1983-1985. Both rival leagues were trounced long before talk of
merger could be taken seriously.