During the 1950’s, the NFL grew more and more popular and eventually achieved relatively equal status with Major League Baseball and college football. Still, the NFL could hardly be called an economic success. Teams still relied on gate receipts as there were no merchandise sales or widespread broadcast rights in the early part of the decade. Bert Bell, NFL Commissioner since 1946, was fully aware of television as an emerging technology. Although intrigued by television, he and the owners were painfully slow to recognize it as a the major revenue source it eventually became. Each team had the ability to enter into broadcast agreements but not all of them did. Bell did end up negotiating a $75,000 deal with the DuMont Television Network for the nationwide broadcast of the 1951 NFL Championship Game. In 1956, he entered into an agreement with CBS to televise some regular season games nationwide.
As a result of its success, several very wealthy businessmen had attempted to persuade the NFL to expand the now popular sport of professional football. One of the few NFL franchises that didn’t share in this newfound success was the Chicago Cardinals owned by the Bidwill family. They needed cash as they could not compete against the growing popularity of the Chicago Bears and began entertaining offers from would be investors.
One of the would be investors was Lamar Hunt, the son and heir of a Texas millionaire oilman. Hunt (along with Bud Adams, Bob Howsam and Max Winter) offered to buy the Cardinals outright and move the team to Dallas but their offer was rejected. They then approached NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, and once again proposed the addition of expansion teams. But Bell was unwilling to risk diluting the success of the NFL and informed Hunt of his decision during a meeting in New York in early 1959.
It was on his return flight to Dallas that Lamar Hunt realized that if there were others willing to invest in professional football and the NFL was unwilling to bring in these investors, then the logical solution was to bring these investors together and start a new professional football league. He began contacting the other businessmen who had been rejected by the NFL and in July, 1959, Lamar Hunt announced the formation of a new professional football league and the American Football League (AFL) was born with franchises awarded to Dallas, Houston, Denver and Minneapolis. Two weeks later, franchises for Los Angeles and New York City were added.
Then, on October 11, 1959 NFL Commissioner, Bert Bell, died of a heart attack while watching the Philadelphia Eagles play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Philadelphia’s Franklin Field. Early in the following year, the NFL owners were stalemated on the selection of a new commissioner to replace Bell. After 23 ballots were taken, the owners finally agreed on a compromise and, in a surprise move, elected the relatively unknown General Manager of the Los Angeles Rams, Pete Rozelle, as Commissioner.
Rozelle is generally regarded as the man who made the NFL what it is today. When he took office, there were twelve teams playing a twelve game schedule with only a handful of teams with television contracts. In essence, the NFL was operating with the same business model it had from the 1930’s. He took notice of the Business Model being used by the fledgling AFL and methodically and ultimately changed the face of the NFL by introducing gate and television revenue sharing.
First, he had to convince the Owners to agree to the new revenue sharing plan. Not all of the owners (namely Carroll Rosenbloom of the Colts and George Preston Marshall of the Redskins) were on board with this but eventually they bought in and the NFL, in essence, became a cartel that, through revenue sharing, financially benefitted all teams equally. The effect of the plan was that small market teams like Green Bay could now remain financially competitive with teams located in the larger (and more lucrative) markets. This economic parity within the league has separated the NFL from other sports – most notably Major League Baseball – where cash strapped teams from smaller market areas have little or no chance to regularly compete on the field against the wealthy clubs like the New York Yankees.
He then quickly negotiated a lucrative television contract with CBS to broadcast each and every game played (subject to local “Blackout” rules). CBS agreed to pay $4.65 million a year for the right to broadcast regular season NFL games through the 1962 and 1963 seasons. Under the revenue sharing plan, that meant that each team would receive $332,000 before the start of the season. As this amount was more than most team’s payroll at that time, it meant that all of the NFL franchises were virtually guaranteed to be profitable before they even played a game. It took Rozelle less than one year to prove to the owners that his new Television based business model was a success.
Now, he had to convince the United States Congress. All the while Rozelle was negotiating with CBS, there was a concurrent lawsuit filed resulting in a court decision that ruled that the NFL, by centrally negotiating the television rights for all teams, had violated Anti-Trust Laws. The court had ruled that the “pooling” of rights by all the teams to arrive at an exclusive contract between the NFL and CBS was illegal. However, in the end, Congress sided with the NFL and the “Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961” was passed effectively granting the NFL (among others) an Anti-Trust Law exemption.
Even at the onset, the NFL was fully aware of the new AFL. Perhaps using lessons learned from dealing with the old AAFC, the NFL moved quickly to expand into the AFL’s market areas. In 1960, the Dallas Cowboys entered the NFL with the transparent purpose to do combat in the AFL’s Dallas Texans’ home market. The NFL also moved to further weaken the AFL by luring Minneapolis (one of its charter members) to join the NFL rather than the AFL. The Minnesota Vikings would begin play in the NFL in the 1961 season with Norm Van Brocklin as their Head Coach.
Because of the defection of Minnesota to the NFL, the AFL needed to replace them. Los Angeles Chargers owner, Barron Hilton, demanded that this replacement team be placed in California to lower his team’s operating costs and to create an in-state rival. As such, the Oakland Raiders officially joined the AFL on January 30, 1960. Buffalo and Boston would soon be awarded franchises and the AFL began its inaugural season in the fall of 1960 with a lucrative TV contract of its own with ABC.
The battle lines had been drawn. The NFL and the AFL faced off for the 1960 season with thirteen teams and eight teams respectively. The Cardinals, unable to raise the needed cash to compete in Chicago, relocated to St. Louis and the Dallas Cowboys were added as an expansion team in the NFL Western Conference.
NFL Eastern Conference;
Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Steelers & Washington Redskins
NFL Western Conference;
Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams & Dallas Cowboys
AFL Eastern Division
Houston Oilers, New York Titans, Buffalo Bills & Boston Patriots
AFL Western Division
Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Texans, Oakland Raiders & Denver Broncos
The following year, 1961, the Minnesota Vikings started play, were placed in the NFL Western Conference and the Dallas Cowboys moved the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the AFL’s Los Angeles Chargers relocated to San Diego. The NFL stayed the course over the next four years with these fourteen teams. The AFL, however, was still posturing itself for success.
Even though Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans had won the 1962 AFL Championship and were a relative financial success, he recognized that league itself would be better off without the direct head to head battles for market share in the smaller cities and decided to move his franchise where they took the field in 1963 as the Kansas City Chiefs.
Also in 1963, the AFL bought back the New York Titans franchise and then sold it to an ownership group headed up by Sonny Werblin. Werblin then renamed the team the New York Jets and then proceeded to take on their cross town competition, the New York Giants, head on. The AFL was not about to abandon the nation’s largest market without a fight.
For the most part, both the NFL and AFL franchises financially held their own thanks to the new found television revenue. On the field, the two leagues couldn’t be more different. The NFL continued to play its tried and true brand of football. Stingy defense combined with a crushing running game and an occasional pass to keep the opposing defenses honest. The AFL, however, was a brand new style of fast and wide open play and pageantry unlike anything before it. And the fans ate it up.
But the real war wasn’t being fought on the field. Rather, it was being fought in the front offices across both leagues. The axiom that talent draws fans was the battle cry and both leagues went after the available talent in a big way. Paving the way for the AFL was a new TV deal with NBC. It was a five year, $36 million contract beginning with the 1965 season.
From its inception, the AFL held a separate draft from the NFL and both leagues competed fiercely for each group of college players turning pro. The AFL-NFL war reached its peak in 1966, as the two leagues spent a combined $7 million to sign their draft choices. Of the 111 players drafted by both leagues, 79 signed with the NFL, 28 with the AFL, and 4 went unsigned. The shenanigans employed by both leagues included the infamous “Hide the Player” strategy where a team from one league who wanted to sign one of their draft choices that had also been drafted by a team from the other league, would literally sequester that player so he couldn’t be reached.
Up to this point in time, both leagues had a tacit agreement not to pilfer players already on a roster from the other league. Then in May of 1966, after informal merger talks had begun to make modest progress, New York Giants owner Wellington Mara signed Buffalo Bills’ kicker Pete Gogolak (who had played out his contract) and all hell broke loose. The AFL had put together a “war chest” for just such an occasion and began raiding NFL rosters. They first targeted Quarterbacks Fran Tarkenton, Sonny Jurgensen, John Brodie and Milt Plum and they actually signed Rams QB Roman Gabriel to a contract that would begin in 1967.
By this point, it became apparent by both sides that continuing to do business in this way was not only foolish but could turn fatal and merger talks resumed with a renewed emphasis. Then in June of 1966, the NFL and AFL announced a merger with a common schedule to begin in 1970, a common draft would be in place for 1967 and the AFL and NFL Champions would meet for the overall title beginning in January 1967.
But there was still much work to be done to complete the deal. The AFL already had expansion in mind when it awarded a franchise to Miami for the 1966 season and the NFL had already planned to add Atlanta as an expansion team for that same year. In 1967 the New Orleans Saints would come on stream and in 1968 the Cincinnati Bengals were scheduled to begin play. The addition of these four teams would bring the league to a total of twenty-six teams. But, the NFL had sixteen teams while the AFL had only ten. In order to accommodate a balanced combined schedule, somebody had to move. Three “Old Line” teams, the Baltimore Colts, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns each agreed to move to what would become the AFC after receiving a $3 million “relocation fee”.
Now that the NFL had 13 teams in both the NFC and the AFC, they were faced with the issue of how to align the teams within the two conferences while maintaining most, if not all, of the historical rivalries. The AFC teams agreed fairly early on the new alignment but the NFC teams were all trying to avoid being placed in the same division as the Cowboys and/or Vikings (two of the strongest team in the conference at that time). At the same time, they wanted to be placed in the same division as the New Orleans Saints (the weakest team in the conference at that time). The Rams and the 49ers were guaranteed to be placed in the same division as they were the only teams in the NFL west of the Rocky Mountains. Eventually, five different alignment proposals were reduced to paper and placed in a hat. Pete Rozelle’s secretary drew one piece of paper from the hat and that proposed alignment became reality. The 1970 NFL team alignment drawn from that hat is as follows;
East – Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, St. Louis Cardinals & Washington Redskins
Central – Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers & Minnesota Vikings
West – Atlanta Falcons, Los Angeles Rams, New Orleans Saints & San Francisco 49ers
East – Baltimore Colts, Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins & New York Jets
Central – Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Houston Oilers & Pittsburgh Steelers
West – Denver Broncos, Kansas City Chiefs, Oakland Raiders & San Diego Chargers
Between 1970 and now, six more teams and two more divisions would be added. In addition, six teams would relocate (one of them twice).
With the exception of the league re-alignment in 2002 where each conference ends up with four divisions, that pretty well sums up how the NFL got to the alignment it has today. However, there is one more event that shaped the NFL worth discussing.
On April 15, 1972 – Los Angeles Rams owner Daniel F. Reeves passed away and his estate put the Rams franchise up for sale. The winning bid, tendered by Robert Irsay, was $2 million higher than the one tendered by future NFL owner Hugh Culverhouse and was accepted by the estate on July 26th. On that very same day, Robert Irsay and Carroll Rosenbloom traded franchises. Carroll Rosenbloom was now the owner of the Los Angeles Rams and Robert Irsay the owner of the Baltimore Colts. It marked only the second time in NFL history that two currently existing franchises were traded (the first being the Art Rooney / Alexis Thompson trade of the Steelers and Eagles in 1940) and the effects were far reaching.
In the first twelve years that Irsay owned the Colts, they posted an overall record of 68-104-1 and (among other things) prompted his move of the franchise from Baltimore to Indianapolis. During that same time frame, Rosenbloom continued the winning ways he had with the Colts and his Rams went 109-60-2.
Prior to his untimely death in 1979, Rosenbloom had entered into a deal to leave the Los Angeles Coliseum and move to Anaheim. With Rosenbloom’s widow, Georgia Frontiere, assuming ownership of the Rams and the Coliseum available, Al Davis set his sights on the L.A. market for the Raiders and then fought multiple, bitter lawsuits to make the move.
In yet another twist of fate, both the Rams and the Raiders abandoned Los Angeles in 1995 with the Raiders returning to Oakland and the Rams relocating to St. Louis (replacing the Cardinals who had moved to Phoenix in 1988).