On this date 45 years ago, the AFL and NFL announced plans to merge. Several Buffalo Bills players and front office executives played key roles in the merger. The move would change professional football forever.
The NFL began play in 1920 and quickly became the top pro football league in the country. While many leagues would try to compete, most notably the AAFC (which was home to the original Buffalo Bills franchise), none were able to succeed. (Three AAFC teams joined the NFL when the former disbanded in 1949 - the San Francisco 49ers, Baltimore Colts, and Cleveland Browns.)
The AFL began fielding teams in 1960, and became an instant competitor of the NFL. Many of the owners had a personal grievance with the NFL, as they had been rebuffed in their attempts to purchase or found NFL franchises.The AFL explored avenues previously ignored by the NFL and gained a considerable amount of talent on the field, which helped them compete. The NFL thought the AFL would be composed of inferior talent and would not gain popularity due to their lackluster product. They were wrong.
Many draft picks who were selected by both leagues spurned the NFL for the AFL. Joe Namath was the biggest name and he signed a huge contract to join the AFL's Jets instead of the NFL's Cardinals. When top rookie talent began choosing the AFL the two leagues began standing on equal footing on the field.
Off the field, the league had to remain financially viable and Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson had a lot to do with the AFL's survival. He was a guiding force in AFL policies that ensured the success of every team, such as gate and television revenue sharing. In 1961, with the rival Oakland Raiders in financial difficulty, Wilson loaned the club $400,000. Wilson helped keep the franchise afloat, likely saving the entire league from folding.
Wilson also negotiated the AFL's first television deal to broadcast all the AFL games on local ABC affiliates. In 1965, the AFL signed a lucrative $36M contract with NBC, ensuring media coverage and money for the entire league to sustain operations. Overcoming these financial hurdles allowed the AFL to survive where the AAFC had floundered.
In January of 1965, Wilson and Carroll Rosenbloom, then owner of the NFL’s Baltimore Colts, began initial discussions on a merger plan between the two leagues but there wasn't a strong desire from either side to merge.
While there was stiff competition in signing college draft picks, the NFL and AFL still had an unwritten agreement not to poach players from each others rosters. That, both leagues assumed, would drive up the cost of doing business. But in 1966 the New York Giants were desperate for a kicker. They ignored the gentlemen's agreement and signed Bills kicker Pete Gogolak in May, setting off a bidding firestorm with Al Davis going after NFL players. In all, eight starting NFL quarterbacks were signed by AFL teams between May 17th and June 7th.
"The AFL started calling NFL players and the war started, and basically a few months later the two leagues merged," Gogolak told me in May. "So maybe I started something. I not only started the soccer-style kick, but maybe I started the merger."
The merger was the ultimate outcome. The first joint event was the game later referred to as the Super Bowl held in January of 1967. The AFL Champion Chiefs lost to the NFL Champion Packers. Later in 1967 the two leagues held a joint draft so teams from different leagues could no longer draft the same player. Beginning in 1970, the two leagues played a combined schedule and no teams were forced to relocate or disband. The joint league also signed major television deals with each of the three networks, ensuring that every game would be televised.
The AFL-NFL merger was the biggest event in the history of professional football and it became official 45 years ago today.