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The American Football League (AFL) was an American Professional Football league which fielded teams from 1960 69, before the NFL merged with it in 1966, effective in 1970. Present day Pro Football is essentially the American Football League with another name. On field game elements, including the two point conversion, names on players’ jerseys, official time shown on stadium scoreboards (instead of on a stopwatch in the NFL referee’s pocket), and wide open offensive play were all characteristics of the AFL, which the NFL later adopted. At a time when the NFL was just getting past about fifteen years of intentional exclusion of black players, the AFL revolutionized the Pros’ method of stocking teams, by scouting and signing players from small and predominantly black colleges. The first black head scout, the first black starting quarterbacks of the modern era, and the first black middle line backer were to be found in the American Football League. Off the field, national television of all league games, with all teams sharing in the TV revenue, as well as sharing of gate revenue with visiting teams, was initiated by the American Football League. The AFL was the first Pro Football league to have its players “miked” for television, and the first to have more than one announcer in the booth, and several moving sideline cameras at field level, as opposed to the NFL’s single camera fixed at the fifty yard line.

In 1959, Lamar Hunt was refused when he wanted to buy an existing NFL team, or an expansion team for Dallas. He formed the AFL, and the prevously complacent anti expansion NFL immediately co opted the Minnesota franchise intended for the AFL. Though it had told Hunt it did not want a team in Dallas, it reversed itself and put the Cowboys there with the express purpose of driving out the AFL Texans. It offered Rankin Smith a franchise in Atlanta to lure him from joining the AFL with the Miami franchise, and it gave New Orleans a team when Louisiana congressmen helped push through the merger with the AFL that the NFL accepted when it tired of competing for fans and for star players. Thus, four NFL teams came to be, because of the American Football League. One franchise that did not share in the success of the league was the Chicago Cardinals, who were overshadowed by the more popular Chicago Bears. The team was reportedly for sale (with the intent of relocation), and one of the men who approached the Cardinals was Lamar Hunt, son and heir of Texas millionaire oilman H. L. Hunt.[1] Hunt offered to buy the Cardinals and move them to Dallas, Texas, where he had grown up. While Hunt negotiated with Cardinals ownership, similar offers were made by Bud Adams, Bob Howsam, and Max Winter.[2]

When Hunt, Adams, and Howsam were each unable to secure a controlling interest in the Chicago Cardinals, they approached NFL commissioner Bert Bell and proposed the addition of expansion teams. Bell, wary of expanding the 12 team league and risking its new found success, rejected the offer.[3] On his return flight to Dallas, Hunt conceived the idea of an entirely new league and decided to contact the others who had shown interest in purchasing the Cardinals. He contacted Adams, Howsam, and Winter (as well as Winter’s business partner, Bill Boyer) to gauge their interest in starting a new league. Hunt’s first meeting with Adams was held in March 1959.[4] Hunt, who felt a regional rivalry would be critical for the success of the new league, convinced Adams to join and found his team in Houston. Hunt next secured an agreement from Howsam to bring a team to Denver, Colorado.[5]

After Winter and Boyer agreed to start a team in the Minneapolis St. Paul area, the new league had its first four teams. Hunt also approached Willard Rhodes of Seattle, Washington, but that effort failed when Rhodes was turned down by Husky Stadium and had no place for his team to play.[6] Hunt also sought franchises in Los Angeles, California and New York City. During the summer of 1959 he sought the blessings of the NFL for his nascent league, as he did not seek a potentially costly rivalry. Within weeks of the July 1959 announcement of the league’s formation, Hunt received commitments from Barron Hilton and Harry Wismer to bring teams to Los Angeles and New York, respectively.[7]

On August 14, 1959, the first league meeting was held in Chicago, Illinois, and charter memberships were given to Dallas, New York, Houston, Denver, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis Saint Paul. On August 22 the league officially was named the American Football League. The NFL’s initial reaction was not as openly hostile as it had been with the earlier All America Football Conference (Bell had even given his public approval), yet individual NFL owners soon began a campaign to undermine the new league. AFL owners were approached with promises of new NFL franchises or ownership stakes in existing ones. Only the party from Minneapolis accepted, and the Minnesota group joined the NFL the next year in 1961; the Minneapolis group joined Ole Haugsrud in the new NFL team’s ownership group, with Haugsrud dubbing the team the Minnesota Vikings. The older league also announced on August 29 that it had conveniently reversed its position against expansion, and planned to bring NFL expansion teams to Houston and Dallas, to start play in 1961.[8] (The NFL did not expand to Houston at that time, the promised Dallas team the Dallas Cowboys actually started play in 1960, and the Vikings began play in 1961.)

Two more cities were awarded AFL franchises later in the year. Ralph Wilson, who owned a minority interest in the NFL’s Detroit Lions, announced he was placing a team in Buffalo, New York after he had been rejected by Miami. Buffalo was officially awarded a franchise on October 28. During a league meeting on November 22, a 10 man ownership group from Boston, Massachusetts (led by Billy Sullivan) was awarded the AFL’s eighth team.[9] On November 30, 1959, Joe Foss, a World War II Marine fighter ace and former governor of South Dakota, was named the AFL’s first commissioner. Foss commissioned a friend of Harry Wismer’s to develop the AFL’s eagle on football logo. Hunt was elected President of the AFL on January 26, 1960.

The AFL DraftEditThe AFL’s first draft took place the same day Boston was awarded its franchise, and lasted 33 rounds. The league held a second draft on December 2, which lasted for 20 rounds. Because the Raiders joined after the AFL draft, they inherited Minnesota’s selections (read next section).[10][11] A special allocation draft was held in January, 1960, to allow the Raiders to stock their team, as some of the other AFL teams had already signed some of Minneapolis’ original draft choices.

Crisis and success (1960 61)Edit

In November 1959, Minneapolis owner Max Winter announced his intent to leave the AFL to accept a franchise offer from the NFL. In 1961, his team began play in the NFL as the Minnesota Vikings. Los Angeles Chargers owner Barron Hilton demanded that a replacement for Minnesota be placed in California, to reduce his team’s operating costs and to create a rivalry. After a brief search,
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Oakland was chosen and an ownership group led by local real estate developer Chet Soda was formed. After initially being called the Oakland “Seors”, the officially joined the AFL on January 30, 1960.

The AFL’s first major success came when the signed Billy Cannon, the All American and 1959 Heisman Trophy winner from LSU. Cannon signed a $100,000 contract to play for the Oilers, despite having already signed a $50,000 contract with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams. The Oilers filed suit and claimed that Rams general manager Pete Rozelle had unduly manipulated Cannon. The court upheld the Houston contract, and with Cannon the Oilers appeared in the AFL’s first three championship games (winning two).[12][13]

On June 9, 1960, the league signed a five year television contract with ABC, which brought in revenues of approximately $2,125,000 per year for the entire league. On June 17, the AFL filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, which was dismissed in 1962 after a two month trial.[12] The AFL began regular season play (a night game on Friday, September 9, 1960) with eight teams in the league the , , Dallas Texans, , , Los Angeles Chargers, New York Titans, and . Raiders’ co owner Wayne Valley dubbed the AFL ownership “The Foolish Club,” a term Lamar Hunt subsequently used on team photographs he sent as Christmas gifts.[14]

The Oilers became the first ever league champions by defeating the Chargers, 24 16, in the AFL Championship on January 1, 1961. Attendance for the 1960 season was respectable for a new league, but not nearly that of the NFL. Whereas the more popular NFL teams in 1960 regularly saw attendance figures in excess of 50,000 per game, AFL attendance generally hovered between 10,000 20,000 per game.[15] With the low attendance came financial losses. The Raiders, for instance, lost $500,000 in their first year and only survived after receiving a $400,000 loan from Bills owner Ralph Wilson.[16] In an early sign of stability, however, the AFL did not lose any teams after its first year of operation. In fact, the only major change was the relocation of the Chargers from Los Angeles to nearby San Diego.

On August 8, 1961, the AFL, challenged the Canadian Football League to an exhibition game that would feature the Hamilton Tiger Cats and the . The and New York Titans struggled on and off the field during their first few seasons in the league. Oakland’s eight man ownership group was reduced to just three in 1961, after heavy financial losses their first season.[17] Attendance for home games was poor, partly due to the team playing in the San Francisco Bay Area which already had an established NFL team (the San Francisco 49ers) but the product on the field was also to blame. After winning six games their debut season, the Raiders won a total of three times in the 1961 and 1962 seasons. Oakland took part in a 1961 supplemental draft meant to boost the weaker teams in the league, but it did little good. They participated in another such draft in 1962.[12]

The Titans fared a little better on the field but had their own financial troubles. Attendance was so low for home games that team owner Harry Wismer had fans move to seats closer to the field to give the illusion of a fuller stadium on television.[18] Eventually Wismer could no longer afford to meet his payroll, and on November 8, 1962 the AFL took over operations of the team. The Titans were sold to a five person ownership group headed by Sonny Werblin on March 28, 1963, and in April the new owners changed the team’s name to the New York Jets.[19][20]

The Raiders and Titans both finished last in their respective divisions in the 1962 season.[21] The Texans and Oilers, winners of their divisions, faced each other for the 1962 AFL Championship on December 23. The Texans dethroned the two time champion Oilers, 20 17, in a double overtime contest that was, at the time, Professional Football’s longest ever game.[12]

In 1963, the Texans became the second AFL team to relocate. Lamar Hunt felt that despite winning the league championship in 1962, the Texans could not succeed financially competing in the same market as the Dallas Cowboys, which entered the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1960. After meetings with New Orleans, Atlanta and Miami, Hunt announced on May 22 that the Texans’ new home would be Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City mayor Harold Roe Bartle (nicknamed “Chief”) was instrumental in his city’s success in attracting the team. Partly to honor Bartle, the franchise officially became the Kansas City Chiefs on May 26.[22]

The San Diego Chargers, under head coach Sid Gillman, won a decisive 51 10 victory over the for the 1963 AFL Championship. Confident that his team was capable of beating the NFL champion Chicago Bears (he had the Chargers’ rings inscribed with the phrase “World Champions”), Gillman approached NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle and proposed a final championship game between the two teams. Rozelle declined the offer; however, the game would be instituted three seasons later.[23]A series of events throughout the next few years demonstrated the AFL’s ability to achieve a greater level of equality with the NFL. On January 29, 1964, the AFL signed a lucrative $36 million television contract with NBC (beginning in the 1965 season), which gave the league money it needed to compete with the NFL for players. An NFL owner was quoted as saying to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that “They don’t have to call us ‘Mister’ anymore”. A single game attendance record was set on November 8, 1964, when 61,929 fans packed Shea Stadium to watch the New York Jets and .[24]

The bidding war for players between the AFL and NFL escalated in 1965. The Chiefs drafted University of Kansas star Gale Sayers in the first round of the 1965 AFL draft (held November 28, 1964), while the Chicago Bears did the same in the NFL draft. Sayers eventually signed with the Bears.[22] A similar situation occurred when the New York Jets and the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals both drafted University of Alabama quarterback Joe Namath. In what was viewed as a key victory for the AFL, Namath signed a $427,000 contract with the Jets on January 2, 1965 (the deal included a new car). It was the highest amount of money ever paid to a collegiate football player, and is cited as the strongest contributing factor to the eventual merger between the two leagues.[25]

In early 1965, the AFL considered adding its first expansion team, to begin play in Atlanta in 1966. An AFL franchise was awarded to Rankin Smith of that city. The NFL quickly offered Smith a franchise, which Smith accepted. In March, 1965, Joe Robbie had met with Commissioner Foss to inquire about an expansion franchise for Miami, Florida. On May 6, after Atlanta’s exit, Robbie secured an agreement with Miami mayor Robert King Higho bring a team to Miami. League expansion was approved at a meeting held on June 7,
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and on August 16 the AFL’s ninth franchise was officially awarded to Robbie and television star Danny Thomas. The joined the league for a fee of $7.5 million and started play in the AFL’s in 1966.[26]