Reflections on the AFL and its merger with the NFL

This week in North Philly Notes, Charles Ross, author of Mavericks, Money, and Men, blogs about the AFL and the growth of the NFL.

As I sat watching the NFL draft I couldn’t help but think about the AFL and its merger with the NFL in 1970.  Pro football is clearly the most popular sport in America and that popularity is largely due to the rival leagues calling a truce and becoming one.  The last two teams to win the Super Bowl were original AFL teams–New England Patriots and Denver Broncos, and interestingly they struggled to achieve success as members of the AFL.  They never won an AFL Championship but the Patriots have won four Super Bowls and the Broncos three.  Maybe more importantly Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams probably didn’t anticipate the teams that made up the so called “foolish club,” being valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, when the original franchise fee was $25,000.

Mavericks_smEvery original AFL team including the two expansion teams have played in the Super Bowl, however, there are two NFL teams that have never had that experience, the Cleveland Browns and Detroit Lions. Again the Browns and Lions picked early on Thursday night, both teams since the merger have arguably struggled to field strong teams led by great quarterbacks and solid defenses, the usual ingredients necessary to reach the pinnacle of a successful pro football season.  The draft was virtually parallel to the percentage of African American players in the NFL, in essence the overwhelming majority of players selected were black.

The two universities that I owe much of my professional success had a historic night.  The Ohio State University where I received my Ph.D. had five players selected in the first round and the University of Mississippi where I have spent the last twenty years since leaving OSU, had three players selected in round one for the first time in school history.  Three of the five players from Ohio State were African American and all three from the University of Mississippi, of course having five players selected in round one for perennial power OSU was not necessarily a surprise.  But for the University of Mississippi to have three players chosen was, unfortunately the controversy that surrounded offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil’s fall to the Miami Dolphins because of posts on his social media page dominated the media’s focus and took the spotlight off what both programs had achieved.

Arguably the growth of the NFL since the merger is a real testament to pro football’s marriage to television.  The medium of television helped to increase the value of franchise’s, players contracts, coaches contracts, and profits from owners.  Large amounts of money fuel these relationships and ultimately the same relationships at the collegiate level.  Billy Cannon signed his contract to play for the Houston Oilers instead of the Los Angeles Rams after the Sugar Bowl in 1960, on New Year’s Day.  Cannon had agreed to contracts with both the Rams and the Oilers which was a NCAA violation, and he signed his contract on television under the goalposts when the game ended.  This was great publicity for the AFL and set the tone for the next six year war between the AFL and NFL.  The saga of Tunsil also played out on national television but like Cannon many fans will want to know more about this young man and his ability to be successful on the football field during this upcoming season.  The Miami Dolphins think he will be successful and so do I.

A lot has changed since the merger but one thing has not, the success of teams will be established on the field.  Publicity both positive and negative will continue to characterize aspects of what is now America’s favorite sport, in many ways the NFL has reached a zenith where the only competition is itself.  Pro football is not competing against the NBA or even major league baseball, its chief competition now is its own public perception.

 

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