On this day in 1966, the rival National Football League (NFL) and American Football League (AFL) announce that they will merge. The first “Super Bowl” between the two leagues took place at the end of the 1966 season, though it took until the 1970 season for the leagues to unite their operations and integrate their regular season schedules.
In 1958, the National Football League championship game between the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants drew 45 million viewers on NBC and established pro football as an entertainment commodity to rival baseball. The NFL suddenly had a line of businessmen waiting to purchase new franchises in new markets, but most were arrogantly turned away. This prompted Lamar Hunt, the wealthy son of an oil tycoon, to recruit seven businessmen from cities hungry for pro football to form a rival league. The resulting American Football League was publicly welcomed by NFL Commissioner Bert Bell, who said that competition would stimulate both leagues. However, the NFL did not sit idly by and wait for the AFL to gain market share. Instead, it quickly expanded into Hunt’s hometown of Dallas and into Minneapolis, another of the cities the AFL had designated for a franchise.
The American Football League chose Oakland as a replacement for Minneapolis, as well as Los Angeles, Dallas (for Hunt’s franchise, which moved to Kansas City in 1962), New York, Buffalo, Boston, Denver and Houston as the original eight AFL cities. The league piqued fan interest with an entertaining product on the field, a high-flying aerial brand of football that contrasted with the stingy defenses and running attacks of the older NFL. By 1962, the AFL had drawn 1 million fans to its games.
In 1965, the AFL scored a television contract with NBC. That same year, New York Jets owner Sonny Werblin lured quarterback Joe Namath out of the University of Alabama to the AFL with the biggest contract in pro football history. The NFL’s prediction and hope that the AFL would field only second-rate players and washed-up former NFL players was not to be: Instead, the two leagues began to compete over fans, players and coaches. An unspoken agreement that one league would not sign the other league’s players was broken in 1966 when the NFL’s New York Giants signed place-kicker Pete Gogolak away from the AFL’s Buffalo Bills. As neither league could afford a bidding war, owners soon began to talk of a merger.
Under the merger agreement announced on June 8, 1966, the new league would be called the NFL, and split into the American Football Conference (AFC) and the National Football Conference (NFC) All eight of the original AFL teams would all be absorbed by the NFL, unlike in 1946 when the NFL merged with the rival All-America Football Conference but only took in its Baltimore, Cleveland and San Francisco franchises and dissolved four other teams.
The first two Super Bowls proved the NFC (the former NFL) to be the better league, with Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers handling their AFC challenger easily. In Super Bowl III, however, Joe Namath and the New York Jets upset the favored Baltimore Colts and ushered in a new era of greater parity between the two leagues.
The Super Bowl, played between the AFC and NFC champions at the end of every NFL season, is now the most watched televised sporting event in the world with more than 140 million viewers.