It rained and it snowed and the wind whipped through Buffalo last Saturday night, but a record crowd of 33,247 thronged undaunted into War Memorial Stadium to watch the home-town Bills play the Boston Patriots in an American Football League game. They saw a tumultuous 28-28 tie, replete with all the razzle-dazzle the new league's teams are known for, but the meaningful thing was the awesome attendance. By ignoring the foul, freezing weather and displaying such single-minded fervor over the game, the crowd was saying much about the state of AFL football.
Of all the new leagues that have sprung up in the past few years, none excites as much fuss and bother as the AFL. Controversy has followed it since it was founded in pique three years ago by Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, a pair of young Texas millionaires who had sought a National Football League franchise. In the eyes of some fans the hastily formed AFL was—and still is—a second-rate outfit afflicted with cast-off players, wobbly financing and bullheaded owners. To others it is an exciting underdog that shows promise of not only matching but overhauling the NFL. Whatever the arguments, the facts about the AFL have been largely obscured by home-town chauvinism, bias, rumors, gossip and just plain bum dope.
Last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondents around the country reported on the AFL and its teams. The conclusion: big crowds like the one in Buffalo fairly indicate something team owners have long and loudly contended in public but only in recent weeks believed themselves—that the AFL really has a future. On the brink of dejection a year ago, a majority of the owners are now optimistic. Says one of them: "Until this season, there was always a question in my mind about the league surviving. Now I'm positive it will go. For any one who wants out, there are at least six who will take any franchise available."
In short, the league has turned the corner. Four teams have a good chance to make a profit for the first time, two will lose money (but less than they lost before), and two will take a beating. These last two, Oakland and New York, are problems. Oakland has a weak team and a horrible attendance; New York has the same, plus Harry Wismer.
But, despite Oakland and New York, the AFL is doing well with the fans. Total league attendance is up roughly 25% over a year ago, and this is making allowance for the phantom customers that some teams still use to pad out crowd totals. "Why, we've already had turn-away crowds this year," says Commissioner Joe Foss, sounding as if not even he believes it. "That's something we never had before." The TV ratings have jumped. The American Broadcasting Company calculates that the viewing audience per game this season is 13 million, an estimated 4 million more than last year. Indeed, if the network's figures are accurate, the popularity of the AFL has increased while that of the NFL has decreased. This season each club will get some $200,000 from the network, a sizable figure in itself, but one owner says it will double by 1965.
The AFL is growing stronger on the field, too. "The first year, quite frankly, all the teams could hardly wait to get players cut by the NFL teams," says William Sullivan, president of the Boston Patriots. "That situation no longer exists. I'd venture that our league hasn't taken more than 15 or so players cut by the NFL this season." In this year's College All-Star Game, points out Joe Foss, the AFL had six offensive and six defensive starters, one more than the NFL. Twenty-three All-Stars were AFL property, 29 NFL. "Remember," Foss adds, "our proportion is much better than theirs because our rookies are spread among eight clubs, while theirs go to 14 teams." Last December energetic AFL recruiters signed so many Detroit Lion draft choices that the Lion players burned General Manager Edwin Anderson in effigy.
There are any number of AFL players who would do well in the NFL—Backs Billy Cannon of Houston and Abner Haynes of Dallas (possibly the most exciting runner in football), Center Jim Otto of Oakland, End Lionel Taylor of Denver and Fullback Cookie Gilchrist of the Bills, the league's leading ground-gainer. On a straight team-to-team basis, the best of the AFL probably could now beat the middling-to-poor NFL teams, but not with any great consistency. Give it two good draft years and the added experience, and the AFL should be close to matching the NFL. Right now the NFL is unquestionably stronger, especially when it comes to defensive players. John Breen, Director of Player Personnel for two-time champion Houston, concedes, "Defensively, the NFL has a big edge on us, because defensive backs are toughest to find."
Offensively, AFL teams play a more varied—and far wilder—game. To knowing fans an AFL game sometimes looks like a melee between the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers, but league boosters claim the lack of precision adds to the suspense. They may have a point. Two weeks ago in Denver, Buffalo trailed 38-23, with only 10 minutes left. The Bills came on to win 45-38, and, although the weird play would have appalled purists, it so excited Buffalo that Saturday's record crowd ensued.
At present Buffalo is regarded as the top franchise in the AFL. Foss once described it as "the pride of the League," and TV broadcasters, using the hyperbole of their trade, call it "the best city in pro football." However heady the praise, Buffalo, hungry for pro football since the All-America Conference collapsed in 1949, certainly has loyal fans. The attendance has been remarkable, especially since the Bills started off by losing five straight, three of them before their horrified home rooters. Yet the Bills, who must average 24,000 paid admissions a game to break even, have attracted some 160,000 fans for six home games, all but insuring a profitable season.
Reports Correspondent Dick Johnston: "The city has the leading team in the Western Division of the American Hockey League and has a fair college football team, but the Bills monopolize sports conversation. Even when they were going bad—and the college team good—the Bills carried by far the most interest."
The Denver Broncos are also doing well. Last season they were about as welcome in Denver as a blizzard. Their average attendance was only 11,000. This season they have averaged about 27,000 per game. The difference can be attributed to the activities of the club's new president, Cal Kunz, and Jack Faulkner, the new general manager and coach. Faulkner (SI, Oct. 22) has revamped the whole operation, from office decor to pass patterns. "Denver," says Correspondent Bob Bowie, "has clasped the Broncos to its bosom this year. Denverites, who never before mentioned the team, are talking Broncos. Better still, they are buying tickets. If you are looking for a success story, the Broncos are it."
But so are Houston's Oilers. Financial losers in their two championship years, they will probably lose their title, yet make some money. "The progress of the league has been amazing," says Bud Adams. "Take our operation. Last year we sold 6,700 season tickets. This year our goal was 9,000. But we sold 11,073, a 40% increase in a year. In 1960 we lost $420,000. We cut this to a $200,000 loss in 1961. This year we expect to make $50,000. That's tremendous progress."
Adams now sees no chance of peace or amalgamation with the NFL.
"They realize we've gotten into their candy jar and taken some of the gum-drops out," he says. "They had a dandy little monopoly going. We broke it up, and they didn't like it."
Even the Boston Patriots are into the profit gumdrops, one of the greatest tributes to perseverance since Plymouth Rock. The Pats are not only leading the Eastern Division, they are tops for front-office guile, a necessity for a team that began on a shoestring, and has run on one since. But nothing deters Team President Sullivan, onetime press agent for Boston College, Notre Dame, Navy and the late Boston Braves. Despite the Red Sox in baseball, the Bruins in hockey and the Celtics in basketball, the Pats monopolize a goodly portion of the sports pages from mid-June, when they hold tryouts, to early December. The Boston Chamber of Commerce hustles Patriot tickets all over town, but does next to nothing for the other pro teams. Recently Walter Brown, president of the Celtics and Bruins, got so miffed when a bundle of Pat propaganda arrived in his office that he wrote an angry letter to the Chamber complaining it hadn't done much to "promote Boston's other professional teams, who have been here anywhere from 60 to 16 years."
Solidly "in" with Mayor John Collins, Sullivan used the mayor to line up Harvard's sacred stadium for this year's opener with Houston—on the grounds that the game would "promote the new Boston." A crowd of more than 32,000 showed up, and although Sullivan would have dearly loved to play the whole season there, Harvard President Nathan Pusey was against it. Barred from the Red Sox' Fenway Park, Sullivan retreated again to Boston University field with its 24,000 capacity and unspeakable parking problems. (Just in case Harvard might want to reconsider, however, Sullivan can hope for help from Forrester Clark, a onetime Harvard polo player and a man close to university authorities who, providently, has been appointed to the Patriot board of directors.)
As machinations now stand, Sullivan may not need to infiltrate Harvard. His latest coup has been to get the Massachusetts legislature to pass a bill for a $50 million stadium to be financed by a private bond issue. Sullivan's lobbying for this was worthy of The Last Hurrah. One of those helping him was Mon-signor George Kerr, former All-America guard at Boston College, confidant of Cardinal Cushing and, just coincidentally, State House chaplain. There are some Bostonians who claim they can't decide which is the more surprising: the stadium bill or the fact that the Pats have drawn about 110,000 in five home games. But both questions emphasize the unexpected success of this AFL team.
San Diego and Dallas find themselves in the trying situation of having basically sound franchises, yet trouble with outside problems is changing the hue of their future from rosy to very pale pink. The economy of the San Diego area—resting heavily on the aircraft industry—is weak. Such a town is tough on losers. Unfortunately for Barron Hilton and his Chargers, who took the Western Division championship the last two years, the team has suffered injury after injury and just can't win again. The club has good press support, a lot of crippled veterans and a few so-so rookies. Hard-pressed fans are not going to spend $3 to sit on a concrete seat and watch the local boys lose. But the Chargers seem to have a future in San Diego. Hilton this week is considering selling controlling interest in the team to a local group that would almost surely keep it there.
In Dallas, Lamar Hunt's Texans have little trouble winning, but they have a definite problem competing with the Cowboys, Clint Murchison Jr.'s NFL team. "It is," says Correspondent Wes Wise, "a foregone conclusion that, until one of them leaves, only one—the team that is winning—can possibly make money. Today both are playing winning and interesting football, though neither is drawing well." But the Texans may make the AFL championship game. If they do, that could give them an edge on the Cowboys. Dallas is wait-and-see, with the emphasis on wait.
The Oakland Raiders face a far more desperate situation. Playing in the shadow of the San Francisco 49ers, the Raiders have drawn next to no one. The latest club formed, they got last choice at the players, and they have been hobbled from the beginning. Last year the Raiders played in San Francisco's Candlestick Park, where their best draw was 8,000 fans. This year they moved "home" to Frank Youell Field in Oakland, where they opened to an announced crowd of 17,500 that turned out to be 11,000 paid. Since then the crowds, announced and otherwise, have steadily declined. An announced 9,000 watched their last home game. The paid was really about 6,000. AFL owners, embarrassed by the meager Raider gates, are openly talking of shifting the franchise, but Wayne Valley, a Raider co-owner who was in New York last week for a game with the Titans, said, "I know of no background for those stories." Still, there is a strong movement to transfer the team to New Orleans or Atlanta. It is significant that, if Valley and his partners want to sell out, they apparently can recoup their losses.
The most serious AFL problem of all, however, is directly across the country in New York City, where Beyond the Fringe is the town's newest comedy hit, and the Titans are a little beyond Beyond. Titan Owner Harry Wismer can antagonize anyone within shrieking distance. Sportswriters, who used to knock him, now ignore him. Several AFL owners, who prefer not to be identified, would be joyous if Wismer sold out, and Bud Adams says, "Frankly, I'd like to see a change in ownership in New York. Harry Wismer is likely to lose $400,000 to $500,000 this year, and I don't know how much longer he can go on. But as long as Harry is fulfilling his obligation to the league, there's nothing we can do."
Wismer says, "If Bud Adams wants to make a statement, fine, and when he gets here we'll knock his brains out. I'll make my statement later, and it'll be very interesting. I'm going to have a lot of fun with people if statements are printed. I've got news for you—I don't lose suits."
Wismer's behavior can be extraordinary. He recently appointed his wife, Mary, president of the club and modestly thrust himself into the background as board chairman. Mrs. Wismer, he explained, was boss; from now on she was going to do the talking. A reporter asked her a question. Wismer brusquely cut her off. "Honey," he barked, "after this story you can talk all the time."
Last March, Wismer hired Murray Goodman, another in a long line of publicity men. Goodman was going to create a new Titan image, but he was shelved during the opening game. Released by the Titans, Quarterback Butch Songin exulted, "I'm happy to be out of there," and forthwith returned to the comparatively happy field of probation work. Says Songin: "Harry calls all the shots. He is ruining the Titans, and he is bad for the whole league."
As Songin tells it, Coach Bulldog Turner, successor to the fired Sammy Baugh, is "nothing more than Wismer's puppet. Before our first game with Dallas, Turner got all the players together and asked us for plays we thought might work. Can you imagine—asking us what plays we thought might work?"
Titan plays may or may not be hard to find, but Titan fans are. A recent gate, announced as 21,000, got loud guffaws in the press. "Wismer must have been counting eyes," said a writer. At the commission office in Dallas, Foss trimmed the figure to 12,000.
Wismer, meanwhile, blames his difficulties on the antique Polo Grounds. Up to last week he calculated that he had lost $1,700,000 on the team. He figures that the Titans will do much better when they play in the new city stadium in Queens next season. He is set on keeping a share of the team, though he has publicly put controlling interest of it on the market. Prospective bidders are around. As Bud Adams puts it, "We have three very substantial groups ready to step in and take over the franchise if Wismer goes down the drain."
The Titans' troubles, however, can no longer obscure the healthier look of the league as a whole. With improvement on the field, with sharply increasing attendance, with solid TV backing and with even its weakest franchises being eagerly sought by potential investors, the AFL at last has a real right to what one of its owners calls the league's new mood—"cautious optimism."