New York Giants
May 30, 1965
Green Bay Packers
San Diego Chargers
New York Jets
New Orleans Pelicans
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Rams
San Francisco 49ers
Kansas City Chiefs
This is rumor season in professional football—each spring is—and the chart across the top of these pages is just one monstrum horrendum resulting from a few of those occasions during the year when NFL and AFL owners have been seen together in bars, restaurants, clubs and—you might be justified in suspecting—psychiatrists' anterooms. The chart may seem, all at once, to be absurd, insane, illegal—goofy as a beat poet's verse. And it is, of course, like a moody clack on Thelonious Monk's piano, the fartherest-out possibility of all the talk circulating about a merger, alliance, reorganization, playoff, common draft, expansion, interleague games and one overall commissioner.
But, far out or not, this particular plan exists in more than one pro executive's mind, and no one connected with the sport is willing to bet against something happening, and happening soon—sooner than Frank Gifford will consent to a haircut or a congressional sports bill can be passed—to bring peace to the game and stimulate even more interest in it.
Everybody knows that pro football is going to achieve that peace someday. Bonuses to rookie players cannot keep on going up. Some are so high now that only an observer at Mount Palomar can get them in range. And the general public continues to move closer to the day, emotionally, when it will either get a true title game between the two leagues or drag NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle through the streets like Mussolini at Milan.
A congressional bill granting antitrust exemptions would bring an instant peace, for it would clear the way for the common draft, something the NFL is supposed to favor by a vote of 12-2. Even Rozelle admits that the common draft is financially realistic, which is a sly way for Pete to confess that there is an AFL. But the sports bill, thanks to baseball and the CBS purchase of the Yankees, is hung up in Congress. Meanwhile, football's owners may be restless enough to attempt such a draft anyhow, counting on the immunity from antitrust enforcement that baseball has traditionally enjoyed. The risk involved is that a common draft removes a player's bargaining power and thereby violates existing laws.
It cannot be denied that both the AFL and NFL owners have been drawn irresistibly closer together by that great equalizer, money—or, rather, the loss of it in outrageous thousands through bonuses and salaries that competitive bidding for players demands. As AFL Founder Lamar Hunt says, "Our salaries are defeating the whole purpose of the game. We defeat desire. It's ridiculous when players are making more than the coaches." Thus, talk begins to get around every spring, and this spring more than ever, that the two leagues are nearing terms on some kind of merger and perhaps drastic reorganization.
"I hear things," says a television executive. "I've been around to most of the AFL cities and I hear things that are unusual. An owner tells his front office not to sign any more veterans to long-term contracts. This would indicate that he expects salaries to drop—as they would in a merger. Then you hear the league has cooled off on Philadelphia for expansion, which, if true, is a concession to the NFL."
An AFL coach says he hears things, too. "I don't know what it is, but I got the feeling we're no more than the scratch of a pen away from getting together on something," he says.
"I'll tell you how talk like this gets started every year," said Pete Rozelle last week in a predictable NFL posture of self-content. "The other league starts it."
"No," said AFL Commissioner Joe Foss. "It starts because those birds [the owners] from both leagues walk into a place like Shor's together and talk about their problems in loud voices, and then they wonder why anyone would start to speculate."
Since they have personally participated in some meetings, though they cannot publicly confess it, it is doubtful that either Rozelle or Foss is unaware of the fact that there have been get-togethers, fairly formal ones too, among at least six NFL owners and groups from the AFL for the explicit purpose of exploring all the potentialities of reorganization at the most, and a common draft at the least. "Sure, there's been a lot of 'poolside' talk," concedes one NFL owner, "but there are no committees."
It has been from these specific meetings that the rumors have poured, from a general manager to a coach, from the coach to a scout (no one can move a rumor like a scout), from a scout to a newspaperman.
Even Baltimore Colt Owner Carroll Rosenbloom admits to being amiable on the subject. "I'll look at, explore and listen to anything the other league suggests that will benefit pro football," says Rosenbloom. "You know, rumors are discussed every time owners get together. I think discussion and exchange of ideas are good." So, apparently, does George Halas, the Chicago Bears' owner. Although a member of the NFL's old guard, Halas has always been progressive; in fact, he led the move for expansion to Dallas and Minnesota. Like Rosenbloom, he is known to oppose Rozelle's "hard line" with the AFL, and not just because Pete refuses to let him ride up and down the sideline in a golf cart.
Rosenbloom's pose is a reasonably new one—in public—for an NFL owner, and so is the contrary one that New York Jet Owner Sonny Werblin has adopted in the AFL. "I'm not for a merger or a common draft," says Werblin. "I'm for expansion of our own league and I'm for Atlanta and Philadelphia coming in right away. I like areas with people. As for the signings, I'd rather take my chances."
He sure would. He paid $600,000 for the combined services of Alabama's Joe Namath and Notre Dame's John Huarte, and those deals alone by the man who turned the AFL's New York franchise into an overnight success may have done more to make the NFL "think" merger than anything else. "Some of our guys throw money away like it's glue," says an NFL scout, "but this Werblin—he's got 'em blinking."
The most logical thing to expect, certainly within two years and perhaps as early as next December, is a reorganization along these lines: a common draft, a playoff game, one commissioner and two league presidents, both leagues keeping their identity and current opponents, except that the AFL would expand to 10 clubs, taking in Atlanta and New Orleans or Philadelphia. The feeling among nearly all nonattributable sources ("I can't talk about it, we first need the sports bill," says one owner) is that all this can be done if the antitrust climate is assuredly amiable.
Fortunately for the owners, pro football's fans do not worry themselves about such confusing things as antitrust legislation. They are inclined to regard it as something big business should be concerned with in Pittsburgh, or wherever big business keeps itself. Nor do the fans care much about the common draft and how it could be worked out on won-lost percentages and coin flips. Instead, they are interested only in who is going to play whom when the leagues do come together, whether a safety man can field a punt under a leaky dome and whether Joe Namath could survive a Sam Huff blitz.
Although the realignment cited in the chart on the previous pages is the least likely to occur in the immediate future, it is by far the most provocative. And who is to say that in five years it would not also be the best? Consider: each division retains a national flavor and yet makes geographical sense, as opposed to the current setup where no division in either league makes any sense (Dallas and St. Louis in the NFL's East?). Also this setup, featuring four six-team divisions, is carefully plotted to avoid conflicts in major cities where there would be two teams—New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco-Oakland. This prevents wholesale television blackouts. Moreover, the plan makes possible splendid rivalries within each division, some of which do exist and others that would, once play began, develop naturally.
Take the Eastern Division of the National Conference. There are three natural rivalries: New York-Philadelphia, Washington-Baltimore, Buffalo-Boston. Take the Western Division of the same conference. You have Dallas-Houston, Green Bay-Chicago, San Diego-Oakland.
The two 12-team conferences would have limitless schedule and playoff possibilities. In the regular season each team would meet the other five in its division twice, home and home. Each team then could schedule four, even six, "outside" games—a 16-game schedule would merely eliminate two exhibitions—with other teams in either conference. A rotation system could even be established so that, eventually, fans in every city would see every team in a brief period of years.
But the greatest benefit of the format would be the elimination of "losers." With divisions, four separate races would be in progress, and only five teams in each would lose out. The plan would also hold up with further expansion. Eight more cities could be added, two in each division, and pro football would still be better off than major league baseball, which currently has nine "losers" in both the National and American Leagues.
"The interesting thing about all these rumors," says Kansas City Owner Lamar Hunt, "is that this year—for the first time—they talk about adding teams instead of subtracting them. In 1960 it was said the NFL would take in two teams, and the other six would go out of business. The next rumor jumped to four, then to six. Now we hear all eight, plus two. That's an addition of four teams over the previous rumor."
The AFL alone could add 56 teams if it wanted eight clubs in Philadelphia, six in Washington, three in Atlanta, and, possibly, a club in Bend Down, North Dakota. Foss has exactly 56 applications for franchises in his desk drawer at the present time. They come from everywhere—such people and organizations as Arthur Allyn (the Chicago White Sox owner), Houston's John Mecom, Westinghouse, the Cox Broadcasting Company of Atlanta, and New Orleans' Dave Dixon. Everybody wants in. Dixon has been struggling for five years to get some kind of pro football in New Orleans. He is even involved now in the possibility of a winter league, a six-team circuit comprised of major cities whose owners would bid against the NFL and AFL for talent, would play from January through Memorial Day, hopefully under domes everywhere. Happily for football, he would settle for an AFL franchise, and might well get one June 7 when the AFL owners meet at Monmouth Park, N.J. Atlanta is automatic, if the league expands, and the owners are evenly split on whether the other new city should be New Orleans, which has warm weather, or Philadelphia, which has people and an NFL tenant.
There are factors other than the costly bidding rivalry that have spawned the latest rumors. The AFL's contract with NBC-TV, which runs through the 1969 season, has insured the league's presence on the scene. While the contract cannot compare with the NFL's CBS-TV deal, it will give each club as much as $900,000 by the fifth season, or in 1969. Television thus has made each AFL franchise so valuable that Denver has been kept in Denver, rejecting $6 million offers from syndicates in Atlanta and Chicago. Another thing is the remarkable progress the AFL has made with its stadiums. Houston has the Astrodome and a luxury capacity of 53,000. The Jets have Shea with its 60,000. Oakland's new stadium will be ready for the 1966 season with room for 48,500. If that seems low as compared to Cleveland's 80,000, consider that Dallas Owner Clint Murchison of the NFL believes that no football stadium should hold more than 55,000 because that is the limit of good seating and high-priced tickets. "I want to remodel the Cotton Bowl, sinking the floor to create more good seats, move the State Fair midway and get some more access roads in here," says Clint, as casually as he would say he is going down to his island in the Bahamas for the week end. Elsewhere in the AFL, Buffalo and Denver have increased their number of seats, Kansas City and Boston have good prospects for new stadiums, and San Diego, if it does not get a new stadium, will move either to Anaheim or Los Angeles.
"It may be hard to think about realignment now," says an AFL owner, "because of the current image you hold about each team. But in five years, with every club solid and in a good stadium...that's the way to consider it. A lot of teams will have a very different image by then. There might be several of us who would not feel so adamant about preserving the identity of our league."
That seems true enough. In five more years, the AFL might well have outrun the rumor that Harry Wismer was once a part of it.