During the 1950s, the had grown to rival Major League Baseball as one of the most popular professional sports leagues in the United States. One franchise that did not share in this newfound success of the league was the Chicago Cardinals — owned by the Bidwill family — who had become overshadowed by the more popular Chicago Bears. The Bidwills hoped to relocate their franchise, preferably to St. Louis, but could not come to terms with the league on a relocation fee. Needing cash, the Bidwills began entertaining offers from would-be investors, and one of the men who approached the Bidwills was Lamar Hunt, son and heir of millionaire oilman H. L. Hunt. Hunt offered to buy the Cardinals and move them to Dallas, where he had grown up. However, these negotiations came to nothing, since the Bidwills insisted on retaining a controlling interest in the franchise and were unwilling to move their team to a city where a previous NFL franchise had failed in 1952. While Hunt negotiated with the Bidwills, similar offers were made by Bud Adams, Bob Howsam, and Max Winter.
When Hunt, Adams, and Howsam were unable to secure a controlling interest in the 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 newfound success, rejected the offer. 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. 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.
After Winter and Boyer agreed to start a team in Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the new league had its first four teams. Hunt then approached Willard Rhodes, who hoped to bring pro football to Seattle. However, the University of Washington was unwilling to let the fledgling league use Husky Stadium, probably due to the excessive wear and tear that would have been caused to the facility's grass surface (the stadium now has an artificial surface, and Seattle would gain entry into the NFL in 1976 with the Seattle Seahawks). With no place for his team to play, Rhodes' effort came to nothing. Hunt also sought franchises in Los Angeles, Buffalo 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. His initial efforts for Buffalo, however, were rebuffed, when Hunt's first choice of owner, Pat McGroder, declined to take part; McGroder had hoped that the threat of the AFL would be enough to prompt the NFL to expand to Buffalo.
On August 14, 1959, the first league meeting was held in Chicago, 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 at a meeting in Dallas. The NFL's initial reaction was not as openly hostile as it had been with the earlier (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-Saint Paul accepted, and the Minnesota group joined the NFL the next year in 1961; the Minneapolis-Saint Paul group were joined by Ole Haugsrud and
Bernie Ridder in the new NFL team's ownership group, which was named 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. (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.) Finally, the NFL quickly came to terms with the Bidwills and allowed them to relocate the struggling Cardinals to St. Louis, eliminating that city as a potential AFL market.
Ralph Wilson, who owned a minority interest in the NFL's Detroit Lions at the time, initially announced he was placing a team in Miami, but like the Seattle situation, was also rebuffed by local ownership; given five other choices, Wilson negotiated with McGroder and brought the team that would become the Bills to Buffalo. Buffalo was officially awarded its franchise on October 28. During a league meeting on November 22, a 10-man ownership group from Boston (led by ) was awarded the AFL's eighth team. 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 draft
The AFL's first 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. A special 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)
In November 1959, Minneapolis-Saint Paul 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, Oakland was chosen and an ownership group led by F. Wayne Valley and local real estate developer Chet Soda was formed. After initially being called the Oakland "Señores", the Oakland Raiders officially joined the AFL on January 30, 1960.
The AFL's first major success came when the Houston Oilers signed Billy Cannon, the All-American and 1959 Heisman Trophy winner from . 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).
On June 9, 1960, the league signed a five-year television contract with ABC, which brought in revenues of approximately US$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. The AFL began regular-season play (a night game on Friday, September 9, 1960) with eight teams in the league — the Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, Dallas Texans, Denver Broncos, Houston Oilers, Los Angeles Chargers, , and Oakland Raiders. 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.
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. In 1960, the NFL averaged attendance of more than 40,000 fans per game and more popular NFL teams in 1960 regularly saw attendance figures in excess of 50,000 per game, while CFL attendances averaged approximately 20,000 per game. By comparison, AFL attendance averaged about 16,500 per game and generally hovered between 10,000-20,000 per game. Professional football was still primarily a gate-driven business in 1960, so low attendance meant financial losses. The Raiders, with a league-worst average attendance of just 9,612, lost $500,000 in their first year and only survived after receiving a $400,000 loan from Bills owner Ralph Wilson. 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 (they would return to Los Angeles in 2017).
On August 8, 1961, the AFL challenged the to an exhibition game that would feature the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Buffalo Bills, which was attended by 24,376 spectators. Playing at Civic Stadium in Hamilton, Ontario, the Tiger-Cats defeated the Bills 38–21 playing a mix of AFL and CFL rules.
Movement and instability (1962–63)
While the Oilers found instant success in the AFL, other teams did not fare as well. The Oakland Raiders 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 in their first season. 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 in 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.
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. 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.
The Raiders and Titans both finished last in their respective divisions in the 1962 season. 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.
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.
The San Diego Chargers, under head coach Sid Gillman, won a decisive 51–10 victory over the Boston Patriots 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.
Watershed years (1964–65)
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. Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney 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 Buffalo Bills.
The bidding war for players between the AFL and NFL escalated in 1965. The Chiefs drafted 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. 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.
After the 1963 season, the Newark Bears of the expressed interest in joining the AFL; concerns over having to split the New York metro area with the still-uncertain Jets were a factor in the Bears bid being rejected. In 1965, Milwaukee officials tried to lure an expansion team to play at Milwaukee County Stadium where the Green Bay Packers had played parts of their home schedule after an unsuccessful attempt to lure the Packers there full-time, but Packers head coach Vince Lombardi invoked the team's exclusive lease as well as sign an extension to keep some home games in Milwaukee until 1976. In early 1965, the AFL awarded its first expansion team to Rankin Smith of Atlanta. The NFL quickly counteroffered Smith a franchise, which Smith accepted; the Atlanta Falcons began play as an NFL franchise. In March 1965, Joe Robbie had met with Commissioner Foss to inquire about an expansion franchise for Miami. On May 6, after Atlanta's exit, Robbie secured an agreement with Miami mayor Robert King High to bring a team to Miami. League expansion was approved at a meeting held on June 7, and on August 16 the AFL's ninth franchise was officially awarded to Robbie and television star Danny Thomas. The Miami Dolphins joined the league for a fee of $7.5 million and started play in the AFL's Eastern Division in 1966. The AFL also planned to add two more teams by 1967.
Escalation and merger (1966–67)
In 1966, the rivalry between the AFL and NFL reached an all-time peak. On April 7, Joe Foss resigned as AFL commissioner. His successor was Oakland Raiders head coach and general manager Al Davis, who had been instrumental in turning around the fortunes of that franchise. No longer content with trying to outbid the NFL for college talent, the AFL under Davis started to recruit players already on NFL squads. Davis's strategy focused on quarterbacks in particular, and in two months he persuaded seven NFL quarterbacks to sign with the AFL. Although Davis's intention was to help the AFL win the bidding war, some AFL and NFL owners saw the escalation as detrimental to both leagues. Alarmed with the rate of spending in the league, Hilton Hotels forced Barron Hilton to relinquish his stake in the Chargers as a condition of maintaining his leadership role with the hotel chain.
The same month Davis was named commissioner, several NFL owners, along with Dallas Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, secretly approached Lamar Hunt and other AFL owners and asked the AFL to merge. They held a series of secret meetings in Dallas to discuss their concerns over rapidly increasing player salaries, as well as the practice of player poaching. Hunt and Schramm completed the basic groundwork for a merger of the two leagues by the end of May, and on June 8, 1966, the merger was officially announced. Under the terms of the agreement, the two leagues would hold a common player draft. The agreement also called for a title game to be played between the champions of the respective leagues. The two leagues would be fully merged by 1970, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle would remain as commissioner of the merged league, which would be named the NFL. Additional expansion teams would eventually be awarded by 1970 or soon thereafter to bring it to a 28-team league. The AFL also agreed to pay indemnities of $18 million to the NFL over 20 years. In protest, Davis resigned as AFL commissioner on July 25 rather than remain until the completion of the merger, and Milt Woodard was named president of the AFL, with the "commissioner" title vacated because of Rozelle's expanded role.
On January 15, 1967, the first-ever World Championship Game between the champions of the two separate professional football leagues, the AFL-NFL Championship Game (retroactively referred to as Super Bowl I), was played in Los Angeles. After a close first half, the NFL champion Green Bay Packers overwhelmed the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, 35–10. The loss reinforced for many the notion that the AFL was an inferior league. Packers head coach Vince Lombardi stated after the game, "I do not think they are as good as the top teams in the National Football League."
The second AFL-NFL Championship (Super Bowl II) yielded a similar result. The Oakland Raiders—who had easily beaten the Houston Oilers to win their first AFL championship—were overmatched by the Packers, 33–14. The more experienced Packers capitalized on a number of Raiders miscues and never trailed. Green Bay defensive tackle Henry Jordan offered a compliment to Oakland and the AFL, when he said, "... the AFL is becoming much more sophisticated on offense. I think the league has always had good personnel, but the blocks were subtler and better conceived in this game."
The AFL added its tenth and final team on May 24, 1967, when it awarded the league's second expansion franchise to an ownership group from Cincinnati, Ohio, headed by NFL legend Paul Brown. Although Brown had intended to join the NFL, he agreed to join the AFL when he learned that his team would be included in the NFL once the merger was completed. The Cincinnati Bengals began play in the 1968 season, finishing last in the Western Division.
Legitimacy and the end of an era (1968–70)
While many AFL players and observers believed their league was the equal of the NFL, their first two Super Bowl performances did nothing to prove it. However, on November 17, 1968, when NBC cut away from a game between the Jets and Raiders to air the children's movie Heidi, the ensuing uproar helped disprove the notion that fans still considered the AFL an inferior product. The perception of AFL inferiority forever changed on January 12, 1969, when the AFL Champion New York Jets shocked the heavily favored NFL Champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The Colts, who entered the contest favored by as many as 18 points, had completed the 1968 NFL season with a 13–1 record, and won the NFL title with a convincing 34–0 win over the Cleveland Browns. Led by their stalwart defense—which allowed a record-low 144 points—the 1968 Colts were considered one of the best-ever NFL teams.
By contrast, the Jets had allowed 280 points, the highest total for any division winner in the two leagues. They had also only narrowly beaten the favored Oakland Raiders 27–23 in the AFL championship game. Jets quarterback Joe Namath recalled that in the days leading up to the game, he grew increasingly angry when told New York had no chance to beat Baltimore. Three days before the game, a frustrated Namath responded to a heckler at the Touchdown Club in Miami by declaring, "We're going to win Sunday, I'll guarantee you."
Namath and the Jets made good on his guarantee as they held the Colts scoreless until late in the fourth quarter. The Jets won, 16–7, in what is considered one of the greatest upsets in American sports history. With the win, the AFL finally achieved parity with the NFL and legitimized the merger of the two leagues. That notion was reinforced one year later in Super Bowl IV, when the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs upset the NFL champion Minnesota Vikings, 23–7, in the last championship game to be played between the two leagues. The Vikings, favored by 12½ points, were held to just 67 rushing yards.
The last game in AFL history was the AFL All-Star Game, held in Houston's Astrodome on January 17, 1970. The Western All-Stars, led by Chargers quarterback John Hadl, defeated the Eastern All-Stars, 26–3. Buffalo rookie back O.J. Simpson carried the ball for the last play in AFL history. Hadl was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
Prior to the start of the 1970 NFL season, the merged league was organized into two conferences of three divisions each. All ten AFL teams made up the bulk of the new . To avoid having an inequitable number of teams in each conference, the leagues voted to move three NFL teams to the AFC. Motivated by the prospect of an intrastate rivalry with the Bengals as well as by personal animosity toward Paul Brown, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell quickly offered to include his team in the AFC. He helped persuade the Pittsburgh Steelers (the Browns' archrivals) and Baltimore Colts (who shared the Baltimore/Washington, D.C. market with the Washington Redskins) to follow suit, and each team received US $3 million to make the switch. All the other NFL squads became part of the .
receiver Charlie Joiner, who started his career with the Houston Oilers (1969), was the last AFL player active in professional football, retiring after the 1986 season, when he played for the San Diego Chargers.