The NFL-AFL Merger and the Birth of the Super Bowl

         Courtesy of Austin Kirk

In the late 1950s, a group of wealthy businessmen led by Lamar Hunt and Kenneth S. “Bud” Adams Jr. approached officials of the National Football League (NFL) about acquiring expansion franchises.  NFL officials scoffed at the notion, so Hunt and Adams came up with an alternative.  The two men helped launch the American Football League (AFL) in 1959 and play began in 1960 with eight franchises:  Dallas Texans (Hunt’s franchise), Houston Oilers (Adams’ franchise), Boston Patriots, Buffalo Bills, New York Titans, Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Chargers.  AFL officials negotiated a television contract with the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and conducted a separate draft from the NFL.  AFL owners began luring college draftees to the AFL with contracts much greater than offered by the NFL.  For example, former Louisiana State University player Billy Cannon had to choose between an offer from the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the AFL’s Houston Oilers.  The Rams offered him a three-year contract worth $30,000 while the Oilers offered him a three-year contract worth $99,000.  Not surprisingly, Cannon took the Houston offer.

While some other college players chose to play in the AFL in the early 1960s, the NFL still had the upper hand in terms of fan support and the overall quality of the players.  Attendance in many AFL cities suffered and the league struggled to survive until a lucrative contract with the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) offered an infusion of much needed cash.  As the AFL franchises stabilized, more and more college players and NFL veterans chose to play in the AFL.  A bidding war for players ensued and player salaries increased in both leagues.

Tex Schramm, the general manager of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys, representing several NFL owners in 1966 set up a secret meeting with Hunt to discuss a merger between the two leagues.  Schramm and Hunt met several times in Dallas to discuss increasing player salaries and players jumping between leagues.  By the end of May, the two men had laid the ground work for the merger of the NFL and AFL.  On June 8, 1966, the two leagues announced a formal merger.  The leagues agreed to hold a single players draft beginning in 1967 and the champions of the two leagues would meet in a championship game beginning in January 1967.  A common schedule based on all the teams involved in the merger would start with the 1970 season, thereby completing the merger.

The game between the NFL and AFL champions became known initially as the “AFL-NFL World Championship” game. The name stood until the fourth championship game between the two leagues.  That game in 1970 matched the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings and the AFL’s Kansas Chiefs.  Lamar Hunt moved the Texans from Dallas to Kansas City in 1963.  Hunt changed the name to Chiefs in honor of Kansas City mayor H. Roe “The Chief” Bartle, who was instrumental in convincing Hunt to move the team to Kansas City.  The fourth, and last, AFL-NFL championship game became officially known as the Super Bowl.  Hunt is credited with the origin of the name.

The Kansas City Star in July 1966 quoted Hunt referring to the game as the Super Bowl.  Hunt said he inadvertently came up with the name after watching his two children play with a toy called a Super Ball.  According to Hunt, the “Bowl” part of the moniker naturally came to him based on the college bowl games of the time, namely the Rose Bowl.  Later that year, newspapers such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post all began to refer to the championship game as the Super Bowl.  The name has been incorporated retroactively to apply to the first three championship games.

Officials from the AFL and NFL decided to number the championship games with the first one in 1967.  This decision was predicated on the need to avoid confusion because of the fact that the championship game would be played in a different calendar year than the regular season.  So for example, Super Bowl 4 was played in 1970 after the 1969 season.

Hunt is also credited with the use of Roman numerals as part of the official name.  This practice began with Super Bowl V between the Baltimore Colts and the Dallas Cowboys.  Hunt stated that the use of Roman numerals made the game “much more magisterial.” NFL officials wanted to give the Super Bowl a more prestigious feel in order to attract more viewers, so Hunt’s Roman numeral idea seemed appropriate.  Like the term “Super Bowl,” Roman numerals have been incorporated retroactively for the first four championship contests.

The current state of the NFL and the Super Bowl owes much to Lamar Hunt.  His vision and timely thoughts helped the NFL and its championship game become the multi-billion dollar business that it is today.  As you sit in front of a television watching Super Bowl LI, remember the man that made all of this happen.  Cheers Mr. Hunt!