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In This Week…In 1966—The Merger

Continuing my blogs that are taking a look back at an historical moment involving the Denver Broncos, this week we look back at the single greatest event that guaranteed the future viability of the Denver Broncos.

The merger between the established National Football League and the upstart, expansion American Football League became official on June 8, 1966, 47 years ago this week.

By 1966 the rivalry between the two leagues had reached its all-time critical point.

In early April AFL Commissioner Joe Foss resigned and his successor was Al Davis, the head coach and general manager of the Oakland Raiders.  Davis started to recruit players already on NFL team, with that strategy focusing on quarterbacks in particular, and within two months he had talked seven NFL quarterbacks into switching over to AFL teams.

I was a high school student and ardent Broncos fan at that time, and I can remember how exciting it was to listen to Bronco radio voice Bob Martin's radio show every night, with Bob giving the details of the latest NFL quarterback to jump.

Exciting to fans, and Davis's plan had the intention of helping the AFL win the bidding war for players in which the two leagues were engaged—but in fact, most owners in both leagues saw his plan as an escalation of hostilities that was negative to pro football in general.

The only real, common sense solution was a merger between the leagues, and in fact secret meetings had been taking place for several months. Even as Davis was named commissioner, involving the most level heads in pro football at that time—Lamar Hunt, founder of the AFL and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Tex Schramm, general manager of the Dallas Cowboys.  Schramm and Hunt had between the two of them approached many owners to discuss merger and even held a series of secret meeting in Dallas—where Hunt maintained his residence—discussing the rapidly escalating player costs and the increasingly common practice of poaching  players.

By the end of May the two sides had completed the basic principles for a merger, and pro football peach came to the landscape with the June 8 merger announcement.

The full merger was complete by 1970, the year of one unified National Football League, with Pete Rozelle as commissioner and the Denver Broncos as members of the NFL in the Western Division of the American Football Conference.

To this day, the AFC West is the only division that still exists with its original four teams—originally the Broncos, Oakland Raiders, Los Angeles Chargers and Dallas Texans.

The Broncos are the only team in the AFC West that has never moved to another city for any period of time or changed the team nickname.

Ever a contrarian, Davis felt that the AFL could have won the war without a merger and opposed the fact that the AFL had to pay out $18 million to the NFL owners, spread out over a 20-year period.

Al Davis protested strongly and eventually resigned in late July 1966 rather than remain until the completion of the merger.

The AFL became the only pro football league to successfully compete with the NFL, and all 10 AFL franchises were absorbed into the NFL.  This was a very big deal in Denver, which was one of the smaller cities and not in a heavily populated geographic area—there would not have been expansion to Denver anytime imaginable, so being absorbed into the NFL was critical for the Broncos.

The result of the pro football merger 47 years ago this week was a 26-team league—now at 32, of course, with additional expansion—with television rights that have blossomed into the greatest TV contract in pro sports history.

Every Gallup or Harris poll taken from the mid-1960's to the present has shown pro football as the most popular sport in America, by far, and the numbers make the NFL the most popular sports league in American history.

In future blogs, I will take a look at some of the ways that the American Football League, and yes, the Denver Broncos, helped to influence the entire growth and development of pro football.

Looking at the legacy of the AFL will be fascinating for readers, I hope, but for now, if anyone was wondering what ever might have happened this week in history for the Broncos, it was the week that guaranteed the future.

And fans continue to respond to the Broncos Country love affair.

The Broncos and our fans began a sellout streak with that first game as members of the NFL in 1970—it is a sellout streak that will see its 44th consecutive year in 2013.

The AFL was the greatest and most significant expansion league in American history, and its survival was guaranteed with handshakes and signatures 47 years ago this week.