“There was no time for a long legal document to be drafted and signed. A press release spelling out the terms would have to suffice…I was the messenger who delivered a copy of the press release to the United Press International sports desk.” – Browne on his role in the AFL-NFL merger
“(Commissioner Rozelle) had a chalkboard that contained five different alignment scenarios labeled 1 through 5… His secretary…would be the one to break the deadlock by blindly picking one of the slips of paper.” – Browne on how Commissioner Pete Rozelle decided NFC divisional alignment
“By 1970, pro football had overtaken Major League Baseball and college football as America’s favorite sport. While baseball was ‘America’s Pastime,’ football was on its way to becoming ‘America’s Passion.’” – Browne on the NFL’s growing popularity
STAMFORD, Conn. – June 29, 2020 – In the latest edition of Peter King’s Football Morning in America, available now exclusively on NBCSports.com, Joe Browne, the all-time longest-serving NFL employee who retired in 2016, serves as a guest writer and looks back at the story behind the 1970 AFL-NFL merger 50 years later. Browne also discusses how the NFL’s popularity grew following the merger and his relationship with former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Across NBC Sports this week, ProFootballTalk.com continues to provide the latest offseason news and the Rotoworld Football Podcast prepares for the 2020 season.
The following are highlights from this week’s edition of Football Morning in America:
Joe Browne on the AFL-NFL merger: “Fifty years ago, the National Football League and American Football League completed their merger to form one professional league. I was there for it, as a young NFL public relations employee. As a league intern in 1966, I saw the stop-and-start and stop-and-start-again merger talks in their infancy.”
Browne on the reasons for merger talks: “In 1966, the enormous economic costs to both AFL and NFL owners in their battle for fans, rookie players, and franchise cities continued to escalate. It had been going on several years. After consulting with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and the lawyers, Cowboys president Tex Schramm invited his Dallas neighbor – but not close friend – Lamar Hunt, the co-founder of the rival AFL, to meet him on April 4…Tex chose Lamar to talk merger because Hunt was respected by his fellow AFL owners; rumors were that Lamar wanted to end the excessive player spending, and he was known as a quiet person who could keep matters confidential.”
Browne: “Hunt and Schramm met again in early May; fortunately, both sides agreed that whatever obstacles were on the table could be overcome. That was the good news.”
Browne on one impediment to the merger: “Giants owner Wellington Mara told his peers that he had just signed standout Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak, who had played out his AFL option with that team. It was the first time an AFL player was jumping to the NFL. I wasn’t in attendance but later was told it was one of the more emotional league meetings ever held. How could the Giants, who knew about the Schramm-Hunt talks, have thrown gasoline on a burning fire?”
Browne on the fallout from the Giants signing Gogolak: “When the league meeting ended, several of the most influential NFL owners met privately in the hotel…The group instructed Schramm to convince his close friend Rozelle, who leaned more to fighting than merging, to get onboard and bring these merger talks to a conclusion. Pete, who believed the AFL was spending itself out of business, finally agreed.”
Browne on the agreement: “Things moved rapidly after that Gogolak uproar…One of the last hurdles was removed when Hunt agreed his league would (reluctantly) pay the NFL a total of $18 million over 10 years. The two peacemakers then met on June 7 with Rozelle and the lawyers in Washington D.C. …The Washington meeting with Hunt went into the early hours of June 8 until, perhaps out of exhaustion, all sides agreed to the final terms.”
Browne on his role: “There was no time for a long legal document to be drafted and signed. A press release spelling out the terms would have to suffice…I was the messenger who delivered a copy of the press release to the United Press International sports desk on 42nd Street, a few blocks from Times Square.”
Browne: “Fast forward to 1970. It had been agreed that the AFL would operate under its original name through the end of the ‘60s. Joint committees that included owners from both sides worked during those years on issues ranging from future scheduling to roster size to player medical benefits. However, a divisional alignment of the National Football Conference had to be decided only by the 13 NFC owners. It would be one of the final steps to the completion of the merger.”
Browne on NFC alignment issues: “The remaining NFC owners still were bickering about the best alignment for their conference, and themselves. Longtime traditional division rivalries were at risk. Some of the in-fighting concerned stadium capacities. Clubs much preferred road games in front of 75,000 fans who were paying high ticket prices…Other teams did not want to travel 3,000 miles to play division rivals. Progress on the issue was being made by inches, not yards.”
Browne on the final meeting to decide NFC alignment: “Pete (Rozelle) told the clubs that the 49ers, who via the merger agreement had a veto right to any alignment plan they did not like, had agreed to respect Pete’s authority to force an alignment…He had a chalkboard that contained five different alignment scenarios labeled 1 through 5 wheeled in…Pete gave it one last shot. If there were no consensus on any one plan, he would draw the number of the winning alignment out of a hat.”
Browne: “The owners accepted this game-plan because they had become as tired of the arguments as Pete…The commissioner told me to ask Thelma Elkjer, his secretary, to enter the room…She would be the one to break the deadlock by blindly picking one of the slips of paper. The owners trusted her…Without even a drumroll, Thelma reached in, pulled out a slip and announced that the winning plan was number 3.”
Browne on the reaction: “Tex Schramm let out a little cheer and smiled at Cowboys owner Clint Murchison who was beside him. Plan 3 was the ONLY combination that had the Cowboys in the same division as the Giants, Redskins and Eagles…A couple of the NFC Central teams mumbled their discontent because the combination of Chicago, Detroit, Green Bay and Minnesota meant they would not get that much-desired, warm weather break toward the season’s end.”
INNOVATIONS & TELEVISION
Browne on Monday Night Football: “Rozelle, better than any exec in or outside sports back then, understood the promotional power and impact of network television. He had been working to get NFL games in front of more diversified prime-time viewers in a weekly series. However, most network honchos still thought prime-time football would attract only a niche sports audience…Fortunately, young Roone Arledge, the president of ABC Sports at the time, shared Pete’s vision of prime-time football.”
Browne: “By 1970, pro football had overtaken Major League Baseball and college football as America’s favorite sport. While baseball was “America’s Pastime,” football was on its way to becoming “America’s Passion.” The NFL was ready to compete successfully with not only other sports but also all forms of entertainment.”
Browne on NFL innovations in 1970: “The 1970 season also featured for the first time a postseason wild-card team in each conference…A four-year collective bargaining agreement was reached in 1970 between the clubs…New policy changes in 1970 included player names on the back of all jerseys.”
Browne on his visit with Rozelle in 1996: “I asked Pete in a serious moment during my house visit if he could ever have anticipated the league’s spectacular growth 25 years earlier…The then-69 year old Rozelle emotionally replied that it was impossible to imagine back in 1970 all the growth, excitement, and interest the league would enjoy, and the entertainment and competition it would provide its fans.”
Browne on his career: “I retired from the NFL in 2016. I had attended 50 straight Super Bowls…I had a helluva 50-year ride (I called it an “internship”) in communications, public relations, government affairs, community endeavors and alumni coordination…Whenever folks ask how I survived at the NFL all those years, I first point out that having only three commissioner-CEOs over 50 years didn’t hurt. There’s something to be said about continuity.”
The following are additional highlights of NBC Sports’ NFL coverage:
- ProFootballTalk.com continues to provide the latest offseason news and updates.
- Rotoworld Football Podcast: Experts Josh Norris, John Daigle, Hayden Winks, and Patrick Daugherty continue to prepare for the 2020 season.
A new “Football Morning in America” posts every Monday morning exclusively on NBCSports.com through the NFL season. It was announced in May 2019 that King signed an exclusive agreement with NBC Sports Group that included writing a weekly Monday morning NFL column for NBCSports.com; making regular appearances on NBCSN’s and NBC Sports Radio’s PFT Live with Mike Florio; and continuing to contribute to Football Night in America, the most-watched studio show in sports.