New England Patriots
New York Jets
Kansas City Chiefs
Las Vegas Raiders
Los Angeles Chargers
Born as the 1960 American Football League (AFL), the AFC currently has 16 teams.
- 10 teams from the original AFL
- 3 teams moved from the NFC to the AFC as part of the 1970 merger
- 3 teams added via expansion
The American Football League
By 1959, the NFL had managed to fend off several upstart leagues including 3 previous attempts to create an AFL (1926, 1936, 1940), and the All-America Football Conference (1946).
The NFL only had 12 teams; Movers and shakers who wanted their own teams were unable to convince the NFL of expansion.
Among them was Lamar Hunt, who had grown up in Dallas. He tried to work with the NFL to bring football back to Texas. Rebuffed, he organized several would-be owners into a new league.
Initially, the AFL planned to launch with 6 teams - NY, LA, Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Minneapolis.
However, the NFL convinced Minnesota to change plans in August '59 and instead they joined the older more-established NFL as the Vikings in 1961.
Having lost the Minnesota option, the AFL eventually settled on placing a team in Oakland.
And in November, ownership groups representing the Buffalo Bills and Boston Patriots were welcomed to the fold.
The AFL began regular-season play in 1960 (a Fri night game) as:
- New York Titans (now NY Jets)
- Boston Patriots
- Buffalo Bills
- Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans)
- Los Angeles Chargers
- Denver Broncos
- Oakland Raiders
- Dallas Texans (now KC Chiefs)
The Miami Dolphins joined the Eastern in 1966.
The Cincinnati Bengals joined the Western in 1968.
How the AFL Succeeded
Like recent attempts with the XFL and AAF, the AFL initially struggled.
In those days, like a nightclub, team revenue was primarily driven by stadium gates. Low attendance meant few dollars.
In 1960, the AFL's first year, the NFL averaged 40,000+ fans per game, with some games drawing over 50,000. The AFL averaged just 16,500.
The AFL was able to hang in and succeed by
Scoring TV deals with ABC (1960) and then NBC (1964). They took advantage of the new medium faster than the NFL.The 1964 NBC contract, worth $36 million (just under $300 million adjusted for inflation), gave the league real money and legitimacy.
The AFL purposefully placed franchises where the NFL was absent. 2 teams in Texas, the first ever pro football team in Colorado, and later Miami. They even tried to create a Seattle team before eventually settling on Oakland.
Signing top flight talent
The league signed 75% of the NFL's first-round draft choices in 1960. This included the Oilers signing Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon.
- 14 game seasons
- Names on jerseys
- 2 point conversions
- using the stadium scoreboard clock to track official game time
(in the NFL, time was kept on a referee's stopwatch)
By mid 1960s attendance was comparable to the NFL. In 1964, nearly 62,000 fans packed Shea Stadium to watch the New York Jets vs Buffalo Bills.
NFL vs AFL, 1960 - 1966
At first, the NFL seemed ok with the AFL. After all, they had rejected the expansion offer, and half the teams were to be located outside NFL markets.
And yet fairly quickly, for one reason or another, the NFL and AFL were engaged in fierce business competition.
The NFL convinced Minnesota to join them instead of the AFL and created a rival Dallas team. They also copied the AFL by moving from a 12 game to 14 game schedule.
For their part, the AFL signed 75% of the NFL's first-round draft choices in 1960. Among them Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon (LSU) [Cannon's famous LSU punt return].
For the next several years, both leagues regularly engaged in bidding wars for players, and players were often drafted by both leagues.
Gale Sayers was drafted by both the Chiefs (AFL) Bears (NFL); Joe Namath was drafted by the Jets (AFL) and Cardinals (NFL).
Before the AFL, player salaries were roughly $7,000 for veterans, $6,000 for rookies, and $10,000 for QBs. Namath joined the Jets at a then record of $427,000 ($3.5 million adj for infl)
However, the two leagues had a gentlemen’s agreement not to sign each other’s veteran players still under contract.
That all changed in Spring 1966 when the NFL Giants signed kicker Pete Gogolak, whose contract with the Buffalo Bills had expired. As the Bills had not been given a chance to renegotiate with Gogolak, the AFL saw the signing as breaking the agreement.
In response, then AFL commissioner Al Davis developed futures contracts. They offered high salaries to then NFL players, with the contract kicking in the moment their current NFL contract expired.
Using futures contracts, Oakland signed Rams starting QB Roman Gabriel to a four-year deal worth $400,000. The Oilers offered 49ers QB John Brodie a three-year deal for $500,000. In contrast, the 49ers had offered Brodie $40,000 a season.
When the dust settled, the AFL had signed 7 veteran QBs from the NFL.
With the bidding wars taking salaries to ever greater heights, owners in both leagues sought a peace agreement. In Spring 1966, Cowboys GM Tex Schramm and Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt quietly negotiated a merger of the 2 leagues. Among the key agreements - a common draft, a league wide championship game between the conferences, and adding 2 more teams as soon as possible.
Also part of the merger agreement, was moving 3 teams from the NFL to AFL in order to maintain team balance. Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, jumped at the opportunity for a regional rivalry with the Bengals. He also helped persuade the Steelers and Baltimore Colts to join the AFC.
In 1976 - the Seattle Seahawks and Tampa Bay Buccaneers were added to the league. While it may seem odd at first, each team was specifically placed in one conference in 1976, and moved to the opposite conference in 1977. This was done so that each expansion team could play all other teams in the league over the course of 2 years.
And from 1977 until the 2002 Realignment, the Seahawks were part of the AFC.
The Jacksonville Jaguars joined in 1995.
The Baltimore Ravens were added in 1996.
And in 2002, the Cleveland Browns were restored and the Houston Texans became the newest NFL franchise.