2009 is a year of notable anniversaries: 90 years since the Treaty of Versailles, 60 years since the Communists seized power in China, 50 years since Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper's plane crashed, and 40 years since Woodstock.
One anniversary that is not likely to garner much attention, however, is the 60th anniversary of the NFL-AAFC merger. From 1946 to 1949 the AAFC or All-America Football Conference was the NFL's most serious rival before the American Football League (AFL) arrived on the scene in the early sixties.
The AAFC pursued a clever strategy in its war with the NFL. It put franchises in key NFL markets like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago as well as regions of the country that the older league had ignored, such as the Bay Area and Florida.
It awarded franchises to wealthy businessmen like Dan Topping, part-owner of the New York Yankees, and signed some of the most-prized college players of the era, such as Frankie Albert, Glenn Dobbs and Angelo Bertelli, the 1943 Heisman Trophy winner. Some of the greatest players of the era played in the AAFC not the NFL: Marion Motley and Otto Graham of the Cleveland Browns, Y.A. Tittle, Alyn Beals, and Joe Perry of the San Francisco 49ers, and Orban "Spec" Sanders and Marty Ruby of the New York Yankees.
Its timing was propitious, too. During the Second World War, many colleges had dropped football, such as Stanford and Santa Ana. As a result, many Americans wanted to see more of the game.
The junior league was not well-suited for a knock-out, drag out fight with the NFL. As Paul Brown, the league's most successful coach, has written, many of the league's owners were "not football men"; they knew a lot about making money but little about how to run a football team. This lack of knowledge is one reason a few franchises, such as Cleveland and San Francisco, dominated the league. Indeed, some claimed AAFC actually stood for "All About Football in Cleveland".
In the pre-television era, putting "fannies in the seats" was more critical to the success of a pro franchise than it is today. Although some AAFC teams drew huge crowds, such as the Browns and Los Angeles Dons, most did not fare very well at the gate. For instance, the Seahawks, the Miami franchise, folded in their first year (1946). The NFL did better in this regard, but some of its teams, like the Detroit Lions, had financial problems, too.
Matters came to a head when the two leagues got in a bidding war for college players. Salary costs escalated and more and more teams faced financial hardships. Pressure mounted inside the AAFC to strike some type of deal with their more successful rival.
Although the first efforts were unsuccessful--one issue dividing the parties was the NFL's fear that operating franchises in the West would lead to exorbitant travel costs--in 1949 the pro-merger faction in the NFL finally won out. One indication of the one-side nature of the deal was that only three of the AAFC's seven teams was admitted into the NFL: the 49ers, Browns, and Baltimore Colts.
The AAFC which had begun with so much promise was no more.