For two good reasons, there will be a second professional football league in operation this year. One reason is fairly obvious: the National Football League in 1959 drew 3,140,409 paying customers, setting an attendance record for the eighth consecutive season, and amassed profits which have naturally stirred envy. The less obvious reason has to do with the inability of two rich young Texans to buy a controlling interest in the Chicago Cardinals, the only really anemic franchise in the NFL.
The Texans are Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams. Hunt, 27, is the son of H. L. Hunt, who is one of the four or five richest men in the U.S. K. S. (Bud) Adams Jr., 37, is the son of the chairman of the board of the giant Phillips Petroleum Co. and, as owner of the Ada Oil Co., is as well heeled as a Texas boot. Both men have almost exactly the same background, and are good friends. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to imagine two more disparate personalities.
Hunt, owner of the Dallas franchise in the American Football League, is a quiet man. He says very little, but he means what he says. He is so unlike the popular conception of a brash Texas zillionaire that he could double for TV's Wally Cox in his Mr. Peepers characterization. He played what he calls "the varsity bench" on the Southern Methodist football team while taking a degree in geology. Since he played behind three ends who later made pro teams, the fact that he hung on as an overshadowed substitute is a tribute to his tenacity rather than a reflection on his ability.
Hunt Senior wanted his boy to know the value of a dollar. In college, Lamar Hunt had no more spending money than most other students. At one point, his father gave him a vacant lot and told him to put a business on it to finance his college education. Lamar cleaned and graded the lot himself, then put up a baseball batting game which promptly failed. Once he came to football practice wearing his mother's raincoat because his own was worn out. He now has something like $50 million in his own name, and he is not throwing any of it away. He went to lunch the other day in a summer suit, trudging three blocks through a cold rain. "I've been on a diet," he explained. "My winter suits don't fit me any more."
Bud Adams, who owns the Houston Oilers in the new league, is a pudgy young man who has not been on a diet, but who obviously would have a tailor standing by to renew his wardrobe pound by pound if he did decide to diet. He inhabits one of the biggest offices in a business known for offices the size of football fields. He is as voluble as Hunt is quiet; indeed, he is so quick on the drawl that he has been called the fastest mouth in Texas. His Ada Oil Co. services some 600 stations. Adams played football in prep school and at the University of Kansas, where he was a blocking back during the two years he attended college.
It is primarily upon the cash, character and acuity of Hunt and Adams that the American Football League must rest its hopes of survival. Hunt was the prime mover in the organization of the league and he found a willing ally in Adams. They got together in February after each had failed to buy the Cardinals. Adams, by his own admission, may have come closest to owning the team.
"We valued the club at a million and a half bucks," Adams said the other day. He was sitting in his vast office behind a black desk the size of a billiard table, dressed in a blue Ivy League suit—and a red vest, blue shirt with a white collar and a blue tie. "One per cent of a million and a half is...what? Let's see...15 thousand. We came that close. In a hotel in Miami. I was willing to settle for 50% of the club, but Violet Wolfner [the Cardinals' owner] didn't want to sell more than 49% and the deal fell through."
When negotiations collapsed, the American Football League was born. "Lamar came through Houston and dropped in to see me," Adams said. "I didn't know him but we had dinner together and in the course of the conversation we reminisced about trying to buy the Cardinals. Just before he left for the airport I told Lamar, 'Maybe we ought to start our own league.' The next time I saw him, maybe three months later, he had lined up four other franchises besides his own hometown Dallas club and he asked me if I wanted in. I said, 'Hell, yes!' "
Hunt had approached the other franchise owners through personal contacts and through the good offices of Harry Wismer. Wismer, who owns 25% of the Washington Redskins and who for several years has fought a running battle over operation of the club with Redskin Owner George Preston Marshall, was ripe for a proposition to start a new league. Wismer, of course, has been one of the top sports announcers for some 20-odd years, and has had interests in professional football nearly as long.
Wismer formed the New York Titans with backing from two Midland, Texas oilmen and from Joseph Arcuni, a former intercollegiate tennis player who now owns a large textile business in New York. It was Wismer who brought in Ralph C. Wilson Jr., who now holds the Buffalo franchise. Wilson is a 41-year-old Detroiter who owns a small interest in the Detroit Lions. His father made a fortune hauling automobiles, and Wilson has a considerable chunk of that fortune along with his own successful insurance business. When he heard of the new league, he called Wismer and said, "Count me in. I'll take a franchise anywhere you suggest."
Hunt found his Los Angeles franchise owner through an old friend, tennis player Gene Mako. Mako, a resident of Los Angeles, suggested that Hunt first try Barron Hilton, the 32-year-old son of Conrad Hilton, the hotel magnate. Barron, a sports enthusiast, operates the Carte Blanche credit-card end of his father's hotel business and has money enough to support a pro football team without outside help. He needed no persuasion to accept Hunt's offer of a franchise in the new league.
TWO BASEBALL MEN
The owner of the Denver franchise is Bob Howsam, whose family also owns the Denver Bears baseball team in the American Association. An indefatigable joiner, Howsam has strong civic ties in Denver. Several years ago he was one of the leaders in a group of Denver businessmen who nibbled tentatively on the tempting Chicago Cardinal bait.
The spokesman for the Boston franchise applied to Hunt for his place in the league when he heard of its formation. He is Bill Sullivan, president of the Metropolitan Coal and Oil Co. Sullivan was a friend of Frank Leahy, who is now general manager of the Los Angeles Chargers, when Leahy was coach at Boston College and later at Notre Dame. After Navy service in World War II, he became publicity director for the Boston Braves. If this background seems less than ideal for training a man to operate a pro football team, Sullivan does have ideas. He said recently: "I will say in one respect we might improve on the NFL. That's in the between-the-halves entertainment. It's kind of incongruous to see that terrific football and then find yourself watching the East Chicopee Junior High School band. We're going to give our TV sponsor as much for his money as we can." Sullivan did not specify what he will substitute for the East Chicopee Junior High School band.
There will be another franchise in the league, and the fact that one has not already been named is testimony to the sudden respect NFL owners showed for the new operators. Inclined originally to shrug the AFL off as the dream of a money-happy young Texan, the NFL crowd reacted with a vengeance when they found the AFL moving into the potentially rich Minneapolis-St. Paul region. With a bald-power play the NFL frightened the AFL owners there out of business. At an AFL meeting in Minneapolis, a telegram was read from George Halas, head of the NFL's expansion committee and owner and coach of the Chicago Bears, assuring the citizenry of Minneapolis-St. Paul that they would be granted an NFL franchise immediately. With this plum dangling before them, the city fathers, who control the stadium, decided to back and fill before committing the park to the AFL entry. At this, the AFL owners bowed out, prompting Joe Foss, ex-governor of South Dakota, ex-marine fighter pilot who won a Congressional Medal of Honor and since November 30 commissioner of the AFL, to threaten darkly a trip to Washington for a chat with old political friends on the Senate's antitrust committee. The NFL is also contemplating moving into Dallas and very likely will do so at its meeting in Miami this week.
The eighth AFL franchise will go, eventually, to Atlanta, Miami or San Francisco. The new league owners are understandably reluctant to say which of these cities will be favored until after the NFL Miami meeting, when the old league will either be irretrievably committed to expansion to Minneapolis-St. Paul, Dallas and possibly even Miami, or to going along with the present league of 12 teams.
How long the American Football League will last depends on the strength of the coaching and managerial organizations, the tenacity and financial staying power of the owners, and on how soon the AFL can bring its football up to an even rating with the NFL. As it is presently set up, the AFL has four strong franchises: Dallas, Houston, Buffalo and New York. Denver and Boston are handicapped by stadium difficulties, Los Angeles by the tremendous competition of the Los Angeles Rams.
SHOWDOWN IN DALLAS
The crucial battle between the two leagues will probably take place in Dallas, where Hunt's Texans will be competing with a team backed by the oil millions of Clint Murchison Jr. and Bedford Wynne. Hunt wisely secured an option on the Cotton Bowl which gives him the right to select eight dates—one exhibition and seven league games, so that the rival NFL team must take what's left. He has allotted some $8 million to the operation of his team, but this is no advantage over the NFL team, which has equally solid financial backing. The importance the National Football League attaches to the Dallas franchise was indicated in a phone call Hunt received this August from a veteran NFL owner. "You have a National League franchise in the palm of your hand," he was told. "All you have to do is close your hand."
The NFL Dallas Rangers have a strong edge in top administrative personnel in General Manager Tex Schramm, who was with the Los Angeles Rams in that capacity for most of 10 years and in Head Coach Tom Landry, probably the best young coach in the NFL. Landry left the New York Giants to take the job in Dallas. Too, the Dallas NFL team can offer a more attractive schedule, playing against established teams like the Chicago Bears and the Baltimore Colts while the Dallas Texans will be playing the unknown teams of its own league.
Incidentally, H. L. Hunt, Lamar's father, publicly disavowed any interest in his son's team by sending a crusty letter to each of the Dallas papers saying that he did not believe the Texans would succeed and feared pro football in Dallas would hurt college football. One of the old man's few extravagances is betting on college football; he is one of the biggest football gamblers in the country. In his board room, where he meets with the proconsuls of his oil empire, there is one phone kept separate from the others. When it rings, the oil men leave precipitately, and Hunt talks with his bookie. By cutting himself off from his son's team, Hunt cleared the club from any possible connection with his gambling activities.
FRIGHTENING BUT NOT HOPELESS
In Los Angeles and New York, the new league faces old, successful pro franchises. Barron Hilton's Chargers are in a peculiarly difficult position because the Rams have first call on the Los Angeles Coliseum dates, and the Chargers must either be content with their leavings, move to the Rose Bowl in distant Pasadena or wait for the completion of the Chavez Ravine home of the Dodgers. The Chargers, on the credit side, have more than adequate money and a seasoned pro coach—although last year not a successful one—in the Los Angeles Rams' ex-mentor, Sid Gillman.
Wismer's New York Titans face a tough fight trying to wean fans away from the rabid and numerous following of the New York Giants. But Wismer has a good head coach in Sam Baugh and, for the present at least, he has the Polo Grounds. He, too, has enough money.
Probably the best franchises in the new league are in Buffalo and Houston, where the Bills and the Oilers have no NFL competition, adequate stadiums, intelligent management and lots of money. Buffalo was a strong franchise in the old All-America Conference and the town seems hungry for another team. Through the intercession of Attorney Paul Crotty, a political power in Buffalo and friend of Wismer, Wilson was all but given the Civic Stadium in Buffalo—at a rental of $5,000 for the season with free office space thrown in.
Adams, of course, has unlimited money to pour into the Houston club. He is spending some of it in enlarging a high school football stadium from 24,000 to 38,000 seats at a cost of $300,000. His rental will then be about $30,000 a year, a very favorable figure.
In Denver, Howsam has a small 19,000-seat baseball park, albeit a very fine one, which he plans to enlarge to 30,000. Whether Denverites will turn out in sufficient numbers (an estimated 27,000 to 30,000 per game throughout the league) to support the team remains to be seen. Boston, with no park yet available to play in, no complete list of owners released, no head coach named and no history of strong interest in the professional game, seems the least likely of all the clubs to make it.
All in all, the problems of the American Football League are frightening but not impossible. It costs around $1 million a year to operate a pro football team; the owners in the AFL realize this and apparently are willing to spend that amount. The budget for the New York Titans is $986,000 a year, for the Dallas Texans between $800,000 and $900,000.
The new league faces a strongly entrenched NFL which has shown, in early skirmishes, a fierce appetite for combat. Even so, the AFL is signing a surprising number of good college players in direct competition with the NFL and getting into trouble once in a while, as in the Billy Cannon case, where Cannon had already signed with the Los Angeles Rams.
As of now, it looks as though the AFL will survive for at least two years. By then the intransigent NFL may be willing to accept the strongest of the AFL survivors, in which case Lamar Hunt, who only wanted a pro club for Dallas in the first place, will have accomplished his purpose.
And maybe it won't have cost him all of that $8 million. Not quite.
HOUSTON OILERS OWNER BUD ADAMS, FOOTBALL ON DESK, WIFE'S PORTRAIT ON WALL, DOES BUSINESS IN SNUG OFFICE CONTAINING BARBECUE PIT (RIGHT REAR), LILY POND
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS OWNER Barron Hilton and General Manager Frank Leahy pose outside Carte Blanche office. Hilton credit business may explain Chargers name.
DENVER'S Bob Howsam has a small stadium but! high hopes.
BOSTON'S Bill Sullivan has a baseball background, no field.
BUFFALO'S Ralph Wilson Jr. has politicians' solid support.
NEW YORK'S Harry Wismer has Polo Grounds, experience.
LAMAR HUNT, real founder of the AFL, has a fortune to spend on Dallas team.
BILLY CANNON signs controversial second football contract with AFL's Houston Oilers before 80,000 spectators at the Sugar Bowl. He had already signed with LA Rams.