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How the Giants Kept the Jets in New York

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The NFL wanted the Jets gone

New York Jets Training Camp

New York Giants. New York Jets. Same town, same sport, same stadium. Yet, so different.

You can pretty much assess that any Giants or Jets fan roots for two teams: their own, and whoever is playing the other New York team.

Rivalries are good. They provide material for sports writers and watercooler fodder. But the Giants are not the Jets rival – the New England Patriots, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills are because all three are located in the AFC Eastern Division. The Jets are not the Giants rival – that right belongs to the Dallas Cowboys, Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Jets and Giants actually have quite a bit in common. Even though the Giants are more old-school while the Jets are extra forward thinking, both have had future Hall of Famer Bill Parcells as their head coach, Dave Jennings as their punter, they have shared the same stadium/locker room for decades, neither squad hired Bill Belichick as their head coach (even though he was on staff with each), both teams employed Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard, and while the Giants have linebackers who will break a quarterback’s leg, the Jets have linebackers who broke a quarterback’s face (never mind that it was teammate Geno Smith, now a Giant).

The most obvious differences are that the Giants have won eight championships whereas the Jets have won only two (1968 AFL title plus the ensuing Super Bowl III).

But in New York, in-house rivalries are a natural. Ranger fans don’t like the Islanders. Knicks fans are not Nets fans. Don’t even get started with fans of the Mets and Yankees.

So, with all this heat floating around hating the other city’s teams, what if were to become known that the Giants are the reason the Jets remain in New York. Yes, it’s true.

The Jets began in the fourth entity that called itself the American Football League (AFL) in 1960. Their team originally was called “The Titans of New York” and wore blue and gold. The Titans played at the damp, decaying and primordial Polo Grounds just like every other New York pro football team before them. For the first three seasons, their roster was always an average-to-poor squad with attendance less than 10,000 a game. Early in 1962, the players went on strike after not receiving their game check for the past two games. By that third year, the debt had mounted and the club only stayed afloat with a $40,000 bailout by the AFL which allowed the team to make payroll for the remainder of the season.

At the end of the year, the AFL revoked the franchise as the Titans went into bankruptcy.

A five-man group headed by Hess oilman Sonny Werblin purchased the club for $1.3 million which covered all debts including the $225,450 value of the team. The new organization was officially named the Gotham Football Club, Inc. Werblin changed the colors to green and white to honor his St. Patrick’s[BS1] [BS2] Day birthday, moved the club into the comfy confines of Shea Stadium and renamed them the "Jets." His reasoning was that the United States was entering the space age and also that the new stadium was located between LaGuardia and JFK airports. Shea was also the home of the Mets, and the name association was friendly.

In the 1965 college drafts, both the Giants and the Jets had the first overall picks in their respective league drafts. The Giants took running back Tucker Fredrickson while the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL selected quarterback Joe Namath of Alabama 12th overall. The AFL New York Jets drafted Namath first overall. He was known for his strong arm, quick release and could already read a defense. He could also run.

After passing on Namath, the Giants later tried to make a trade for the QB but the Cardinals were certain they could sign him. But Werblin had other ideas – notions that would change the face of professional football. The Cardinals offer was $200,000 for three years. The Jets countered with $427,000 for a three-year contract, which included a brand new green Lincoln Continental plus scout salaries for three of Namath’s relatives.

Namath obviously signed with the Jets. At the time, it was the largest sports contract in history.

The Namath signing - plus a new TV contract with NBC - brought new life into the fledgling AFL. It also brought fear into the NFL owners - financial fear. Teams in both leagues were already losing money because of escalated contracts. Now, this huge contract.

The following summer a merger between the two leagues was announced beginning with a common draft in 1967 and a unified league in 1970.

Along with other issues, as part of the merger agreement, all 10 AFL teams would be included into the NFL. Never in sports had this happened before. Usually, when one league merges into another, the more established league only gets a certain number of the existing franchises while the others are disbanded. But not in this case.

However, the NFL had a problem with the Oakland Raiders and the Jets. In negotiations, the NFL owners brought up that in the league bylaws the fact that those two AFL teams, now a future part of the same league, would be in violation of their territorial exclusivity rules which protect franchises from encroachment. Not to mention two teams in relatively the same geographic market which would take away fans, TV rights, sponsors, media coverage and other considerations.

The NFL set a requirement that both the Raiders and the Jets would have to relocate; then the cities to which they relocated would have to be approved by the league owners.

The AFL owners vehemently balked about this requirement. The Raiders and Jets were part of their kindred spirit and brothers of the decade-long struggles. But the NFL felt that if the other league wanted this merger to go through they would cave into this condition for the betterment of the union as a whole. The bylaws mandated this. After all the negotiations that had been ironed out to this point, the concessions both league were forced to make, the escalation of player salaries and the real idea that the two pro football leagues could co-exist under one shield, could this one matter be a deal breaker?

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle

Alternate sites were already being tossed around as landing spots for the two teams. Portland was mentioned for the Raiders to keep the club on the West Coast. And for the Jets? Memphis was the frontrunner.

Amongst the arguing with the NFL owners about the relocation of the two AFL teams, Giants’ owner Wellington Mara told them that at this point the Jets were so established with a large following that he feared if the league required them to move that he himself would be persecuted. Therefore, because it was his team that created the sudden problem that he would be agreeable to the Jets staying in New York.

The San Francisco 49ers, Oakland’s neighbor, was on the fence. But once it was proposed that the NFL would award all of the AFL’s indemnity payments of $18 million to the Giants and 49ers, San Francisco gave its blessing to the Raiders. Mara wanted more because now Namath would be playing Sundays in the same league as his Giants, so his club received $10 million with the balance going to the 49ers.

So, with Mara’s consent that the Jets could remain in New York after the merger went through, the league granted the Giants the first pick in the upcoming draft provided that they would take a quarterback. The Giants used that pick in a trade that got them QB Fran Tarkenton from the Minnesota Vikings.

The last details of the impending merger between the two leagues were outlined: the Raiders would remain in Oakland while the Jets would still play in New York. The merger between the NFL and the AFL brought about a new epoch of fortune for the established league.

Super Bowl III

The following season, the AFL New York Jets led by Namath upset the heavily-favored NFL Baltimore Colts 16-7 in Super Bowl III. And suddenly, the City of New York had Namath fever. Mara had to wonder out loud whether he had made a wise decision to keep the Jets in New York, and more importantly, keep Broadway Joe Namath in New York.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.