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How the NFL Stole Atlanta from the AFL: history of the Browns’ Week 10 opponent

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Largest southern city had been a target for both leagues

The Washington Redskins at one time claimed the entire South as its fan base as they were for a very long time the southernmost National Football League (NFL) club. The only other pro football team that had ever been placed in the South was in 1946 with the Miami Seahawks of the All-American Football Conference, an NFL rival league. But the Seahawks played only a single season, and for the remainder of the time the South was devoid of pro football.

Which was fine with most folks. Not until the mid-1970s did pro football equal Major League Baseball with fan support and then later surpass the “Nation’s Pastime.”

The South had college football and was really all they needed. This statement still may hold true as evidenced in the popularity and prestige that the Southeastern Conference possesses today. Each season the SEC is littered with member schools in the Top-25 and has several teams in the national championship hunt. In all, southern schools have won 35 national championships out of 81 years.

To show how much the Redskins counted on the South for their patronage, look at the words to their fight song “Hail to the Redskins.” Within the lyrics the song goes “Fight for old D.C.!” Conversely, the original lyrics were “Fight for old Dixie!” This was written with the fact that Washington D.C. is just south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Atlanta Procures Suitors

Atlanta, Memphis, Jacksonville, Birmingham and Tampa were all popular sites for NFL and American Football League (AFL) pre-season games throughout the years. The Chicago Bears had gone on a barnstorming tour of the east coast and down into Florida to make extra funds and always included Atlanta on their tour. All of these games had good gates and the teams which played in these exhibition games always made money.

In 1960 the Atlanta metro area had swelled to 1,312,474 people. This was also the year the AFL began with eight clubs. An investor group from Atlanta had tried to purchase the San Diego Chargers after the 1961 season and relocate them to Georgia. Atlanta had hosted three AFL pre-season games in the past including the Denver Broncos vs. the Houston Oilers in 1962 and drew large crowds. The City of Atlanta was ripe for professional football.

For most of the team’s first five years, the Broncos were bottom-feeders as their first four seasons provided horrible win-loss records. In 1964, things didn’t begin any better. After starting the year 0-4-0, Coach Jack Faulkner was fired. The Broncos only averaged 17,019 fans per season for those four years and then attendance reached dead last in the league en route to consecutive 2-11-1 seasons.

At this point, in 1965 the Broncos’ minority partners wanted to sell the team with Gerry Phipps the largest stockholder. The partners wanted to sell the club to an investor group from Atlanta instead of the continued financial setbacks each season in Denver. Plus, the city was not supporting the franchise at the gate and back then ticket sales is what made every pro sports team either profitable or a failure.

These minority owners partnered together and formed a majority voting block even though Phipps, a building contractor, was not on board with the proposed sale. Negotiations went on for several months with Atlanta before Phipps brought into the fold Alan Phipps, his brother. The minority owners simply wanted to not lose any more money and for their minority shares to stop declining in value. Alan agreed to buy out the shares of the minority owners with a fair market assessment.

The Broncos had sold only 8,000 season tickets for 1966. The Phibbs brothers made it known that a group in Atlanta had an interest in the team and they were considering their offer. However, they preferred not to relocate and would stay in Denver if the fan base would step up.

The brothers made a declaration to the people of Denver regarding the Broncos. They reminded them that a pro football franchise was a valuable civic asset and gave the city nationwide recognition, even with a losing record. To them, it didn’t make any sense to continue to lose funds annually in a city that didn’t care whether the team stayed or not. Atlanta was a viable play. And the Phipps wanted more from the fans - they wanted results. The Bronco boosters rallied and sold 23,000 season tickets – then third highest in the AFL - to ensure the club would remain in Denver.

In 1966 the Milwaukee Braves moved to Atlanta and became the city’s first major sports team.

The Dallas Texans of the AFL shared the cities of Dallas and Ft. Worth with the NFL Cowboys as well as the Cotton Bowl, even though the Texans were the first of the two franchises to set up shop. After three seasons competing for the same team fans, media coverage, sponsors and attention, Texans’ owner Lamar Hunt thought about moving.

Texans’ RB Abner Hayes (#28) against the Houston Oilers 1962 AFL Championship Game
Lou Witt/WireImage.com

The Texans won the AFL Championship in 1962 and outdrew the Cowboys at the gate. But with a winner intact, Hunt decided the timing was right. He had a championship commodity and started looking. He targeted four cities: Miami, New Orleans, Seattle and Atlanta. Hunt was a Dallas man, and even though his team would no longer play there, he wanted to keep his home and have some sort of commute when needed. Initially he ruled out Seattle and Miami because of the distance. He traveled to New Orleans and wanted to relocate there, but the only stadium large enough was Tulane Stadium which was not integrated and had no plans to change. Hunt wanted no part of a facility that discriminated people or made them separated or completely turn them away. That was not his demeanor and besides, why would he do a business deal that states they will decline ticket sales to see his product?

He made plans to visit Atlanta, and in the meantime the mayor of Kansas City, Missouri contacted Hunt. Mayor Roe Bartle (who everyone called “Chief”) invited Hunt to look over his city as a possible landing spot. What transpired from there was an overwhelming effort by Bartle and the City of Kansas City to lure the Texans. In the end, Hunt never made it to Atlanta and instead called Missouri his new home.

New Beginnings?

Back up a few years. In 1958 several men went to the NFL owners and asked out about getting an expansion team. The owners said no, but inquire if one of the existing 12 clubs were for sale. Hunt was one of those men and found out the Chicago Cardinals might be available. In the end, the owners offered him a 20% stake in the Cardinals. Frustrated, like several other men who had asked about an expansion franchise, Hunt started his own league – the AFL.

The AFL immediately placed its first team in Dallas because that is where Hunt lived. All of a sudden, the NFL announced that would indeed be open to expansion and in fact a new team would be placed in where? Dallas. At the time the Dallas metro area was only 679,684. It would be a stretch for one club to make it much less two. The NFL then offered the Minneapolis ownership group of the AFL an NFL expansion team instead, which they accepted.

The NFL offered Hunt part ownership of the NFL Dallas franchise, to which he declined. They also offered Bud Adams, the owner of the AFL’s second new team located in Houston, his own team. Adams declined as well.

And so this was the way it was during the AFL – NFL wars. Most of the problems were financially-based. The AFL offered players more money for contracts which forced the NFL to offer more money as well.

Yes, there is a point to all this: Atlanta.

The AFL had gotten a larger TV contract worth $36 million which gave more money per club. This made the AFL more solvent instead of desperate to survive. And unlike other former pro football leagues which had teams that jumped from one city to another every season or folded, the AFL had just one team not situated in its original city all the while and was still an eight-team league. Officials began serious talks about expansion. In 1963 the semi-pro Newark Bears inquired about admission into the league. A group in Milwaukee inquired about the possibility of an expansion team. The St. Louis Cardinals wanted to relocate to Atlanta but were contractual bound to their own stadium deal.

But the timing was never right for expansion and the league as a whole needed to become more financially stable. This time around with the new TV contract, AFL officials met in June of 1965 and voted unanimously to form two new clubs for 1966 and expand their presence. Their short list was Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Atlanta. The longer list included Cincinnati, Seattle and Miami.

1966 Atlanta Falcons pennant

With this news, the NFL instantly announced that they too were going to add expansion teams to its 14-team lineup.

War on the Dixie Metropolis

The first city was Milwaukee. The AFL knew the Green Bay Packers were the very core of the NFL and had won a zillion championships. The NFL was also mainly a Midwestern and Eastern league, so it made sense to go head-on with them on their own turf.

The Packers played one pre-season and one regular season home game a year in Milwaukee. There were two ownership groups who were ready to accept an expansion team in this city. However, when the information got out about the AFL’s intentions, Packers’ head coach and GM Vince Lombardi submitted that they had an exclusive-rights contract with Milwaukee County Stadium, the only venue suitable and large enough for pro football. And that was that.

Next up on the agenda: Atlanta. A subsequent battle ensued over the city, which really nobody foresaw.

Atlanta Stadium (circa 1966)

In 1966, the $18 million 52,007-seat Atlanta Stadium (later renamed the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) opened. It was owned by the City of Atlanta who set up the Atlanta Stadium Authority (ASA) to operate the facility, make decisions and book events. This enticed the Braves to move in. It also sent out a message to the pro football universe that Atlanta was now open for business. Then there was the notion that the entire South would open up to TV ratings if a team was based in this major city.

After the Cardinals made it clear they were not leaving St. Louis, AFL commissioner Joe Foss announced to the media that Atlanta would be given the first expansion team for the 1967 season to be owned by Cox Broadcasting - pending their ability to acquire an exclusive stadium lease. The lessons learned with the Cotton Bowl situation in Dallas years earlier taught the younger league a valuable experience. The second expansion city would be announced later.

The AFL set the price for the new Atlanta club at $7.5 million - at the time a record price for a franchise in either pro football league. On Tuesday, June 8, 1965, Cox officials had a meeting with the ASA about a stadium lease. Although they left the meeting without a signed contract, they felt that the deal was confirmed. In the meantime, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle had flown into Atlanta on Monday, June 7. He had gotten wind of the AFL’s expansion plans into Atlanta.

Rozelle and the Harris Poll

Rozelle then met with the ASA and told them the NFL also wanted to place an expansion club in Atlanta, but not in 1967, but instead 1966. On July 1, Arthur Montgomery, the chairman of the ASA announced that his organization would not make a commitment to a football tenant, but when they did make a decision it would be with only one team.

AFL officials were floored, but the stadium agreement was between Cox and the ASA and there was nothing they could do. As a league, their decision was where to place the new team, who would own it and at what price. They were not in the stadium leasing business. Rozelle, at the NFL owner’s request, had an opposite attitude. As a league, their stance was to stop the AFL in as many areas as possible. They had stolen the Minneapolis franchise away from them in 1960, forced the Texans to relocate into a smaller market, gave the Los Angeles franchise fits with horrible stadium scheduling which made them also relocate, and now they wanted the largest city in the South instead of the younger league.

Enter Lou Harris.

Harris owned a company called the “Louis Harris and Associates Polling Group.” This firm began “The Harris Poll” in 1963 which measured public opinion mainly with political issues and candidates. In 2013, this company was bought by Nielsen Holdings for $116.6 million. Clients with Harris over the years were President John F. Kennedy, President Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher.

The Harris Poll was nationally known in political circles just as the Nielsen Ratings is known in the entertainment world. Rozelle hired Harris to conduct a poll with the citizens of Atlanta. The three-day survey asked the people a number of questions, but also whether they would prefer a team from the NFL or the AFL. In a 5-1 margin, the results swayed towards the NFL; which was perceived as being more established, richer, more recognizable star players and added prestige.

Naturally, Rozelle took the results to the ASA. The final approval went before Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen who had been inspirational in bringing the Braves to the city. Now, he chose the NFL.

Rankin Smith paid $9 million for the new franchise. A name-the-team contest ensued which brought forth team names such as Rebels, Firebirds, Thrashers, Knights, Fireballs, Bombers, Thunderbirds, Falcons and Lancers. Falcons was chosen which had been submitted by 40 entries. The winner drawn was from high school teacher Julia Elliott.

The roster was formed from unprotected players of each NFL roster, plus the first pick in the NFL draft which they used on Texas LB Tommy Nobis. The Houston Oilers of the AFL also chose Nobis with the fifth pick in the first-round of their league’s draft. Nobis had been on the cover of Life Magazine and expectations were high in each league to sign him.

A voice from above came to Nobis. Gemini 7 was in orbit when astronaut Frank Borman, an Oilers fan aboard the space craft, said during one broadcast to the entire civilized world on national TV, “Tell Nobis to sign with the Oilers.” Nobis took the Falcons’ deal instead and Atlanta was on its way as the newest team in the NFL.

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