Although the circuits wouldn’t play as one for four more seasons, the 1966 announcement that the National Football League and American Football League had agreed to merge created pro football’s first 600-pound gorilla.
NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was hoping it would soon grow into King Kong.
Part of the agreement between the 14-team NFL and 10-team AFL was that the combined organization would expand to 26 franchises by 1969 and 28 for the 1970 campaign.
The addition of New Orleans (NFL, 1967) and Cincinnati (AFL, 1968) took care of the first deadline, but the NFL was still at 26 and holding by 1970.
Rozelle, however, predicted a major growth spurt by the end of the decade – featuring up to 32 clubs with Honolulu and Mexico City in the expansion mix.
“I would think that within the next decade we would probably go to 32 teams,” Rozelle said during a Q&A with Associated Press in January, 1971. “When one considers that in a little over 10 years professional football has gone from 12 to 26 teams, you are not forced to stretch the imagination to envision six more being added. But it will not be in the immediate future.”
Cities across the United States – and beyond – had clamored for franchise consideration throughout the 1960s. Rozelle admitted there were already frontrunners by the early 1970s.
“Cities such as Seattle, Portland, Phoenix, Tampa, Birmingham, Memphis, perhaps the general area of the Carolinas, then Mexico City and Hawaii.
“I think we would first put franchises in mainland U.S. cities that merit them, but (an international flair) would be a decided plus for Hawaii and Mexico City.”
Rozelle was making the interview rounds as part of Super Bowl week and the annual “State of the League” address. And when he mentioned taking the league south of the border, it stood to reason that the NFL would strongly consider going north of the border, right?
Even though the early 1970s was an era in which the Canadian Football League could compete with the American leagues for players, Rozelle was hoping the NFL and CFL could have a peaceful coexistence.
“I see no use in going up there and causing problems,” Rozelle said. “The reason we wouldn’t be interested in Canada is simply a matter of public relations, of international goodwill. And we have a number of cities down here that would have to be taken care of first.
“I’m not ruling out Canada and there’s no obligation against us moving there, but we wouldn’t consider it without the approval of the people up there, the fans and maybe even the government along with the league owners. We don’t want to take steps to kill off the Canadian Football League.”
By 1972 expansion talk centered mostly on Memphis, Phoenix, Seattle and Tampa, and Lamar Hunt – founder of the AFL and president of the NFL’s American Football Conference – suggested those hopefuls would get a hearing in front of NFL officials in 1973.
However, expansion never got beyond the talking stage and drug on into 1974, when the NFL found itself dealing with a competitor in the World Football League. The WFL put franchises in Birmingham, Honolulu and Memphis, cities that Rozelle had mentioned as possible expansion sites. Whether that impacted the NFL’s decision to grant Tampa and Seattle teams for 1976 is debatable, but the Bucs were formed in April, 1974, and the Seahawks joined two months later to give the NFL its 27th and 28th teams.
As for expanding to 32 by the end of the 70s, that, of course, didn’t happen. In fact, Rozelle had been retired for six years before the NFL hit the 30-franchise mark, that coming when the Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars were added for the 1995 season.
The growth to 32 was ultimately realized as a byproduct of relocation. Cleveland, which lost its team when the franchise moved to Baltimore in 1996, was added as the NFL’s 31st team in 1999 and rechristened the Browns.
The Houston Texans made the league a 32-franchise organization when they came on board in 2002; Space City lost the Oilers to Tennessee in 1997.
Of Rozelle’s original 1970s expansion teases, Portland, Birmingham, Memphis, Mexico City and Honolulu are still on the outside looking in (although Memphis got the Oilers for a stopover year while Nashville built a stadium).
So, while the National Football League has seen quite a few established franchises begin play in new locales during the modern era (Oakland Raiders to Los Angeles in 1982; Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis in 1984; St. Louis Cardinals to Phoenix in 1988; Los Angeles Rams to St. Louis in 1995; Raiders back to Oakland in 1995; Houston Oilers temporarily to Memphis in 1997 and permanently to Nashville in 1998; Rams back to Los Angeles in 2016; San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles in 2017; and the Raiders to Las Vegas in 2020), it has had 32 members for the last two decades.
From a strictly numbers standpoint it seems to be the perfect size: two 16-team conferences each with four divisions comprised of four teams.
But it’s hard to imagine the NFL standing pat forever, and you have to believe there will be further expansion in the not-too-distant future.
Now that London is a regular season stop and talk of expansion there has gone on for several years, the league might throw logistical caution to the wind and give England its own team (or teams).
Speaking of wind, the Windy City could conceivably be in line for a second franchise. With the Bears leaving Soldier Field, city leaders are already talking about getting a new tenant for its old gridiron cathedral.
St. Louis would love to be back in the NFL, as would San Diego and Oakland. Toronto always seems to be in the expansion conversation as well, and it doesn’t take a huge leap to picture the sport’s preeminent business growing to 36 teams.
As enormous as King Kong is now, he could still bulk up even more.
Michael Seale says
Expanding to Canada makes no sense, seeing how Canada already has its own successful pro football league.
Scott Adamson says
An NFL team brings in $300 million in TV revenue each year compared to $4 million for a CFL team, so it’s basically apples and oranges when defining “successful”. Now, Toronto is too close to the Buffalo market to make the NFL jump on it, but if the league ever goes to 40 teams I could see it. I’m guessing a city that already has MLB, NBA and NHL franchises would love to hit for the major league franchise cycle.