By the end of the 1950s, the National Football League (NFL), was able to reflect on its most stable and profitable decade since its inception in 1920. It was during this decade that football was ushered into the television era, which provided the sport the opportunity to grow its national profile and add much needed revenue to the operation of the league.
One of the biggest issues facing the NFL in 1959 was expansion. There was great demand by new communities, with well-funded prospective ownership groups, that were ready to invest in new franchises when the league was ready. However, the twelve NFL owners showed little interest in expanding at that time. The existing owners were concerned about the viability of new franchises and the impact of sharing television revenue with a larger group of owners. It was at this time that an upstart league formed with the hopes of eventually merging with the more established National Football League.
Formation of the American Football League (AFL)
After repeated attempts to encourage the NFL to consider expansion, several prospective team ownership groups lost patience and formed a new, competitive football league on July 17, 1959. The name of the new association was the American Football League (AFL). The league was focused on competing with the NFL in the 1960 season. They planned on fielding a league of eight teams, with several of their franchises competing in the same market as an NFL team.
The first eight franchises in the AFL were in the following cities: Boston (Patriots), Buffalo (Bills), Houston (Oilers), New York (Titans), Dallas (Texans), Denver (Broncos), Los Angeles (Chargers) and Minnesota. The Dallas franchise would later move to become the Kansas City Chiefs. New York would later rename from the Titans to the Jets.
However, as a counter move to disrupt the formation of the new league, the NFL provided a more enticing offer to enfranchise the Minnesota Vikings from the AFL to the NFL. The Minnesota Vikings accepted the offer to join the NFL leaving the AFL one team short to begin play in 1960.
Given the change of direction by Minnesota, the AFL commissioner, Joe Foss, turned his attention to St. Louis as a possible replacement. However, the city was more focused on trying to attract Bill Bidwell and the Chicago Cardinals to move to St. Louis, so Foss quickly moved onto plan B. On January 30, 1960, Foss accepted Oakland as his league’s final entrant. The Raider’s ownership group was considered financially unsound, but it was the best option left for the upstart new league. Lamar Hunt, owner of the Dallas franchise, was elected the league’s first president on January 26, 1960.
Battle for Survival (1960 – 1964)
The AFL’s survival was an uphill battle for relevance in their early years. Prior to the start of the first season, they signed a television contract with ABC to broadcast their games nationally. However, they began the 1960s with a nonexistent fan base. The eight AFL franchises had difficulty drawing fans to their games, in part, because half of their clubs were sharing markets with established NFL teams.
In addition, the AFL struggled to field the top talent in the sport. The NFL made it difficult to sign veteran NFL players under contract, and the new league did not have the financial standing to get into a bidding war for collegiate athletes who were eligible for the sport’s draft. The teams relied on players who had experience in the Canadian league, or those who were cut and not signed by other NFL teams.
Following the championship game of 1963, where the Chicago Bears defeated the New York Giants by a score of 14-10, the NFL celebrated its best year financially and in popularity. The league’s television contract was set to expire, and the team owners were optimistic that a bidding war between television networks would lead to a very lucrative television contract.
Given the NFL owner’s bargaining position, Pete Rozelle, the commissioner of the league, invited the three major networks to bid on the next contract. The NFL received just over $4.6 million per year from CBS in the last contract, and they were hoping for a much bigger deal with the next one. Rozelle asked each of the three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC), to submit sealed bids in January of 1964. In the end, CBS won the contract with a bid of $14.1 million per year for a two-year agreement.
The NFL owners felt that this new contract would be the final blow to the upstart AFL. After the NFL signed their new television contract, the future of the AFL looked dim. However, one of the networks that lost the bidding war to CBS was very eager to broadcast football games. NBC executives reached out to Joe Foss and offered a five-year, $36 million contract to broadcast AFL games. This amounted to roughly $900,000 per team, which was only ten percent less revenue than what the NFL teams got in their new contract.
The AFL got a boost when David (Sonny) Werblin purchased the New York Titans from Harry Wismer in 1963, a development that led to the change of the team name to the Jets. It was Werblin who wooed and negotiated the television contract with NBC. It was also Werblin who made the biggest splash after signing top quarterback prospect Joe Namath to a three-year, $427,000 contract (including a $200,000 signing bonus), to make him the highest paid player in pro football. This contract changed the economics of signing players for both leagues, which forced the NFL to take the AFL more seriously.
Suddenly, the AFL was now able to compete with the NFL for talent, exposure and enthusiasm. This financial windfall led to escalating player contracts and the signing of players between the leagues, which was never done prior to this period. The contract also allowed the smaller AFL to consider expansion.
Expansion in 1965
As the sport gained in popularity, both leagues were constantly asked about the timing of expansion by prospective ownership groups in different cities across the nation. While the NFL would have preferred to delay expansion, the AFL felt the timing was right by early 1965. Expansion plans by one league, ultimately forced the hand of the other.
By February of 1965, Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, stated that there were thirty-five different ownership groups that had hoped to invest in an AFL franchise. Some of them were interested in adding teams to compete directly with the NFL. There were six prospective ownership groups that wanted to add a team in Philadelphia. Chicago and Washington were two other cities with NFL franchises where different outfits wanted to add an AFL team.
There were also investors who wanted to add teams in markets without an existing football franchise. The prize city for the AFL was Atlanta. The NFL had been interested in adding a franchise in Atlanta when the time was right, but the AFL was in position to add a football team ahead of the NFL. The AFL had eight teams and they felt it made sense, given the NBC television contract, to build a league closer in size to the fourteen team National Football League.
Other virgin markets, or one without an NFL franchise, that were considered by the AFL at this time were Miami and New Orleans. The league wanted to add two new franchises for the 1966 season and were already settled on Atlanta as their ninth franchise, so they needed to decide which city would be the host of their tenth team.
Miami had the inside track over New Orleans based on an incident that occurred in the Big Easy during the AFL All-Star game in January of 1965. Several black players complained of racial discrimination during the week leading up to the game. The players charged segregation when they were exploring the French Quarter in the week leading up to the game. Commissioner Joe Foss acted immediately and moved the game to Houston overnight. The city of Houston quickly sold 20,000 seats on short notice and the change in venue was a success. However, the incident scarred relations between New Orleans and the AFL, and surely impacted their view of the city for expansion.
Miami was under consideration when the AFL was formed in 1960. Ralph Wilson considered the Magic City as the location of what became the Bills prior to deciding on Buffalo as his host city. However, the AFL and Wilson were concerned about logistics of getting fans to the Orange Bowl given a lack of a highway system at the time, and were troubled by the lack of interest in the Miami Seahawks of the All-American Football Conference in 1946.
Five years after the founding of the league, the AFL was ready to consider South Florida as one of its preferred locations for expansion. Miami had the Orange Bowl and several ownership groups willing to fund expansion into the area. By mid-1965, the AFL was ready to move forward with selecting the cities that would host their next two franchises.
Atlanta Franchise Goes to the NFL
The Atlanta community was ready for football in 1965. Given the interest by both pro football leagues, city officials were going to leverage their negotiation power to get a franchise that will be ready to begin play by the 1966 season. The AFL was prepared to extend a franchise to the city, but local officials preferred to join the more popular NFL. However, the NFL was not as ready as the AFL to make an offer for a team until 1967.
The Atlanta Stadium authority chairman, Arthur Montgomery, said “that if the AFL offers Atlanta a franchise for 1966 while the National Football League wishes to wait a year longer, the city would have to accept the American Football League opportunity.” This comment forced NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, to recommend to his league to add two new teams sooner than they were planning.
Commissioner Foss countered by accelerating the timeline to extend an offer to Atlanta to be the ninth franchise of the AFL. On June 8, 1965, the AFL awarded Cox Broadcasting Corporation a team to be hosted in the city of Atlanta for a franchise fee of $7.5 million. However, Montgomery, who controlled the stadium lease, would not offer a contract to the AFL franchise until his organization confirmed the NFL’s intentions.
The NFL was interested in the Atlanta market and moved quickly to extend an offer for a franchise to Rankin Smith for the formation of the Falcons. The offer was accepted on June 30th, which ensured that Atlanta would become an NFL city. This left the AFL reeling and forced the expansion committee to turn their attention to the Magic City.
Attention Turned to Miami
The AFL hoped that they could add two teams for the 1966 season, but after losing Atlanta, the league was hoping to add at least one team. The city that showed the most interest was Miami. During the June meeting when the AFL offered Atlanta a franchise, Miami mayor Robert King High and Lee Evans, Miami-Metro news bureau chief, traveled to Ocean Port, New Jersey, to meet with AFL team owners and the commissioner to make a pitch for the city to receive one of the AFL’s expansion teams. Following the meeting, the mayor was encouraged. When King and Evans met with Houston Oiler’s owner Bud Adams, the duo were assured that Houston was in favor of Miami receiving one of the new franchises.
At the time of the meeting, there were two ownership groups positioning to be awarded a team. One was headed by actor Danny Thomas. The group also included Miami businessman Anthony Abraham, and Minnesota attorney and investor Joe Robbie. The other group was headed by Broadway songwriter Julie Style and producer Les Osterman.
As the evaluation of Miami proceeded, four more groups expressed interest in being awarded Miami’s franchise, making it a total of six groups competing for ownership of an expansion team in the Magic City. One of the new groups was headed by Mitchell Wolfson of Wometco along with comedian Jackie Gleason as a minority partner, while another included the president of Tropical Park Saul Silberman and horse owner and financier Louis Wolfson. The other two groups were backed by large corporations, the General Tire & Rubber Company, and the Gulf American Land Corporation. By the time a decision was made by the AFL to extend an offer to Miami, there were a plethora of ownership groups vying for the award of the franchise.
Prior to the AFL awarding a new franchise to Miami, the AFL wanted to make sure that they have a stadium lease in place prior to any agreement with an ownership group. They did not want to repeat the experience they had with Atlanta. On July 16, 1965, the Miami City Commission approved, by unanimous vote, the terms of an agreement to lease the Orange Bowl to the AFL. The commission said it would agree to a contract that would charge the AFL $150,000 a season to play a maximum of nine games from 1966 through 1968. The rate would increase on a progressive schedule for the 1969 and 1970 seasons. The league would have an option to extend the agreement for five years at a season rental rate of $200,000 beginning in 1971.
The contract, which was drafted by City Manager Melvin Reese, was the tipping point to ensure Miami would be awarded an AFL franchise in 1966. The parameters of the deal were engineered by Mayor Robert King High, AFL Commissioner Joe Foss, and Lamar Hunt, who was the chairman of the league expansion committee, a week before it was voted on by the city commission. Once it was approved by the commission, all that needed to happen was the AFL to vote on extending a franchise to Miami during the owner’s August meeting. From Mayor High’s perspective, “AFL approval would merely be a formality” following the ratification of the stadium deal.
Miami Awarded AFL Franchise
When the AFL was ready to grant a team to Miami, they had to choose one of the competing ownership groups to award the franchise. While there were as many as eight groups that expressed interest in owning Miami’s team, as of July 21, 1965, only three franchise-seeking groups had posted the $250,000 deposit required to be considered for the award.
After several delays, Joe Foss flew to Miami on August 16, 1965, and made the formal announcement, from the crowded office of Mayor Robert King High, that Miami would be awarded the AFL’s ninth team. The ownership group awarded the franchise consisted of Danny Thomas as the primary stockholder, and Joe Robbie as part-owner and managing partner. The franchise fee paid by the duo was $7.5 million.
At the press conference, Commissioner Foss said, “we feel Miami is the right place for a ninth AFL team and Danny Thomas’ group is the right one.” When Mayor High addressed the differences between this award and the time the Seahawks played in Miami in the mid-1940s, he said, “comparing Miami in 1966 to Miami in 1946 is like comparing apples with oranges. There is no comparison.” The Miami Metropolitan area’s population grew from roughly 550,000 in 1946 to close to 2 million by 1965.
Joe Robbie looked to his hometown to find the general manager that was responsible for building the expansion franchise. Joe Thomas, no relation to Danny Thomas, was considered a rising star in the NFL as a talent evaluator for the Minnesota Vikings. On September 23, 1965, he was hired by Robbie to be the chief scout and executive assistant to the president.
On January 30, 1966, Robbie hired George Wilson as the franchise’s first head coach. Wilson was a veteran coach who led the Detroit Lions to the NFL championship in 1957. He considered himself a disciplinarian who focused on building strong defenses. In his introductory press conference, Wilson said, “I don’t think everybody in the American Football League concentrates on defense the way it should be done.” He was right, the AFL had a reputation of providing a wide-open offensive game compared to the NFL.
Contest Names Team the Dolphins
Joe Robbie felt the best way to determine the nickname for his new franchise was through a contest. On October 20, 1965, after receiving thousands of entries, the team announced that the winning name was “Dolphins”, and that there were 823 submissions who suggested the moniker. Each of the contest finalists were provided a ballot and asked to guess the final score of the Miami and Notre Dame game on November 27th. The contestant whose guess came closest to the final tally would win a lifetime pass to Dolphin games.
The outcome of the Miami and Notre Dame game ended in a 0-0 tie. Based on the result, the submission by Marjorie Swanson, who guessed that the game would end in a 7-7 tie, was the winner. According to a Miami Herald article on December 19, 1965, the Swanson family used a unique method to base their guess. Marjorie described their process as follows: “my daughter, Holly Ann, has this eight-ball toy which makes predictions. When we asked the eight-ball about the 7-7 tie, it came up ‘Definitely’.” When asked about her prediction for the Dolphins, Mrs. Swanson said, “They’ll win, I just know it. I don’t need an eight-ball to tell me that.”
So, what happened to the other 822 people who suggested that the team nickname be the ‘Dolphins’? One other contestant guessed that the Miami / Notre Dame game would end in a 21-21 tie, and he gained a special award of a 1966 season pass. When Joe Robbie was asked about the other 821 winners, he said “it probably will be in the form of inviting all of them to be our guests at one home game next season.”
The Early Years
The first play of the first game provided an electric start for the Miami Dolphin’s inaugural season. Coral Gables High graduate, Joe Auer, ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown against the Oakland Raiders. The image of Auer running 95-yards, untouched, to score on the opening play was punctuated by the exuberant reaction of the cigar smoking, majority owner, Danny Thomas. Despite the thrilling first play, the Dolphins lost the game by a final score of 23 – 14.
This matchup would begin a long-standing rivalry between Miami and Oakland that has delivered many frustrating moments for Dolphin fans through the years. This fan is still in disbelief over the “sea of hands” play during the 1974 divisional playoff game in Oakland, which ended the Dolphin’s dynasty of the early 1970s.
Miami would finish the 1966 season with a record of 3-11-0. One silver lining is that they swept the Houston Oilers, despite Bud Adams being one of the most vocal advocates of Miami getting an AFL franchise during the expansion evaluation in 1965. He may have regretted that position by the end of the 1966 season. Miami’s first win was against the Denver Broncos on October 16th, 1966.
The next two seasons would see the Dolphins improve their record by a single win each season. However, change in the ownership ranks in 1967 and impatience from the new majority owner almost led the Miami Dolphins to leave town in 1969. That will be a story for another article.Click Here to Subscribe
- Book: “From Sandlots to the Super Bowl”, by Craig R. Coenen
- Miami News: “AFL, NBC Sign for $36 Million” on January 29, 1964
- Miami News: “Atlanta’s Football Hunt Turns to American League” on July 28, 1964.
- Miami Herald: “Bill’s Wilson Changes Forecast, Sees Earlier Expansion of AFL” on February 24, 1965
- Miami Herald: “Miami May Get AFL Team Next Year”, by Morris McLemore on May 21, 1965
- Miami Herald: “Miami’s Dream of AFL Franchise Punctured”, by Bill Braucher on May 22, 1965
- Miami News: “Atlanta May Join AFL in 1966” on June 4, 1965.
- Miami Herald: “Mayor High Makes Pitch”, by Ray Crawford on June 8, 1965
- Miami Herald: “2 New Bidders Seeking Miami AFL Franchise”, by Edwin Pope on June 18, 1965.
- Miami Herald: “Land Firm Seeks AFL for Miami”, by Edwin Pope on June 20, 1965.
- Miami Herald: “Stadium Rental Fee Only Barrier to Miami Getting AFL Franchise”, by Luther Evans on July 3, 1965.
- Miami Herald: “AFL to Pick Who Gets Miami Franchise”, by Luther Evans on July 21, 1965.
- Miami Herald: “Housewife’s Pick Wins – Lifetime Dolphin Ties”, by Bill Braucher on December 19, 1965.
- Cover: Dolphins practicing in 1966. Courtesy of Phins Zone.
- Figure 1: AFL Founded in 1960. Courtesy of Tales from the American Football League.
- Figure 2: Headline in Miami News on January 29, 1964. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 3: Headline in Miami Herald on June 4, 1965. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
- Figure 4: Rankin Smith Gets NFL Franchise. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 5: Mayor Robert King High Headline in Miami News. Courtesy of Miami News.
- Figure 6: Cover of Sports Illustrated in 1966.
- Figure 7: Contest Winner Marjorie Swanson. Courtesy of Miami Herald.
- Figure 8: Joe Auer Returns Opening Kickoff for Touchdown.