A quick exchange with Joe Namath this week got me to
thinking. Why isn't Namath's old boss David A.
"Sonny as in Money" Werblin enshrined in the Pro
Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio? Werblin, the
New Jersey guy, is pretty much a forgotten figure in
the history of pro football even though both Werblin
and Namath helped create the Super Bowl as a
non-official national holiday in the United States.
Both the New York Giants and Jets are looking at
draft picks and free agents and will have mini-camps
this month at multi-million dollar training
complexes in East Rutherford and Florham Park. The
two teams have built a new stadium that cost over a
billion dollars and will manage a real estate around
the facility. Werblin's fingerprints 19 years after
he died are all over the place within the businesses
of the Jets, the Giants and the National Football
Sonny Werblin along with his partners Leon Hess,
Townsend Martin, Donald Lillis and Philip Iselin
bought the bankrupt American Football League New
York Titans franchise in 1963, renamed the team the
Jets, and changed pro football although the quintet
didn't alter the history of the game the minute they
bought the franchise. That would not happen for
about a year and it was circumstance that brought
Werblin to the forefront.
The National Football League or the initials NFL of
the days prior to Werblin's arrival in pro football,
and today have just one thing in common — the name
or the initials. As the David Letterman frequent
guest and Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive tackle
Arthur J. Donovan (by way of the Grand Concourse in
da Bronx) who played for the original Baltimore
Colts in 1950, the New York Yankees in 1951, the
Dallas Texans in 1952 and the Colts again from
1953-61 (the original Colts, the Yankees and Texans
all folded) pointed out.
National Football League owners had a 12 team league
in the 1950s and none of the 12 owners could figure
out what to do with their business. Chicago's George
Halas and Pittsburgh's Art Rooney along with Bert
Bell have been glorified as football deities over
the decades but the truth is that without Lamar Hunt
the game might have strangled itself financially.
There was no forward thinking from Halas, Rooney,
the Giants Tim Mara or NFL Commissioner Bert Bell in
those days. They put a shingle up, "Football on
Sunday" six times a year for six home games except
in Chicago where there were two teams.
Hunt was unable to buy the Chicago Cardinals from
the Bidwill family and move the team to Dallas. Bud
Adams was unable to buy the Chicago Cardinals from
the Bidwill family and move the team to Houston.
Neither Hunt nor Adams could get an NFL expansion
franchise in Dallas and Houston even though Halas
and Rooney chaired an expansion committee starting
in 1956. By 1959, Hunt decided he had enough and
asked Adams if he wanted to join him in forming the
fourth American Football League.
The AFL started play in 1960 and pushed the stodgy
old football men into a different business plan, one
they never wanted to explore. The AFL went to new
cities and had a better TV plan. There were now two
leagues and the older National Football League
played follow the leader to the new league when it
came to television. The AFL was able to sign a
contract with the American Broadcasting Company,
ABC, with each team sharing revenue equally. The AFL
deal technically violated antitrust laws and was not
originally a Hunt idea. Hunt borrowed a concept from
Branch Rickey who was out of baseball and trying to
form a third major league, the Continental Baseball
League, and one of Rickey's ideas was for the
12-team Continental League owners to share national
TV revenue equally.
Rickey's idea died but there are three living
monuments to his league. The New York Mets, the
Houston Colt 45s (now Astros) and the National
Football League's "leaguethink" business plan.
The old line NFL owners didn't know what to do with
TV as late as 1960 and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle
had to persuade Giants owner Jack Mara along with
the Chicago Bears Halas and the Los Angeles Rams
owner Daniel Reeves that sharing TV revenues instead
of having teams have their own networks was
economically better for the league. He did just that
and got Congress to approve the Sports Broadcast Act
of 1961 which allowed the NFL to sell all 14 teams
as one to a TV network.
In those days, it was just CBS and NBC.
Rozelle worked out a deal for the 1962 season which
brought the 14 NFL owners more than $4 million that
year and beyond. In late 1963 Rozelle pitted CBS
against NBC in a battled for a long term TV
agreement and this is where circumstances came into
play. The NFL was in a battle with the AFL for
players and control of football and a big money TV
deal would give them cash to go after talented
players coming out of college. Rozelle signed a big
money deal with CBS and William Paley in 1964 and
that deal infuriated NBC's David Sarnoff.
Sarnoff wanted revenge.
Sarnoff had worked with Lew Wasserman's MCA where
Werblin was employed. MCA was placing TV shows on
Sarnoff's network. Sarnoff and Werblin had a
relationship and Werblin became the point guy
between the AFL and NBC. Werblin knew TV and
entertainment inside out and knew that football was
more than just a game play, it was entertainment and
it was TV programming. That was not something that
was an easy sell to football men who in those days
viewed football as a game. It was easy to understand
the football owners mentality of the day. Football
business operations were open between July and
December. In the 1950s, if someone wanted to buy a
Chicago Bears season ticket package in April, they
would have to hunt down George Halas at his sporting
goods store. Nobody protected team logos because no
one was thinking of selling t-shirts, underwear and
hats with team logos.
Werblin got the deal done with Sarnoff, which
brought the AFL $7 million annually between 1965 and
1969. Sarnoff also advanced money to AFL teams so
they could sign players out of college, which
Sarnoff knew would enhance the AFL on NBC. With some
of that money (and revenues Werblin and his fellow
Jets owners suddenly got from larger crowds at the
new Shea Stadium starting in 1964), Werblin signed
Namath to a three-year $427,000 deal, the largest
contract ever given to a player at that point.
Namath was going to be the face of the Jets and
ultimately the face of the American Football League.
The Werblin-Sarnoff connection changed football and
for that alone, Werblin should be in the Pro
Football Hall of Fame. Werblin changed the dynamics
of pro football and eventually the two leagues
merged with the formation of the Super Bowl as one
of the after effects of the June 8, 1966 accord
between the warring leagues.
Ironically, Werblin, Hess, Martin, Lillis and Iselin
were not interested in joining the NFL because the
merger agreement required them to pay the Giants $10
million for "invading" the New York territory.
Werblin never did see the Jets win the Super Bowl as
one of the team owners as he was bought out prior to
the 1968 season, the year Namath led the Jets to a
Super Bowl championship.
Namath's guarantee that the Jets would beat
Baltimore in Super Bowl III was the foundation that
built the Super Bowl franchise.
Werblin was permanently exiled from pro football but
the story didn't end there. In 1971, the New Jersey
guy Werblin was back but this time as a state
employee and again Werblin changed the NFL. Werblin
convinced Giants owner Wellington Mara to commit to
move the Giants across the river to wetlands off of
Route 3. The deal was inked in November 1972. Yankee
Stadium was slated to be rebuilt and Mara's Giants
played at the Yale Bowl in New Haven in 1974 and
shared Shea Stadium with the Jets in 1975. Mara had
a new stadium in 1976 and Giants revenues exploded.
Werblin left the New Jersey Sports and Exposition
Authority in 1977. Hess moved his Jets to the
Meadowlands in 1984.
Werblin's pro football career was rather short as an
owner compared to those of Mara, Halas and Rooney,
the NFL's Mount Rushmore, but he was far more a
visionary than any of the faces on the NFL's Mount
Rushmore. Halas last had a real idea in 1925 when he
signed Red Grange and put him on tour with the
Bears. Grange's appearance before more than 70,000
people at the Polo Grounds in a game against the
Giants gave Tim Mara the money he needed to keep the
Giants solvent and in business. Rooney was a grand
old guy of the game but in the 1950s, his Pittsburgh
Steelers franchise was the last stop for a player.
If a player was cut by Pittsburgh, his football
career probably was at an end. Ironically because of
Werblin, Pittsburgh eventually was able to spend top
dollars on players. Rooney was paid three million
dollars to move the Steelers from the NFL to the
American Football Conference prior to 1970. Rooney
used that money to invest in players and scouting
and won four Super Bowls.
Werblin is in the New Jersey Sports Hall of Fame,
but there should be a bust of him in Canton. Without
Werblin, Namath might have ended up in St. Louis or
maybe the New York Giants. The Titans might have
been sold to someone who knew football but not the
TV business and the Super Bowl might have just been
another championship game without the "wow" factor
which Namath as the Jets quarterback, who was signed
to a record contract by Werblin, gave the game.
Without Werblin, the Giants might not be in New
Jersey and Hess might have looked elsewhere for a
stadium with clean bathrooms.
Werblin is more than a footnote in Professional
Football history. He was a game changer.