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Inside the Stacks: A Minor League for a Major Sport

Lamar Hunt envisions a “winter league”

"Inside the Stacks: Exploring important documents in Chiefs history" is a series of columns based on never-before-seen documents and correspondence from the Lamar Hunt archives including many from the founding and early days of the American Football League, the merger with the National Football League, and other historic moments up until the time of Hunt's death.

The National Football League has tried during various periods of its existence to develop what Major League Baseball has long had: a minor league system to develop players not quite ready for the big leagues.

In most cases, that is what college football does for the NFL, but there was a time that the league general managers and coaches wanted something more formally matched to what players would see once they found themselves on a professional team's roster — a training model, if you will — taught by coaches who had served at one time on an NFL team.

Decades ago, Lamar Hunt had lobbied for what he called a "winter league…similar to the baseball winter leagues," with two very significant exceptions. The games would be played in large capacity stadiums, "and because of the fact that All-Americans would be on view, the games would in a reasonable length of time begin to attract sizable crowds," he claimed.

Professional football has one of the shortest seasons in all of professional sports. Hunt believed there was a greater appetite for football, especially among the television networks, and these winter league games would be telecast in the months of least competitive programming.

It would spread the sport across the nation's calendar.

Would the networks jump at the chance of what he called, a "winter league"? Hunt had pitched the idea as early as 1965 to Carl Lindemann of NBC-TV and Roone Arledge of ABC-TV.

In a letter to New York Jets' owner Sonny Werblin, who had initiated the AFL's new broadcast deal with NBC-TV, Hunt indicated that both network bosses expressed some interest and were seeking exclusive TV rights for such a league. Hunt's offer to the TV's would include 10 Saturdays and 10 Sundays for games, and a championship game for a total of 21 dates.

Hunt emphasized these major points in his letter to Werblin:

  1. 10 teams owned and operated by the AFL.
  1. An initial training ground for AFL rookies, plus a secondary ground for marginal and taxi squad players from the AFL teams' present rosters.
  1. Each AFL team would fully own and operate one of the "winter league" teams.
  1. Coaches for each team to be hired by an AFL club.
  1. All teams would run a basic offense.
  1. Assistant coaches from the parent club would assist in coaching.
  1. The parent team head coach would spend the projected 11-week season directing the development of the minor club.
  1. A 10-game season made up of two divisions and a post-season playoff game for the championship.
  1. Training camp would start 7 days prior to the start of the season.
  1. Play would begin in January of 1967, one week after the AFL all-star game, and conclude in March.
  1. Cities selected to host teams would come primarily from the south and far west: Miami, New Orleans, Memphis, Houston, Phoenix, Anaheim, Los Angeles and Oakland.

Hunt believed his idea would "produce training which players could not possibly get otherwise," and, as an example, he thought Chiefs' backup quarterback Pete Beathard would "be most enthusiastic to play in this league, not only for the chance to earn extra money, but for the opportunity to get experience and prove himself to coaches."

Moreover, he saw the winter league as a "recruiting weapon" in the AFL's war with the NFL, and as a boon for a television network to cultivate and recruit more television sponsorship with a mix of AFL football in the fall and winter from January 15-May 15.

Many of Hunt's ideas may be found in the spring leagues that came decades later, and in the television network deals that were a major factor for their existence.