It's not too strong a statement to say that Lamar Hunt changed the face of American sports. While he never considered himself a pioneer in any way, clearly his ideas on where sports figured in a marketplace blossoming in the post-war world were prescient and ones that he and a few far-seeing executives in his newly formed American Football League recognized.
Television and sport were on the verge of creating a symbiotic relationship. In Hunt's original sketched notes made on American Airlines stationary back when he considered forming a new football league, he recognized the importance of all league teams sharing in what could be gained from a television network contract. Harry Wismer, the colorful owner of the New York Titans, had been an early proponent of such a split among teams.
Situated in America's largest city and a sportscaster himself, Wismer's franchise was nearing collapse. Could any professional sport in the country exist without a New York City outlet? With its fall would come another loss in whatever prestige the AFL still had left and possibly lead to the league's collapse. His and the league's salvation, however, was closer at hand than what any of the other owners may have thought.
Salvation came in the person of Sonny Werblin. Werblin was a fixture in the world of television entertainment and a canny negotiator for many of the broadcast world's most successful talent. With Wismer's attempts to hold onto his Titans failing, the league eventually took over the team and Werblin purchased it.
No less than Hunt acknowledged what this meant.
"Getting Werblin was the [AFL's] turning point," he said for years afterwards when asked what helped to bring about the AFL-NFL merger.
But that did not become clear until 1964.
The AFL's original television deal was with ABC-TV — a series of five one-year deals that was renewable each year. Each team realized about $100,000 per team. CBS-TV had paid NFL teams $4.62 million, or $950,000 per club.
But ABC opted out of the final year of the contract and this is when Werblin's influence mattered most. NBC-TV had lost in the bidding war to CBS for the NFL rights. Carl Lindemann, VP of NBC Sports, still smarting from the loss of his NFL bid, immediately received a call from Werblin.
Timing was everything, and contacts didn't hurt either, and Werblin had them in spades. He was tight with NBC president Bob Kintner, who happened to love sports, and Werblin knew it.
In a ride in his limousine, Werblin sketched out some numbers on an envelope using the CBS-NFL numbers as a guide and showed them to Lindemann, who he had commandeered to ride with him to his office. Shockingly, Lindemann didn't change them. They came out to $42 million over five years.
"It put our teams almost on par with the NFL teams," Hunt noted. "It was the single most dramatic development in making the AFL competitive."
He had heard the news while honeymooning with wife, Norma, at the winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Listening to the details through a garbled telephone transmission, Hunt was initially surprised, but always the optimist in the darkest of times, saw the contract as the smart move, while recognizing that his fellow owners did need the money to hold onto any hope of survival.
"It was smart business for NBC to have a strong AFL" Hunt said years later, "and Werblin was the guy who made them realize that."
Lindemann agreed, noting that "we knew the men operating the A.F.L. like Lamar Hunt were men of financial means."
Almost immediately, the NFL understood what the new contract meant, too. Any hope of the AFL's demise was gone in the meantime.
"They don't have to call us mister anymore," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney is reported to have said when news of the new AFL TV contract reached him. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the merger of the two leagues, a merger brought about it no small measure by television and by Sonny Werblin.