The Year is 1997. The month is September. Finals time. And a more hotly contested, more widely open to upset finals series is not within living memory. For the first time since the inception of the National Football League almost six years ago the final five consists of teams from five different states.
The West Adelaide Eagles have scraped into the minor premier’s spot with a 3 point victory over Launceston in the final minor round game. The win edges them ahead of Freemantle, now relegated to second position on percentage. In third spot, only a game away, is the Northern Territory, rejuvenated in the season’s second half by two key players returning after injury. Hobart sits in fourth place two games further behind. But the real excitement is the first appearance in the final five of a Victorian team. In fifth spot, a point behind Hobart and a point ahead of Port Adelaide, is Williamstown Ports, created from the merger, in ’95, of Williamstown and Port Melbourne from the old VFA.
The Directors of the NFL could not be happier. Back in 1990 the alternatives facing them are either a slow death in isolation (as the old SANFL was suffering) or a quicker one in capitulation (as the old WAFL was undergoing) The bold notion of actually taking on the AFL seems to be, at the very least, a way of going down fighting. Now, in 1997, an almost complete victory seems within sight.
Back in ’94 the decision to invite the VFA to join the NFL is widely held to be more provocative and more dangerous than either the initial step, in 1992, of combining the WAFL, the TFL and the SANFL into the NFL, or the further expansion in ’93 to include composite clubs drawn from the district leagues of Sydney and Brisbane and a composite team from the Northern Territory The prospect of taking the battle for Australian Football right into the heart of AFL territory is, however, too grand to resist.
With the success of Williamstown Ports the NFL now has the very real prospect of a Finals game in Melbourne. Already negotiations are underway with the Melbourne Cricket Club. If Williamstown Ports makes it through the Elimination Final in Hobart, the NFL wants the First Semi-Final played at the MCG. For something this big the rules which gave home ground rights in finals to the team placed higher on the ladder can and will be pushed aside.
The stage is set for the most exciting finals series in the history of Australian Football. The Managing Director of the NFL sits in his office and allows himself an almost wicked smile. He is about to put a call through to his counterpart in the AFL; this year it will be their job to adjust their fixtures, to play their finals on Sundays and Monday nights. The phone rings. It is the AFL chief calling; they have to talk, he’s heard rumours that one of the AFL teams is considering an offer to join the NFL, he’s worried about the future of the two leagues in general, neither side can afford the bidding war currently raging, both need to consider opening up a dialogue and working towards some sort of negotiated settlement, maybe even a coalition approach with an end of season Super-Finals series until the TV contracts run out followed by a fair and equal merger. The NFL chief leans back in his chair and puts his feet up on the desk. By this time the smile is one of utter triumph.
No this is not just some blind fever dream. All of the above might sound fanciful, even impossible. Nonetheless, in another time and another place, under a different code and in a different country, most of what is described above actually took place.
The year is 1959, the country is the United States, the national winter sport is Gridiron and The National Football League, or NFL, comprising sixteen teams, is its governing body. Al Davis from Oakland California, Lamar Hunt of Dallas, and others, want to expand the league and acquire NFL franchises in cities and states where it doesn’t currently operate but the NFL doesn’t want to know. So on August 14th 1959 Lamar Hunt announces his intention to form a second professional football league, to be called the American Football League, or AFL. Their first season is to begin in 1960 and with the Oakland franchise delivered to Al Davis on January 30th of that year they begin with nine teams.
There is no question that the beginnings are shaky. Out in East Oakland games are played on open fields turned into stadiums by the simple expedient of surrounding them with portable stands. There is no fence or gate and admission is collected by passing around a bucket.
But on June the ninth 1960 the AFL signs a five-year, $1.6 million dollar contract with the American T.V. network ABC. The AFL is now in competion with the NFL not only on the field but in the living rooms of America.
The bidding war begins. On January 30th 1961 the NFL enters into an agreement with the CBS network for the rights to all regular-season games at a cost of $4,650,000 a year. On January 29th 1964 NBC pays $36 million for a five-year contract with the AFL for telecasting rights beginning with the 1965 season. On January 24th of the same year CBS pays $14.1 million for regular season rights with the NFL for the 1964-65 seasons, on April 17th they pay a further $1.8 million for the rights to the championship games.
On the playing field a similar bidding battle is taking place. Beginning in 1959 when the infant AFL secures the entire first round college draft choice (rather like the AFL in Australia actually acquiring every SANFL player named in a given year’s draft) it culminates in 1965 when the New York Jets pay $400,000 for a then unknown player from Alabama; Joe Namath. In 1965 secret talks are held between the AFL and the NFL and on June 8th it is announced that the two leagues will merge into an expanded league of 24 teams, expanding further to 26 in 1968 and 28 in 1970. To run out existing TV contracts the teams will keep separate fixtures until 1970 but will inaugurate an annual inter-league championship, whch comes to be known as the Superbowl, in January 1967.
Meanwhile back in our what might have been 1997 the Director of the Australian NFL is deep into some hard talking with his now concilliatory rival. The problem of having too many teams for a single league is being discussed. Although mergers have occured there is real grassroots opposition to them going any further. The feeling is that too much merging is going to create clubs and teams with no local identity.
The NFL director smiles yet again, this time almost mischeviously, and asks the AFL chief whether he has considered the option presented by English Soccer. Back in 1892, when faced with a similar problem, they formed what we know know as the Second Division.