It rained and it snowed and the wind whipped through Buffalo last Saturday night, but a record crowd of 33,247 thronged undaunted into War Memorial Stadium to watch the home-town Bills play the Boston Patriots in an American Football League game. They saw a tumultuous 28-28 tie, replete with all the razzle-dazzle the new league's teams are known for, but the meaningful thing was the awesome attendance. By ignoring the foul, freezing weather and displaying such single-minded fervor over the game, the crowd was saying much about the state of AFL football.
Of all the new leagues that have sprung up in the past few years, none excites as much fuss and bother as the AFL. Controversy has followed it since it was founded in pique three years ago by Lamar Hunt and Bud Adams, a pair of young Texas millionaires who had sought a National Football League franchise. In the eyes of some fans the hastily formed AFL was—and still is—a second-rate outfit afflicted with cast-off players, wobbly financing and bullheaded owners. To others it is an exciting underdog that shows promise of not only matching but overhauling the NFL. Whatever the arguments, the facts about the AFL have been largely obscured by home-town chauvinism, bias, rumors, gossip and just plain bum dope.
Last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondents around the country reported on the AFL and its teams. The conclusion: big crowds like the one in Buffalo fairly indicate something team owners have long and loudly contended in public but only in recent weeks believed themselves—that the AFL really has a future. On the brink of dejection a year ago, a majority of the owners are now optimistic. Says one of them: "Until this season, there was always a question in my mind about the league surviving. Now I'm positive it will go. For any one who wants out, there are at least six who will take any franchise available."
In short, the league has turned the corner. Four teams have a good chance to make a profit for the first time, two will lose money (but less than they lost before), and two will take a beating. These last two, Oakland and New York, are problems. Oakland has a weak team and a horrible attendance; New York has the same, plus Harry Wismer.
But, despite Oakland and New York, the AFL is doing well with the fans. Total league attendance is up roughly 25% over a year ago, and this is making allowance for the phantom customers that some teams still use to pad out crowd totals. "Why, we've already had turn-away crowds this year," says Commissioner Joe Foss, sounding as if not even he believes it. "That's something we never had before." The TV ratings have jumped. The American Broadcasting Company calculates that the viewing audience per game this season is 13 million, an estimated 4 million more than last year. Indeed, if the network's figures are accurate, the popularity of the AFL has increased while that of the NFL has decreased. This season each club will get some $200,000 from the network, a sizable figure in itself, but one owner says it will double by 1965.
The AFL is growing stronger on the field, too. "The first year, quite frankly, all the teams could hardly wait to get players cut by the NFL teams," says William Sullivan, president of the Boston Patriots. "That situation no longer exists. I'd venture that our league hasn't taken more than 15 or so players cut by the NFL this season." In this year's College All-Star Game, points out Joe Foss, the AFL had six offensive and six defensive starters, one more than the NFL. Twenty-three All-Stars were AFL property, 29 NFL. "Remember," Foss adds, "our proportion is much better than theirs because our rookies are spread among eight clubs, while theirs go to 14 teams." Last December energetic AFL recruiters signed so many Detroit Lion draft choices that the Lion players burned General Manager Edwin Anderson in effigy.
There are any number of AFL players who would do well in the NFL—Backs Billy Cannon of Houston and Abner Haynes of Dallas (possibly the most exciting runner in football), Center Jim Otto of Oakland, End Lionel Taylor of Denver and Fullback Cookie Gilchrist of the Bills, the league's leading ground-gainer. On a straight team-to-team basis, the best of the AFL probably could now beat the middling-to-poor NFL teams, but not with any great consistency. Give it two good draft years and the added experience, and the AFL should be close to matching the NFL. Right now the NFL is unquestionably stronger, especially when it comes to defensive players. John Breen, Director of Player Personnel for two-time champion Houston, concedes, "Defensively, the NFL has a big edge on us, because defensive backs are toughest to find."
Offensively, AFL teams play a more varied—and far wilder—game. To knowing fans an AFL game sometimes looks like a melee between the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers, but league boosters claim the lack of precision adds to the suspense. They may have a point. Two weeks ago in Denver, Buffalo trailed 38-23, with only 10 minutes left. The Bills came on to win 45-38, and, although the weird play would have appalled purists, it so excited Buffalo that Saturday's record crowd ensued.
At present Buffalo is regarded as the top franchise in the AFL. Foss once described it as "the pride of the League," and TV broadcasters, using the hyperbole of their trade, call it "the best city in pro football." However heady the praise, Buffalo, hungry for pro football since the All-America Conference collapsed in 1949, certainly has loyal fans. The attendance has been remarkable, especially since the Bills started off by losing five straight, three of them before their horrified home rooters. Yet the Bills, who must average 24,000 paid admissions a game to break even, have attracted some 160,000 fans for six home games, all but insuring a profitable season.
Reports Correspondent Dick Johnston: "The city has the leading team in the Western Division of the American Hockey League and has a fair college football team, but the Bills monopolize sports conversation. Even when they were going bad—and the college team good—the Bills carried by far the most interest."