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How the Giants kept the Jets in New York

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Wellington Mara’s consent kept the Jets from moving after AFL-NFL merger

Joe Namath

New York Giants. New York Jets. Same town, same sport, same stadium. Yet, so different.

You can pretty much assess that any Giants or Jets fan roots for two teams: their own, and whoever is playing the other New York team.

Rivalries are good. They provide material for sports writers and watercooler fodder. But the Giants are not the Jets rival – the Patriots, Dolphins and Bills are. The Jets are not the Giants rival – that right belongs to the Cowboys, Redskins and Eagles.

The Jets and Giants actually have quite a bit in common. Even though the Giants are more old-school while the Jets are extra forward thinking, both have had Bill Parcells as their head coach, Dave Jennings as their punter, they have shared the same stadium/locker room for decades, neither squad hired Bill Belichick as their head coach (even though he was on staff with each), both teams employed Hall of Fame receiver Don Maynard, and while the Giants have linebackers who will break a quarterback’s leg, the Jets have linebackers who broke a quarterback’s face (never mind that it was a teammate).

The most obvious differences are that the Giants have won eight championships whereas the Jets have won only two (1968 AFL title plus the ensuing Super Bowl III).

But in New York, in-house rivalries are a natural. Ranger fans don’t like the Islanders. Knicks fans are not Nets fans. Don’t even get started with fans of the Mets and Yankees.

So, with all this heat floating around hating the other city’s teams, what if were to become known that the Giants are the reason the Jets remain in New York. Yes, it’s true.

The Jets began in the fourth installment of the American Football League in 1960. Their team was called the “Titans of New York” wearing blue and gold and played at the decaying Polo Grounds. For the first three seasons their roster was always an average-to-poor squad with attendance less than 10,000 a game. After the first few games in 1962, the players went on strike after not receiving either game check. By that third year, debt had mounted and only a $40,000 bail out by the AFL allowed the team to make payroll for the end of the season. At the end of the year the AFL revoked the franchise as the team went into bankruptcy.

A five-man group headed by Hess oilman Sonny Werblin purchased the club for $1.3 million which covered all debts including the $225,450 value of the team. The new organization was officially named the Gotham Football Club, Inc. Werblin changed the colors to green and white to honor his St. Patrick’s Day birthday, moved the club into Shea Stadium and renamed them the "Jets." His reasoning was that the United States was entering the space age and also that the new stadium was located between LaGuardia and JFK airports. Shea was also the home of the Mets, and the name association was friendly.

In the 1965 college drafts, both the Giants and the Jets had the first overall picks in their respective drafts. The Giants took running back Tucker Fredrickson while the St. Louis Cardinals of the NFL selected quarterback Joe Namath 12th overall. The AFL New York Jets drafted Namath first overall. He was known for his strong arm, quick release and could already read a defense. He could also run.

After passing on Namath, the Giants later tried to make a trade for Namath but the Cardinals were certain they could sign him. But Werblin had other ideas – ideas that would change the face of professional football. The Cardinals offer was $200,000 for three years. The Jets countered with $427,000 for a three-year contract, which included a brand new green Lincoln Continental plus scout salaries for three of Namath’s relatives.

At the time, it was the largest sports contract in history.

The Namath signing — plus a new TV contract with NBC — brought new life into the fledgling AFL. It also brought fear into the NFL owners — financial fear. Teams in both leagues were already losing money because of escalated contracts. Now this.

The following summer a merger between the two leagues was announced.

Along with other issues, as part of the merger agreement, all 10 AFL teams would be included into the NFL, however, there was a problem with Oakland and the Jets. In negotiations the NFL owners brought up that in the league bylaws the fact that those two AFL teams, now part of the same league, would be in violation of their territorial exclusivity. Not to mention two teams in relatively the same geographic market which would take away fans, TV rights, sponsors and other considerations.

The league set a requirement that both the Raiders and the Jets would have to relocate.

The AFL balked about this, but the NFL felt that if the other league wanted this merger to go through they would cave in to this condition for the betterment of the union as a whole. Alternate sites were already being tossed around as landing spots for the two teams. Portland was mentioned for the Raiders to keep the club on the West Coast. And for the Jets? Memphis.

Amongst the arguing with the NFL owners, Giants’ owner Wellington Mara told them that at this point the Jets were so established with a large following that he feared if the league required them to move that he himself would be persecuted. Therefore, because it was his team that created the sudden problem that he would be agreeable to the Jets staying in New York.

It was then ironed out that the 49ers and the Giants would be awarded all of the AFL’s indemnity payments of $18 million - $10 million to the Giants with the balance to the 49ers. Mara wanted more because now Namath would be playing in the same league as his Giants. So, with Mara’s consent, the league granted the Giants the first pick in the upcoming draft provided they would take a quarterback.

The last details of the impending merger between the two leagues were outlined: the Raiders would remain in Oakland while the Jets would still play at Shea Stadium. The merger between the NFL and the AFL brought about a new epoch of fortune for the established league.

The following season Namath led his AFL Jets to an upset 16-7 victory over the heavily favored NFL Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III.