A Brief History of the National–American Football League (1949-50)

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1949 AAFC title game program, Browns vs. 49ers
The final AAFC game ever.

While the American Football League of the 1960s is given its due as one of the few rival football leagues to successfully compete with the NFL, there was another league that nearly managed the same feat — the All-America Football Conference (AAFC) of the 1940s.

By the 1949 season, both the AAFC and NFL were drowning in red ink. Nearly all the teams in both leagues were losing money, which was partly attributable to the AAFC’s success in drawing fans away from the older league. (Although the lingering impact of the wartime economic difficulties and the general struggle of pro football to achieve popularity cannot be overstated).

And so it was that on December 9, 1949 — two days before the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers were to meet in the title game — that the AAFC and NFL announced a merger of sorts.

Announcement of the NFL-AAFC merger from the December 10, 1949 issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel.

I say this because it wasn’t a true merger involving all franchises. In fact, of the seven existing AAFC squads only the Browns, 49ers, and Baltimore Colts were admitted intact into the NFL. Otherwise, the Los Angeles Dons merged with the Los Angeles Rams, while the Buffalo Bills, New York Yankees and Chicago Hornets folded. (Articles at the time stated that the Bills merged with the Browns but it seems this plan fell through.)

This “new” league was announced as the National–American Football League (NAFL), with the surviving AAFC teams placed in the new American Division along with the NFL’s Rams, Chicago Cardinals, Detroit Lions, and New York Bulldogs (although the actual 1950 conference alignment was different). Just a few years ago, the NFL’s stance on the AAFC was either denial or outright hostility, so this merger can be seen as a victory for the AAFC.

nafl to nfl 1950(Curiously, there were widespread rumors at the time that the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, that most iconic of franchises, might be left out in the cold with the new league. Despite all of their past success the team was in serious financial trouble by the late ’40s and resorted to new stock issues to remain solvent.)

However, traces of the AAFC were soon erased even further. On March 3, 1950, the league announced it was reverting back to the NFL name. After the 1950 season the (original) Baltimore Colts folded, leaving just the Browns and Niners as teams with direct AAFC connections still alive. Finally, in 1953 the American and National conferences were renamed as Eastern and Western. Those names were not restored until 1970, following the completion of the NFL-AFL merger.

Today, only the most hardcore football historians or fans are even aware that the AAFC existed, let alone that their merger with the NFL almost changed the face of the league forever. In the end, the influence of the AAFC on the older league is felt to an extent today, although you might have to do some digging to see it.